Let me be blunt: The Tampa Bay Lightning’s defense was abysmal last year. It teamed up with terrible goaltending to give up 278 goals, good for dead last in the NHL.
A change was needed, and a change was made. The Lightning blue line underwent a facelift that began at the end of last season with the addition of young hopefuls Keith Aulie and Brian Lee, and continued through the off season with the acquisitions of Sami Salo and Matt Carle.
It’s not easy to predict how well the new talent will mesh with the old, but if there’s one certainty Lightning fans can take comfort in, it’s this: it can’t get any worse. The advantage to being dead last is there’s nowhere to go but up. The good news? That technicality won’t be the reason why the Lightning look better in their own end – on paper, this is a better crop of defensemen. Salo should provide veteran leadership, and be a solid, dependable presence. Carle, on the other hand, will have the door wide open for him to take on an expanded role and be a key contributor in Tampa, both this year and for many years to come.
So let’s take an analytical look at the six players most likely to be manning the Lightning blue line this year, and see what we can expect.
(Listed in numerical order)
#2 Eric Brewer
2011/2012 Season (Tampa Bay Lightning)
(GP) 82 (G) 1 (A) 20 (PTS) 21 (+/-)-5 (PIM)49 (TOI/G) 23:16
It was another quiet year for Brewer. Once highly touted for his high-end physical tools (Brewer was drafted fifth overall in 1997), Brewer has become a solid, if unspectacular, NHL defenseman. The stars seem aligned for Brewer to take on a reduced role with the Lightning this season. With the arrival of Matt Carle and the emergence of Victor Hedman, it’s unlikely he will remain part of the team’s top defensive pair. But as a 3rd, 4th, or even 5th defenseman, Brewer will be a better fit, and is a nice piece to have in that area of the depth chart.
Home: (GP) 41 (G)0 (A)9 (PTS)9
Road: (GP)41 (G)1 (A)11 (PTS)12
Pre-All Star Game: (GP)48 (G)1 (A)11 (PTS)12
Post-All Star Game: (GP)34 (G)0 (A)9 (PTS)9
What those numbers say is consistency. At 33, Brewer is unlikely to morph into Scott Neidermayer, but there is also no indication that he’s due for a sudden decline. Brewer had points in every month of the season last year, but not more than 5 in any individual month.
2011/2012: (GP)82 (Hits)197
Since coming to Tampa, Brewer has picked up his physical play. Compare those 197 hits with the 78 he threw in his last 54 games in St. Louis, or to the 76 he threw (in 59 games) in the season before. This should make him more of an asset if he indeed becomes a middle-of-the-chart defenseman, as he will be used more often in shut down roles and not relied upon for offense.
Vs. Western Conference: (GP)18 (G)1 (A)4 (P)5 (+/-)1
Brewer was slightly better against Western Conference, his old stomping ground as a former member of both the Blues and Oilers. What does this mean? Absolutely nothing. But it’s interesting to note that in the previous season, one spent mostly with the Blues, Brewer scored 11 points in 43 games against Western Conference teams, versus just 5 points in 33 games against Eastern Conference teams.
What to Expect…
Brewer should thrive in a reduced role with the Lightning. Thriving, however, for Brewer, will probably not look like you might expect. His offensive production is likely in for a dip, perhaps down under 10 points in a shortened season, but he will be a steady, dependable, and versatile tool for Coach Boucher.
#6(?) Sami Salo
2011/2012 Season (Vancouver Canucks)
(GP)69 (G)9 (A)16 (PTS)25 (+/-)7 (PIM)10 (TOI/G)20:27
Salo will make his Lightning debut in the twilight of his career. At 38, he is a veteran of 13 NHL seasons, starting in Ottawa before becoming an impact player in Vancouver. It’s hard to say if moving south of the border (and all the way to Florida, for that matter) will have any effect on Salo’s battle-worn, and often brittle, body. His 69 games last season were the most he has played since 2003/2004, when he put in 74, and he has yet to last a full NHL season from beginning to end. Even with a 48 game schedule on the horizon, Salo is unlikely to change that this year.
2011/2012: (PPG)7 (PPA)7
Make no mistake, Sami Salo was brought to Tampa Bay mainly for his ability to produce on the man-advantage. The Lightning power play was mind-bogglingly bad last season (25th league wide), despite having an abundance of scorers up front. The missing piece, obviously, was on the blue line. Tampa fans will fall in love with the big-time shot their new Finn D-man will provide from the point, something sorely missed in previous seasons.
