Many people who watch hockey will always say that you build a team from the goal out. Success comes from having a strong goaltender and a rock solid defense. The Tampa Bay Lightning have had problems with both of these positions over the years but this year has a chance to be much different. This season the Lightning have quality depth on defense that can get the puck out of the zone quickly. The trick is that the players need to be paired up with the right teammate in order to be successful. Obviously we won’t know which defensemen will work best with whom until training camp and preseason starts but it is always good to analyze players on paper. With the collection of players I have filling out this D-core found here, I believe that the Bolts can run out a solid top 6 or 7 that has the potential to be very effective. The Lightning completely altered their defensive core by acquiring Brian Lee and Keith Aulie at the trade deadline last season, while signing Sami Salo and Matt Carle to contracts during the free agent period this off-season. These types of acquisitions give the defense some respectability that it has not had for a few years now. Even during the Lightning’s surprising run to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2011, critics pointed to the defense as being too weak. Hopefully that changes this year and now we shall look at potential pairings for the 2012-2013 season to start out the year.
The pairings for the Lightning are going to be a little bit different than most teams because the Bolts are lacking that clear number one defenseman that can go on the ice 25-30 minutes a night and dominate. Victor Hedman is slowly progressing into that, but he is not there yet. For Hedman, I think it is important to have a smart defenseman who can pass the puck effectively from defense to offense. Newly acquired free agent Sami Salo should be able to stabilize Hedman resulting in less erratic play from the big man. Hedman needs a calming presence out there and Salo has been known from his cerebral play on the ice. Many fans have been waiting for Hedman to takeover and become the superstar that he was projected to be but the big point that everyone forgets, Hedman is only 21 and is still learning the game. In my opinion, it is becoming clear that Victor Hedman is going to be the number one guy on this backend for years to come. This should be the year that Hedman transitions from a solid top four D-man to the top pairing defenseman he is expected to be. Hedman will not be overworked, he will be able to be used in better situations then in the past, and the big defenseman will have yet another year of experience to help him.
The next pairing will include the player who once played a whopping 12 games with the Lightning back in the 2008-2009 season. Carle, most of you will remember was the main piece that came back in the Dan Boyle trade before being dealt to the Philadelphia Flyers. He will team up with Eric Brewer to form a solid duo who can defend while providing some offense from the backend. With these first two pairings, there is a mobile player who can rush the puck up the ice and there is a slower player who can pass the puck up to the forwards. Carle has played a lot of hockey the past few seasons with the Flyers and was usually paired with Chris Pronger when Pronger was healthy. This means that Carle can handle the load of going up against the top lines of the opponents. Brewer has been on the Lightning’s top pairing since being brought over from the St. Louis Blues so this duo should provide the Bolt’s with some flexibility on defense.
The third combination is the one that is up in the air. Brian Lee has a spot cemented but after that, it all depends on training camp. We all know that Coach Guy Boucher loves Marc-Andre Bergeron and his booming slap shot. Bergeron will most likely be the power play specialist with some offensive zone time this year out of the 7th defenseman slot. On the third pairing, it comes down to Brendan Mikkelson and Keith Aulie. I believe that this defense needs Aulie’s physicality and ability to rough up the other teams more than Mikkelson’s all-around average game. Aulie needs game time in order to develop and anyone who watched him with the Maple Leafs two years ago understands that this guy can be the shutdown defenseman that we need. Two years ago he played with Dion Phaneuf near the end of the season and excited Leaf’s fans all over Toronto. This puts Aulie with Lee and creates what I believe can be a solid 3rd pairing that can bang with Aulie while letting Lee create some offense with his passing ability. Bergeron, as stated before, will play as a 7th defenseman on most nights since Coach Boucher loves playing with 7 defensemen and 11 forwards.
This type of defensive depth should excite Lightning fans. General Manager Steve Yzerman and company have created a veteran, reliable defense with the potential to provide stability which hasn’t been had here in Tampa for quite a while. This defense will mean very little however, if the goaltenders do not play well. Anders Lindback was brought in to be the number 1 goalie of the future. The big Swede has loads of skill and will finally have the opportunity to play a lot of games. Since he has never played as a number 1 before, I look for him to play around 50-55 games this season to ease him into the role. Veteran backup goalie Mathieu Garon will play the rest and just needs to be solid giving Lindback rest whenever he needs it. Garon has always been a streaky goalie so hopefully this year he can have more hot streaks than cold streaks as the Lightning need solid play from between the pipes to succeed. Of course, this all depends on how well the goalies play, so the better one performs, the more games he will play.
Topics: Brendan Mikkelson, Brian Lee, Dan Boyle, Defense, Eric Brewer, Keith Aulie, March-Andre Bergeron, Matt Carle, National Hockey League, Philadelphia Flyers, Sami Salo, San Jose Sharks, St Louis Blues, Steve Yzerman, Tampa Bay Lightning, Victor Hedman