TAMPA — For the Lightning to keep competing for Stanley Cups throughout the annual roster realignment that the salary cap forces them to make, they have to create their own player development success stories. Especially during a time in which their draft pick stock has been depleted by deadline deals intended to push them over the top in an effort to win now.
Entering their just-completed season, the Lightning lost a major piece to their blue line in lockdown left-shot defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who was traded away in the offseason to create cap space, and another significant piece in top-pair right-shot defenseman Jan Rutta, who reached free-agency riches with the Penguins.
At that time, there were no clear successors to replace the two. But by the end of the season, a pair of unheralded rookies — neither of whom made the opening night roster — emerged to establish themselves as pieces to the team’s future.
Between them, Nick Perbix and Darren Raddysh had just four games of NHL experience entering the season, and they each took very different paths into the Lightning lineup. But both carved their own opportunities to become contributors.
“I think they played awesome for us and established themselves as NHL players,” Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois said. “They’re a little older first-year players, but I think they’re only going to continue to get better.”
Perbix, a 24-year-old former sixth-round pick, built up an impressive resume at a top college program (St. Cloud State) and played for Team USA in the Beijing Olympics in 2022. He stood out in his brief time in AHL Syracuse that season, then at development and rookie camps during the summer.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper said many times that Perbix was one of the final cuts of training camp. Just two games into his AHL season, he earned a promotion to the Lightning and played in 69 games, settling in as Victor Hedman’s partner, filling the void left by Rutta. Perbix logged a plus-11 in the regular season with five goals and 15 assists.
Raddysh, 27, was more of a reclamation. The Lightning were his third organization when he signed two summers ago. He was a proven point scorer in juniors, winning OHL defenseman of the year as a 21-year-old following an 81-point season.
He entered pro hockey with an offense-first reputation, but had to find the right fit in an organization where he could refine his two-way game. After putting up 51 points (including 38 assists) and a plus-19 in 50 games in Syracuse, he joined the Lightning in early March. He has since found a home as Mikhail Sergachev’s partner and even saw time on the Lightning power play as the third defenseman behind Sergachev and Hedman. Raddysh averaged 25:13 of ice time a night in the playoffs.
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“I think Raddy and Perby looked like seasoned vets in the playoffs,” Hedman said. “Obviously a transition period for Perby, he’s a little bit younger. Raddy had an unbelievable year down in Syracuse and we knew he was a really good player. But for him to take it to this level, I don’t know if ‘surprised’ is the right word, but he’s really earned all the ice time he got because he was very reliable defensively. He can really move the puck and he and Sergy play really well together.
“With Perby, I think he did well as the season went on, too. He doesn’t get too high, doesn’t get too low. Very steady and that’s a good sign for us moving forward.”
Syracuse head coach Ben Groulx said that within a week of watching Perbix, he knew he was an NHL player. Raddysh might have been a little rawer, but he could tell quickly that he was a player willing to do what it took to get better. He had an NHL shot, but he worked on his defense, his skating and his strength to become a complete player, and that all came together in his second year in the organization.
“To play in the NHL, you’ve got to have some attributes,” Groulx said. “I think one of the attributes you need to have or at least it’s very helpful is the hockey sense and Perbix got that. For Darren it was more about he’s coming from another (organization) so when you go to a new team, you’ve got to adjust to a lot of different things. Some people, they adjust quickly, some people need a little bit of time. He had a very good first year.
“And I really think that the second year, he knew his environment. He came here very confident this year, in great shape, skating better and mentally in the right place.”
Both players will return next season. The team avoided restricted free agency with Perbix, whose entry-level contract was set to expire at the end of the season, signing him to a midseason two-year extension worth an average annual value of $1.125 million. After his first season in the organization, Raddysh signed a two-year deal last summer worth a $762,000 average annual value that’s just slightly higher than the $750,000 league minimum.
“He’s signed for next season at a very reasonable cap number and that helps our cap situation a little bit,” BriseBois said.
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