Salo’s 7 power play goals last season were consistent with his production in previous years. He regularly scores between 5 and 9 goals on the man-advantage yearly. If the Lightning can depend on that kind of production, it will change the face of their power play – last season, no Lightning blueliner scored more than 1. A bonus: Having that kind of scoring threat from the blue line, which wasn’t present last year, could present more options and opportunities for skilled forwards like Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis.
2011/2012: (G)9 (GWG)3
2009/2010: (G)9 (GWG)3
2008/2009: (G)5 (GWG)2
2006/2007: (G)14 (GWG)6
Career: (G)93 (GWG)24
Salo has a knack not only for scoring goals, but for scoring timely goals. And in Tampa Bay, that could be crucial. Having an extra clutch player available, particularly on the power play, is often the difference between winning and losing. And if Salo could turn a couple of would-be losses into wins, that could be the difference between making the playoffs and falling short.
October 2011: (GP)11 (G)3 (A)5 (PTS)8 (PPG)2 (PPA)3
Salo started last season on fire with the Canucks. If this was a consistent statistic throughout his career, it might mean something. As is, it could mean that Salo slowed down a bit as last season wore on, but more than likely means he just happened to be hot in October.
What to expect…
At 38, Salo is unlikely to have anything resembling a career year in Tampa. His main function will be that of a power play puck cannon. How he’s used, and how often he’s used, at full strength is anyone’s guess, and will likely be in accordance with a season-long evaluation. Don’t be surprised if the Lightning rest him down the stretch, particularly if the post-season is within reach.
#15 Brian Lee
2012/2013 Season (Ottawa Senators/Tampa Bay Lightning)
(GP)55 (G)1 (A)15 (PTS)16 (+/-)-8 (PIM)35 (TOI/G)15:32
While the Lightning have a number of hungry young prospects that will no doubt fight for the 6th (and 7th, for that matter) spot on the depth chart, right now that spot appears to be occupied by Lee. A former first rounder (selected 9th overall by Ottawa in 2005), Lee came to the NHL with big expectations. But so far, he’s been short on delivery. Luckily, the Lightning didn’t acquire him to be the centerpiece of their blue line, but rather, to be a solid depth defenseman with good offensive upside. He comes with an outside chance he’ll bloom into the offensive threat he was once predicted to be.
2011/2012 (Tampa Bay Lightning): (TOI/G)17:05
2011/2012 (Ottawa Senators): (TOI/G)14:39
A change of scenery appeared to be just what the doctor ordered for Lee, who saw his ice time increase significantly after landing in Tampa Bay. He fit in right away with the Lightning, and unexpectedly, his arrival coincided with a marked improvement in physical play. Lee had long been criticized for not taking advantage of his size (6’3, 205 lbs).
2011/2012 (Tampa Bay Lightning): (GP)20 (Hits)54
2011/2012 (Ottawa Senators): (GP)34 (Hits)73
For my fellow numbers-junkies, that means Lee threw 2.7 hits per game in Tampa, compared to 2.15 in Ottawa. A 0.55 increase in hits might not seem like much, until you consider it works out to more than 25% more hits in Tampa Bay, per game, than in Ottawa. If Lee can keep up his newfound physical play, his spot on the team should be safe.
Pre-All Star Game: (GP)28 (G)0 (A)5 (PTS)5
Post-All Star Game: (GP)27 (G)1 (A)10 (PTS)11
Lee finished the season strong, and if you’re feeling optimistic, you might take that as a sign of things to come. Of his 16 points last season, 4 of them came in his last 5 games. In 3 of those games, Lee logged more than 18 minutes of ice time. At the very least, there’s no reason to believe Lee won’t have more success in Tampa Bay than he did in Ottawa. And with the Lightning blue line currently in transition, there are plenty of opportunities available to him.
Friday Games: (GP)6 (PTS)5
What to expect…
So far, Brian Lee appears to be taking full advantage of his fresh start. He has performed better than expected, and there are hints (if you choose to believe them) that the best is yet to come. It’s well known that defensemen take more time to develop, particularly tall defensemen, and at 25, and 6’3, perhaps Lee is just now coming into his own. He should mostly be a mainstay on Tampa Bay’s third 3rd defensive pairing, possibly jumping up in the order in accordance with Sami Salo’s health and play. There also exists the possibility that Lee will switch out occasionally for eager young prospects and be a healthy scratch on some nights, but he can play his way out of that situation with smart decisions and consistency.
