Are Any of the UFA Defensemen Worth Retaining?
Everyone can think of a time when they would have liked a do-over. Surely, the Lightning—who are replete with expensive, lengthy contracts for role players—wish they could exercise a mulligan on a couple of them. Okay, maybe a handful. This is why it’s worth discussing the defensemen who are becoming free agents, and whether any of the three—Dan Girardi, Anton Stralman, Braydon Coburn—is worth retaining.
With Steve Yzerman no longer part of the Lightning organization, one would suspect the peculiar infatuation with New York Rangers players that has characterized Tampa Bay would end. What did Yzerman see in Dan Girardi that led to his two-year contract? It was the ineffable stuff, the intangibles. All the non-statistical traits—grit, physicality, heart—that always make Pierre McGuire swoon. (Of course, that is only a prelude until Pierre launches into his easily satirized backstory monologue.)
Mobility is the most important characteristic for an NHL defenseman. Unfortunately, Girardi is too slow for the modern NHL. And this weakness cripples the Lightning in myriad ways.
Girardi does not have the foot speed to keep a tight gap on top-nine forwards. If he presses, the opposing forward can beat him to the perimeter. If he sags, he yields the entry, allowing the enemy to coast into the Lightning’s zone with possession.
Girardi also lacks the necessary recovery speed to pinch and recover. If his pinch in the offensive zone or confrontation in the neutral zone misfires, it puts tremendous stress on his defensive partner and the transition defense. And Girardi is so immobile he looks wooden when retrieving the puck and attempting to escape the forecheck. His plodding efforts with the puck make the opponent look like a pack of vipers, which in turn leads to ham-fisted play. And then there is the fact that Girardi is incapable of acting as a playmaker or puck-transporter.
One praise-worthy skill Girardi has that should be sought after in his replacement is adequacy finding shooting lanes. Because of this ability, Girardi was able to accrue more goals than Stralman and as many as Coburn. But even with more robust regular-season production than expected, watching Girardi in the playoffs felt sad, like watching a kid who is playing in a league far above his skill level. Maybe Girardi finds another home, but with the Lightning he was overmatched and overwhelmed when the games mattered.
Recommendation: Do not retain
Was there a Lightning skater whose perceived value depreciated more than Anton Stralman? Stralman went from a putative shutdown defenseman who logged important close-game minutes during a long postseason Lightning run in 2017-18 to falling out of the top four because rookie Erik Cernak was the superior player. It was a justifiable demotion. Stralman’s 5v5 Scoring Chance percentage and Corsi for percentage were the worst of any defenseman who received minutes for Tampa Bay other than Slater Koekkoek.
Stralman’s mobility declined to a point where he was too slow to be effective. Yes, he had nagging injuries this season, sidelining him during the postseason, but even when healthy, his contribution was negligible (and sometimes an outright negative).
A zero offensively, Stralman could not skate, pass, or shoot the puck into a scoring area. And defensively he was messy: he would lose his man in coverage, fail to box out, and lose too many puck battles. Even finding the outlet on retrievals was a struggle. I think where Stralman’s declining foot speed was most obvious was when he made the turn coming around the net, whether that be when collecting the puck on a dump-in or after won faceoffs. Opponents’ forwards always managed to hinder his ability to complete that first pass.
But how the Lightning have used Stralman segues nicely into a larger conversation: How should the Lightning use their defensemen? It is not necessarily wise to ape your enemies, but it has been noticeable how teams that have advanced deep into the playoffs do not fall victim to odd-man rushes because four skaters were caught below the circles. The Lightning mentality was that it doesn’t matter where they lost the puck because even if we allow an odd-man rush or a dangerous counterattack we still have Andre Vasilevskiy in net. After their disastrous first-round exit, I think it is fair to call that logic into question. A reorientation of strategy is needed.
The Lightning loved to run high-energy, not necessarily productive, interchanges between forwards and defensemen. But any disruption of timing led to a dangerous counterattack. What teams like the Bruins, Hurricanes, and Blues do is play a form of keep-away. Forwards still rotate high and defensemen can slide down low, but the process is less high-low motion. The puck-carrier is harder to isolate in keep-away. If the pass isn’t available, putting the puck deep and letting the deepest forward try to win the puck in the corner or below the goal line is an acceptable move.
Most teams want to keep two skaters back so no one is left forsaken on an opposing rush due to a sloppy pass. With the Lightning, Nikita Kucherov or Tyler Johnson would retreat high while the defenseman switched with them, and the opposing skater would follow the forwards up toward the point. Then Kucherov and Johnson would try to turn around and pass or shoot it into traffic and would lose it high in the zone. And while that turnover occurred near the blue line, multiple Lightning skaters would be caught deep in the offensive zone.
More accountability is warranted next season. The recklessness with which the Lightning managed the puck, and how they aggressively used their defensemen, are just not wise. If the Lightning are going to be more responsible, they will need to have defensemen with skating ability to retrieve the puck, enact a quick breakout, propel the puck through the neutral zone, and use their skating, passing, and shooting in the offensive zone to keep the puck in their possession. Stralman clearly doesn’t check these boxes.
Recommendation: Do not retain
While sporting a few gray hairs, Brayden Coburn can still motor the puck out of the zone if necessary. Unlike Girardi and Stralman, he possesses the speed quotient. No one would mistake Coburn for an offensive defenseman, but his instincts in the neutral zone and offensive zone are mostly positive. Coburn’s most underrated attribute is that he doesn’t dust the puck off. His shot is not always accurate, but he is comfortable shooting in stride and off-balance because he knows that the only chance of his shot finding the back of the net is if it gets deflected or the goaltender gets screened.
Where Coburn gets into trouble is in his defensive coverage. He can be slow to rotate. He struggles to box out guys and loses too many puck battles. His gaps were not great. And a bad read on a pinch, or ill-timed confrontation in the neutral zone, could expose the Lightning to a two-on-one.
But the thing about these criticisms is that they are fixable. A more accountable and disciplined team can alleviate Coburn’s vulnerabilities. If the Lightning forwards sink lower in the defensive zone and are better at aiding their defensemen on zone exits, Coburn won’t be hemmed in and left flailing. If the Lightning forwards provide better transition defense, Coburn can feel secure keeping a tighter gap. And if defensemen are instructed to dial back their aggression, along with more pervasive back pressure from the Lightning forwards, Coburn won’t get caught out of position much.
Coburn is adequate in the third defenseman role because he knows his limitations. He is not out there to be a creator. If he doesn’t have a play, he will drive it deep. His mission is to keep the puck away from the bad guys and on the good guys’ sticks. With a different team M.O., one that emphasizes discipline and accountability, Coburn would be acceptable, even ideal, for the right price. Anything over $2M and one year is too much though.
Recommendation: Retain if Coburn accepts $2M AAV or less.