Lightning Reeling Without Hedman

Minnesota Wild’s Jason Zucker (16) moves in against Tampa Bay Lightning goal Andrei Vasilevskiy (88), of Russia, as the Lightning’s Jake Dotchin, right, trails the play in the first period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, Jan. 20, 2018, in St. Paul, Minn. (AP Photo/Tom Olmscheid)

Tampa Bay is 0-3 without their top defenseman

On Saturday night, Tampa Bay lost its third straight game, falling 5-2 to the Minnesota Wild.

Three game losing streaks, of course, will just happen in the course of an 82 game schedule. What’s more, the Lightning aren’t losing to the dregs of the league. Minnesota is a very good team, the Vegas Golden Knights lead the Western Conference, and the Calgary Flames are always dangerous with Johnny Gaudreau.

What makes this streak more concerning is that it began with an injury to defensive star Victor Hedman, who will not return to action until at least after the eight game road trip the Bolts just entered. Without their top blue-liner, Tampa Bay has been outscored 14-4.

Perhaps the problem extends beyond Hedman’s injury. In addition to the losing streak, Tampa Bay is 4-6 in its last ten, a stretch that began in 2017. That is to say, the Lightning are below .500 (3-4-1) so far in 2018.

Certainly, this isn’t a matter of one injury throwing Tampa Bay off their game. The Lightning still pepper the opposing goalie with shots, though they lost the shot battle Saturday night in Minnesota. Still, Hedman’s loss is clear when the Lightning’s vaunted first line of Stamkos-Kucherov-Namestnikov is out on the ice. Those are usually paired with Hedman and Mikhail Sergachev, but without Hedman opponents are able to focus a little more on those forwards and thus give Stamkos and Kucherov fewer clear opportunities.

The bigger impact is on the defensive end, of course. Consider the Lightning’s ideal style of play under Jon Cooper. The shoot first offensive mentality works well for a team with so many scorers, but it becomes vulnerable to opponents getting into transition with odd-man rush opportunities. Until Hedman comes back, the Bolts are going to have to figure out how to deal with this on both ends of the ice. Does the offense cherish rebound opportunities off the goalie to prolong possession, or will they ultimately try to slow the offense down to put less pressure on the blue line? Likewise, one can expect the Lightning’s defensemen to start being less involved in the team’s offense so they can better prevent those quick chances on the other end.

Tampa Bay Lightning, Jon Cooper

At the moment, what the Lightning are finding out is that they have some issues with the Dump and Chase, a strategy that is very divisive among hockey fans. Some people will point to the offensive idea of chucking the puck behind the opponent’s net and running it down as a style that rewards fast skaters, of whom the Lightning have a couple. Others derisively label it the “dump and turnover” and wish for a world in which hockey teams never again employ the strategy of hoping they can outskate the opponent.

The Dump and Chase worked fine for the Lightning with everybody healthy. The team’s forwards could get deep in their opponent’s zone, leaving defenseman open for passes and possibly shooting opportunities. Without Hedman, the Dump and Chase can lead to those forwards finding themselves behind a play suddenly in transition, with two defensemen tasked with taking away three forwards’ shooting lanes.

Expect some kind of strategic shakeup in the next few games, though it’s not going to be a dramatic one. Perhaps Jon Cooper will rearrange the lines. We’ve already seen on Saturday night that Sergachev got less ice time than in previous games, as Tampa Bay looks to more experienced blue-liners to get them through this stretch. What the Lightning will not do is panic.

Cooper’s postgame comments after Saturday night’s game were not particularly angry. The coach is keeping a cool head in this crisis, pointing to the team’s effort as a positive and suggesting that the results may be misleading with an approach as good as Tampa Bay has. His takes are likely more severe behind closed doors, but keep in mind Cooper doesn’t get paid any extra to convince people holding microphones and cameras.

It will be interesting to see how coach Cooper adjusts to Hedman’s absence and the Lightning’s losing streak over seven more straight road games. Lessons learned in this stretch could serve the Lightning well come playoff time.

Tampa Bay Lightning, Detroit Red Wings
AP Photo: Chris O’Meara

It all goes to show how good Victor Hedman is. Blue-liners don’t end up with their name in lights as often as players like Kucherov and Stamkos who can be all but penciled into just about any night’s score sheet, but Hedman’s presence has been a stabilizing force for Tampa Bay and that shows in his absence.

Without Hedman, Mikhail Sergachev is in a tough, tough position. For most of the season, his defensive pairing spent as much time on the ice as anyone, and while Sergachev has been excellent as a rookie that was largely due to Hedman’s presence. Without Hedman, Sergachev still sees a ton of time on ice, but he’s much more prone to looking like a rookie now. Sergachev also can expect to see fewer shooting opportunities as the Lightning adjust to a few weeks without their top defenseman.

More than any other position in hockey, and frankly possibly throughout sports, no position has to make as many adjustments through a long season as a defenseman. Sergachev is going to be put on full display in these coming weeks without Hedman, having to adjust to new pairings and a changed role.

Teams always show their true mettle when faced with a need to go to Plan B. These are professionals, after all. Anyone can win on a good day, with everybody healthy and the team executing the game plan the way Jon Cooper drew it up. Lightning fans have seen all year that the Bolts are nearly unstoppable when everything is going right.

The trouble is, in a season that lasts from October until Lord Stanley’s Cup is given away in June, it’s unreasonable to expect that things will go right every single night. That is to say, Tampa Bay needs to learn to win when they’ve been thrown off their traditional game.

The Lightning cannot rely on health. Even without Hedman, Tampa Bay is one of the least-injured teams in the NHL at this moment, with their only other player out being backup goaltender Peter Budaj. While the losing streak began with Hedman’s injury, injuries are a fact of life in a high-contact sport that takes place on one of the hardest possible surfaces.

In some ways, this is a blessing in disguise. Nobody wants to lose a key player to injury and nobody wants a losing streak, but let’s just say it is a lot less painful to lose three straight in January than it would be in, say, May.

Hedman’s injury will keep him out for the rest of January and he’s slated to return somewhere around early-to-mid February. Adding to the adversity is the fact that Tampa Bay will only play two more home games, and the All Star Game, in that span of time.

What lies ahead is a brutal road trip. On Monday and Tuesday, Tampa Bay will play in Chicago and then Nashville, two tough opponents in any situation. They then have to go to play a Philadelphia team that has found its stride after a disastrous start. After Philly, they travel to Winnipeg to play a Jets team with deep playoff aspirations. Calgary follows that game, and the last time the Lightning played the Flames they were blown out at home.

This slate is going to force Tampa Bay well out of their comfort zone, and as a result the Lightning are going to find out a lot about their team.

Tim Williams has been covering sports since his days as a student at Northeastern University covering events such as the Beanpot. In the thirteen years since, he has covered college hockey, the NFL, Major League Baseball, the PGA Tour, and the National Hockey League. A native of the Tampa Bay area, Tim has returned home after living much of his life in the northeast, including sixteen years in the Boston area. These days the Managing Editor of Sports Talk Florida can be found on Florida's golf courses when he's not working.