#25(?) Matt Carle
2011/2012 Season (Philadelphia Flyers)
(GP)82 (G)4 (A)34 (PTS)38 (+/-)4 (PIM)36 (TOI/G)23:01
Aside from goaltending, the key acquisition made by the Tampa Bay Lightning this past off-season was that of Matt Carle. At best, Carle will emerge as the team’s top defenseman (depending largely on the development of Victor Hedman). At worst, he will be the 3rd or 4th defenseman and still log plenty of minutes in all situations. It is likely that Tampa GM Steve Yzerman targeted Carle in the off-season for his ability to make a good breakout pass. The Lightning generate much of their offense on the rush, and Carle’s ability to get things moving up-ice should result in plenty of assists, since the main man he’ll be looking for is last year’s top goal-scorer, Steven Stamkos.
2011/2012: (PPG)3 (PPA)9
2006/2007: (PPG)8 (PPA)18
Carle is likely to wind up Tampa’s top blue liner on the power play this season. Expect to see him often lined up with fellow newcomer, Sami Salo. Given his mobility, Carle should be responsible for carrying the puck while the power play sets up, at which point he’ll have plenty of options at his disposal – moving the puck down low to the likes of Marty St. Louis, Steven Stamkos, and Vincent LeCavalier, or feeding it cross ice where Salo and his booming shot will be waiting. In his sophomore season with the San Jose Sharks, Carle racked up a whopping 26 powerplay points (by comparison, Steven Stamkos this past season had just 25), 9 of them goals. The Lightning are hoping he will return to that kind of form, and he’ll be surrounded by enough weapons to do just that.
2011/2012: (GP)82 (Hits)55
Carle has often been criticized for his lack of physical play. At 28, and 7 seasons deep into his NHL career, he’s not likely to turn into Scott Stevens any time soon. Nor will it affect his spot on the depth chart. The Lightning didn’t bring Carle into the fold for his physicality. Where this might become significant, however, is with the rest of the roster. Carle is one of several Lightning D-men that lacks a nasty edge to his game, and the team can’t boast that single, intimidating force policing the defensive end the way other teams can. If the Lightning find themselves being dominated in physical games, certain D-men will unquestionably have their ice time reduced. Carle, however, will not be one of them. And therefore, in order to balance out their swift, puck-moving defenseman, players like Brian Lee and Marc-Andre Bergeron might find themselves healthy scratches in favor of bigger, meaner options (like, say, the 6’6, 220 lbs Keith Aulie, currently playing in Syracuse. Or Radko Gudas, a fiesty, heavy hitting pit bull that racked up 195 penalty minutes in Norfolk last year, and this year, in just 31 games, has already fought a whopping 10 times).
2011/2012 Home: (G)4
2011/2012 Road: (G)0
What to expect…
All the pieces are in place for Carle to have a great season. His role in Tampa will be whatever he makes it, and it might wind up being a big one. Whether he’ll score goals is anyone’s guess, but given his style and the style of the Lightning, he should have plenty of opportunities to pick up assists by making crisp outlet passes, and by running the power play. Expect an increase in points per game.
#47 Marc-Andre Bergeron
2011/2012 Season (Tampa Bay Lightning)
(GP)43 (G)4 (A)20 (PTS)24 (+/-)6 (PIM)20 (TOI/GP)19:21
After being one of very few bright spots on the Lightning blue line to start the season, Bergeron’s season ended prematurely in February with a back injury. At just 5’9, it’s easy to question his durability, and it’s worth noting that he has yet to compete in all 82 games of an NHL schedule. He’s long been noted for having trouble in his own end, particularly when matched against larger, stronger forwards. But this past season Bergeron posted a +6 rating, good for third-best on the Lightning.
2011/2012: (GP)43 (PTS)24 (PPG)0.56
When it comes to defenseman, the magic points-per-game number is 0.5. Anything over half a point-per-game and you can assume you’re talking about a good offensive defenseman. And Bergeron is that. However, that could be a bad omen in disguise. With the acquisitions of Carle and Salo, the emergence of Victor Hedman, and Mark Barberio waiting in the wings, the Lightning might have better options in terms of offensive-minded defensemen. Bergeron will need to play a solid two-way game this season, or prove that he’s the best power play option the Lightning have, otherwise it might be hard to justify his spot on the roster.
