Reason To Be Excited #3: The Improved Defense

Another hockeyless summer rolls on. The good news? We’ve put July to bed. The bad news? August feels twice as long because it is perhaps the only true hockey-free month in the calendar year.

July, of course, is free agency month, and there’s generally so much discussion surrounding it that it’s easy to forget we’re still almost a quarter year away from the season’s start. That was truer this past July for the Tampa Bay Lightning than most teams, because Steve Yzerman had likely the busiest two weeks of his GM career in the days surrounding July 1—two weeks that also including the NHL Draft, which makes you wonder exactly when Yzerman had time to sleep—resulting in what looks on paper to be several minor improvements to a young team that probably should improve just from another year of maturation and experience.

After re-signing some key RFAs in June (and withholding offers on some others), Yzerman set his sights on bringing back Ryan Callahan, and did so, signing Callahan to a six year deal worth $5.8 million per season.

Then came the whirlwind. Within days, Yzerman brought in Jason Garrison for a second round pick, had what looks like a fine performance at the NHL Draft, and then cleared millions of dollars in cap-space (by way of Ryan Malone, Teddy Purcell, Nate Thompson, and BJ Crombeen—and, in a roundabout way, former Edmonton Oiler Sam Gagner) in preparation for July 1—UFA day.

There’s nearly a consensus of opinion that Yzerman was a big winner on free agent day, despite losing out on what appears to have been his biggest target—Jarome Iginla. Reports have it that the Lightning pressed hard for Iginla and were one of the final three candidates for his services before Iginla chose to sign with the Colorado Avalanche.

But while all the attention league-wide attention was focused on the big names (like Iginla), Yzerman was making several smaller moves, shrewdly addressing the Lightning’s needs and weaknesses.

Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

By the end of the day, the Lightning had signed former Rangers Anton Stralman and Brian Boyle (which of those signings is the “biggest” depends on how you look at it—Boyle is 6’7), and former Islander and long-time San Jose Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov. On July 11, the Lightning signed veteran Brenden Morrow. (The Bolts also signed forward Mike Blunden, but it’s unlikely he’ll see time in the NHL.)

So after taking a moment to digest all of the additions and subtractions, and taking a look at the Lightning lineup on paper, what jumps out at you? Well, if you’re like most of us, what jumps out at you is the fact that it appears the Bolts have vastly improved their defense.

REASON #3 TO BE EXCITED ABOUT THE 2014/2015 TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING SEASON: The Bolts appear to have vastly improved their defense.

I use the word “appear” because, in July and August, and maybe even in September, it’s hard to talk in certainties. All we know for sure is the defense has improved on paper. There’s always a chance that come October we’ll see that Anton Stralman and Victor Hedman make terrible blue line partners, or that Jason Garrison can’t play the right side anymore. But we’ll deal with that in October. In August, “on paper” is all we have to hold us over.

And what we have should look like this:

Pairing 1: Hedman / Stralman
Pairing 2: Carle / Garrison
Pairing 3: Brewer / Gudas
7th/8th Defenseman: Sustr / Barberio

The big changes, of course, are the additions of Stralman and Garrison. The big subtraction is Sami Salo. But beyond that, the defense should be improved simply by slight adjustments to the returning defensemen’s allotted minutes.

Stralman received rave reviews for his performance in the 2014 playoffs, and, at the time of his signing, a spotlight was shone on his possession number–an area where the Lightning could definitely use an improvement. But it would appear that the biggest factor in the acquisition of Stralman was the simple fact that he’s a right handed shot. We know from the Olympics that Yzerman is a big proponent of the righty-lefty defense set-up, and being a righty allows Stralman to be slotted next to Hedman.

Mandatory Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

 

Garrison is a left handed defenseman who can play the right side. He should be slotted next to Matt Carle, but his real value is that of being insurance on Radko Gudas. Gudas, for whatever reason—my theory is a pile-up of injuries—was a trainwreck in the second half of last season. The addition of Garrison allows the Lightning to slot Gudas on the third pairing, thus giving him fewer and easier minutes, but doesn’t close the door on Gudas reclaiming his former responsibilities through solid and consistent play.

Matt Carle doesn’t get enough credit for the heavy defensive lifting he did last year. By eating some tough minutes, he allowed Hedman to play against slightly weaker competition which likely contributed to Hedman’s breakthrough year. Carle was also saddled with Gudas for much of the year, particularly in the second half when Gudas was not even close to what he’d been in the first half. The new acquisitions should lift some pressure off Carle, and maybe even allow him to open his game up a little bit offensively.

In terms of special teams, the new faces will provide Jon Cooper with options. A lot of people believe Garrison, because of his booming shot, is an obvious choice for the Lightning’s top power play unit. But not so fast. The Lightning power play was clicking better than it had in years at the end of last season, finally making a combination of four forwards and one defenseman work. Assuming Hedman’s name is chiseled in stone on Cooper’s PP clipboard, the only way Garrison can find a place on the PP blue line will be if Cooper removes a forward. And between Stamkos, Filppula, Callahan, and Palat, I’m not sure which forward can be removed. But Garrison does give Cooper a way to change the look of his power play if and when it hits a rut.

On the penalty kill, Stralman should find himself a fixture, and he should eat most of the toughest PK minutes alongside either Carle or Hedman, minutes that last year went to Salo and Gudas. It’s hard not to call that an improvement, and there’s reason to be cautiously optimistic that Stralman will emerge as our best penalty killing defenseman.

But now let’s move outside of the box a little bit. If you consider the most important defender on any given team its goalie, then perhaps you should be most excited about the addition of Evgeni Nabokov. Or, as cruel as this might sound, about the subtraction of Anders Lindback.

To be blunt, Lindback did not play last season at the level of an NHL goaltender. The numbers tell the tale. Making matters worse, the Lightning had clearly lost confidence in him—something that likely started in the previous year—and by season’s end were propping up a visibly fatigued and injured Ben Bishop in order to keep Lindback safely on the bench.

Nabokov changes that. No, he’s not the Evgeni Nabokov of years past who, at times, was one of the better goalies in the world. He comes to the Lightning at age 39 and with declining skills after three years with the Islanders that saw him overworked. But he’s still a solid, NHL-caliber goaltender, which fact alone makes him an improvement over his predecessor.

Beyond that, Nabokov is in the unique position where his age and experience will be a bonus for the Lightning. Ben Bishop, who recently signed a two year deal with the Bolts and has a year remaining on his existing deal, should benefit from having an experienced backup who’s been through the ups and downs of about a decade and a half worth of NHL seasons. (It’s also nice to know we’ll be able to give Bishop a night off now and again without worrying that we’re losing the game just by filling out the game sheet.)

Of course, as of now, this is all just on paper. There’s no real way to know if this defense is improved until we actually get a chance to see the team on the ice. And that’s what makes August, for hockey fans, so hard.

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