Projecting Tampa Bay Lightning's Defensive Pairings in 2014-15 NHL Season
The Tampa Bay Lightning's defensive group has a very high ceiling led by defensemen Matt Carle, Victor Hedman and Radko Gudas. The talented young Bolts with have some decisions to make this offseason as they solidify the defensive pairings for the 2014-15 season.
Tampa Bay has five defensemen under contract for 2014-15, but that includes the practically retired Mattias Ohlund. Andrej Sustr, Keith Aulie and Mark Barberio are restricted free agents and deserve some attention from the front office.
Prospects like Slater Koekkoek and Nikita Nesterov will be anxious to earn a spot come training camp. They will put additional pressure on the coaching staff for the final few defensive spots.
With nearly three months until the preseason begins, the Lightning will have some fierce battles on the blue line. Here is how the defense could stack up in 2014-15.
Victor Hedman is already making his rise up the defensive rankings. Finishing fifth among defensemen in points during the regular season, he has put himself into the elite defenseman discussion.
His offensive prowess and skating ability make him an extremely dangerous addition to the top scoring line for the Bolts. He's not too shabby in the defensive end, either, with a plus-five rating while logging over 22 minutes per game.
Radko Gudas adds grit and physicality to the line. He finished nine hits behind Cody Franson for the most in the NHL. He still has a little to work on with defensive positioning, but he has improved over his first two seasons and should continue that trend into his next few campaigns.
The 152 penalty minutes is a little excessive for a top-pair defenseman, but those numbers are inflated due to his willingness to drop the gloves.
This would be a solid first pairing for the Bolts.
Matt Carle may not be the team's most productive defenseman, but he is the most stable. Carle was plus-11 last season and had more points (31) than penalty minutes (28). Like Hedman, Carle logged over 22 minutes of ice time per game, including special teams.
He will be entering his 10th NHL season at 29 years old and could have another decade of hockey left in him. The Bolts may have young forwards on the second line which would make Carle an important line of defense to minimize the effects of mistakes.
Andrej Sustr is a restricted free agent who should get re-signed by the Bolts. When he signs, he will have a spot on the second defensive pairing. He played in 43 games last season with eight points and a plus-three rating.
Sustr was a fixture in the Lightning lineup during the first few months of the season but was used sparingly after the Olympic break. It won't be easy for Sustr, but he could find himself logging some big minutes in 2014-15.
The third pair is where things get interesting for Tampa Bay. The Lightning typically use a seven-defenseman lineup with 11 forwards.
Mark Barberio earned some strong minutes for the Lightning last season. Eric Brewer is a veteran guy with a $3.875 million cap hit. Slater Koekkoek is one of the Lightning's best prospects and will be expected to make noise in training camp if healthy.
Mike Kostka was a nice pickup for Tampa Bay. He's unrestricted but could be re-signed as well. Include the potential of drafting an NHL-ready defenseman with one of the Lightning's two first-round selections in the 2014-15 NHL draft, and things are awfully crowded on the blue line.
The Lightning have an abundance of left-handed shooting defensemen, which adds to Kostka's value. It will be interesting to see if the Lightning bring in a top-level defenseman through free agency or on the trade market. The extra first-round pick gives Tampa Bay some flexibility.
If the Bolts add a veteran like Brooks Orpik, all bets are off on the defensive pairings. Without any major shakeups, this is how the Bolts blue line could look in 2014-15.