Lightning Record With Bergeron in Lineup (counting OTL): 17-26
Lightning Record With Bergeron Out of Lineup (counting OTL): 21-18
This, of course, does not indicate that Bergeron was the reason for the losses. He happened to get injured near the end of the Lightning’s disastrous stretch in February, and if anything, was one of the few bright spots in some very dark times. It is worth noting, however.
Total Goals: 4
Third Period Goals: 4
Goals When Trailing By One: 4
Impressively, 100% of Bergeron’s goals were scored in big, and in fact identical, situations. All four were scored while the Lightning were trailing by 1 in the third period. And of course, the Lightning could have used a few more big situation goals.
October 2011/2012: (GP)11 (G)2 (A)10 (PTS)12
What to expect…
If Bergeron indeed finds himself in a reduced offensive role with the team, it’s tough to say how he’ll fare. He could, of course, prove indispensable on the power play. But the more likely scenario will be Bergeron as a 5th and 6th (and sometimes 7th) defenseman, where his offensive skills will be a bonus, but mainly he will be expected to play a solid defensive game.
#77 Victor Hedman
2011/2012 Season (Tampa Bay Lightning)
(GP)61 (G)5 (A)18 (PTS)23 (+/-)-9 (PIM)65 (TOI/GP)23:06
If there’s one Lightning player poised to take his game to a new level, it’s Victor Hedman. Thus far, the 22 year old Swede has yet to crack the 30 point mark as an NHLer (his career high is 26). Perhaps it’s ill-advised to get our hopes up, but there are plenty of signs pointing to Hedman cracking that number this year, despite the shortened season. It could feel like adding a new player to the roster without losing anyone.
Hedman is probably the smoothest skating six-foot-sixer in the NHL (and quite possibly the history of the NHL). He’s a heady defenseman (no pun intended) with good offensive instincts and the ability to play against opposing teams’ top lines. If he learns to use his size to its full advantage, he can become a total defensive package.
Pre-All Star Game: (GP)32 (G)2 (A)4 (P)6 (+/-)-12
Post-All Star Game: (GP)29 (G)3 (A)14 (P)17 (+/-)3
After suffering a concussion in January last year, Hedman returned to the lineup looking like he’d matured 3-4 years in his time off. He took steps forward in every department, and on many nights the word “dominant” would not be an exaggeration. That, in and of itself, would be a good indication that Hedman is in for a huge year, but if that’s not enough for you, take a look at this:
2012/2013 KHL (Barys Astana): (GP)26 (G)1 (A)19 (PTS)20 (+/-)18
Hedman signed with Barys Astana in the KHL as soon as it was clear the NHL wouldn’t be opening its rinks to start the season. And for a KHL defenseman, those numbers are pretty staggering. To put it in perspective, Hedman’s points-per-game average (0.77) was just .06 short of the team’s leading forward scorer. Combine this information with Hedman’s strong finish to last season and it would appear that he has, indeed, taken a step forward in his development. Possibly many steps forward. If he continues to improve his physical presence, he will be a very valuable asset for the Lightning this year, and for many years to come.
2011/2012 Home: (GP)31 (G)5 (+/-)6
2011/2012 Away: (GP)30 (G)0 (+/-)-15
2010/2011 Home: (GP) 40 (PTS)19 (+/-)11
2010/2011 Away: (GP)39 (PTS)7 (+/-)-8
2009/2010 Home: (GP)37 (PTS)14 (+/-)16
2009/2010 Away: (GP)37 (PTS)6 (+/-)-19
Career Home: (GP)108 (+/-)33
Career Away: (GP)106 (+/-)-42
Most players, of course, perform better at home than on the road. But this, I’m sorry, can’t be a coincidence. For three straight seasons now, Hedman has posted impressive home numbers while his road numbers look like statistics belonging to an entirely different, and much worse, player. This is something that will need to be addressed if he is to take a leadership role on the team.
Thursday Games: (GP)15 (PTS)10
What to expect…
Big things. Hedman might never lead NHL defenseman in scoring, but it appears he will be great in both ends of the rink, perhaps as early as this year. I wouldn’t doubt him posting 30 points in 48 games, though I think a safer bet would be somewhere in the 25 range. Despite the new faces, Hedman should see an increase in responsibilities this season. He should have ample time on the power play, with either Carle or Salo. Look for a break out year, but the best is still yet to come.
Coming Soon: The Forwards, The Goalies, and The Hopefuls.
Thanks for reading.