The Lightning began their 2010-2011 regular season campaign with a revamped defensive corps that, on paper, suggested their would be improvement in the goals-to-goals against differential and plenty of offensive potential to tap. In particular, the free-agent signings of Brett Clark and former Lightning Pavel Kubina to short-term, cap-friendly (the latter especially true with Clark) contracts struck many as savvy additions by new GM Steve Yzerman.
Similar in their limited mobility, lack of skating speed, and heavy shot from the point, Kubina seemed a logical replacement for Kurtis Foster was on the PP although I felt he would, even at his worst, probably provide, even at his worst, marked improvement at even-strength. Clark was as a low-risk and much cheaper alternative to Andrej Meszaros (the good soldier who never quite lived up to his billing here), who needed a change of scenery and for whom Yzerman found a willing taker in Philadelphia prior to July 1. Signing Randy Jones to a 1-year, $1 million deal was a depth move that gave the Lightning extra mobility and puck-moving ability.
In addition to the turnover, the Lightning were hoping for Victor Hedman (who played top minutes for the Lightning for much of his rookie season) and Mike Lundin (who emerged in 09-10 as the team’s go-to shutdown defender) to continue to progress and for Mattias Ohlund to rebound from an up-and-down debut season with the Lightning during which he had trouble staying healthy and effective. With his lack of mobility and his Matt Smaby figured to have a minimal role with the big club, with his one-way contract, was kept as the spot-starter.
This formula was reasonably successful for most of the first half of the season; the adjustment to Guy Boucher’s new system, especially the in-zone defensive structure, was not a flawless process but for a defensive unit that experienced 50% turnover in the off-season, the overall results were encouraging. Despite the periodic lapses and positional gaffes, the Achilles heel of the early season was definitively NOT the defensive personnel (the play of Dan Ellis and Mike Smith should ring a bell) and there’s a good case to be made it was not the main culprit for the rough patches the Lightning endured in the second half of the regular season (here’s looking at you, offense). Certainly there were disappointing performances by individuals and collectively as a unit but the overall body of work from such a non-heralded group, in my best estimation, was impressive. In fact, there were a number of key indicators to suggest that this year’s team was one of the best in recent seasons. Here’s a look at some of the pertinent data:
Over the last 43 games (dating back to the arrival of Roloson), the Lightning have only allowed 109 goals, which translates to a 2.53 goals allowed per game. If the Lightning had received consistent goaltending from the start of the season, they would have easily ended up as one of the top-10 defenses teams in the league statistically. Of course, the acquisition of Eric Brewer in advance of the trade deadline helped matters too, as Brewer helped to stabilize the top-4, especially in the absence of Lundin, who was then out with what was initially feared to be a season-ending injury.
Hedman, despite his tur
Also important in any analysis of team defense is to account for the efforts of forwards. There isn’t any clear-cut data for this but I felt it was obvious that the Lightning benefited from fairly consistent and aggressive back-checking. You expect your checking and energy lines to do the dirty work, but on most nights I felt that Boucher had the luxury of rolling four defensively sound forward units, who were often able to compensate for defensive miscues from the rearguards.
Fast forward to today and the Lightning boast 9 healthy defensemen heading into the playoffs. According to Boucher, Randy Jones is “ready to play” after being out of action for over a month although apparently he is likely to be held out of Game 1 against the Penguins. There is no reason to think the Lightning will be bring anything more or less to the table defensively than they have during the course of 82 games. We have seen the extremes, both good and bad. Admittedly, the defensive corps isn’t a fancy or awe-inspiring bunch and perhaps the most appropriate thing you can say about them is that can be excruciatingly difficult to play against when they play within their natural roles and adhere to the structure of Boucher’s system.
One final thought: I get that the defense corps is not the team’s strength and doesn’t, on paper, stack up as well as others in terms of name recognition or perceived individual talent, but just because a segment of the fanbase has a favorite whipping boy (i.e. Jones, Kubina and, at times justifiably, Bergeron) and/or because they believe Hedman was overhyped because he hasn’t yet developed into the NHL’s best defenseman by the ripe age of 20, does not make the Lightning’s defense a liability. I’m always shocked (I don’t know why) by the tendency of some fans to overreact as opposed to taking in the bigger picture (i.e. labeling Hedman a “turnover machine” or lamenting Kubina’s “lack of production”). Of course, that gives me fodder for the summer but I’m venting now.
At any rate, whatever your own sentiments, let’s all enjoy the fruit of this team’s hard work during their playoff stint, however long it lasts.