There are a lot of questions heading into the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 2017-18 campaign. After two lengthy playoff runs in 2015 and 2016, the team missed the playoffs last spring thanks in large part to some unfortunate injury luck and a string of lackluster play early in the year. It’s thus clear why many keen observers are wondering exactly which version of the Lightning we will see this year. Will it be the one that looks like a Stanley Cup contender, or will it be the one that belongs on the upper-half of the draft board? Time will tell.
Making things even more uncertain are the moves that were made during the offseason. On paper, the roster really isn’t any stronger than it was to start 2016-17. It’s the same cast of characters, less Jonathan Drouin and Ben Bishop, with a dose of Dan Girardi thrown into the fold. You can make a very strong argument that the roster is actually worse now than it was at this time last year. The x-factor, of course, is health. Keeping Steven Stamkos et al healthy this year could mean a big boost, but it’s also true that most of the Lightning’s woes last year were on the defensive side of the puck, where their top guys remained relatively healthy.
So, with all that in mind, what are the keys to the Lightning’s success this year? Everybody obviously expects big things from Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, and Andrei Vasilevskiy, but plenty of teams in recent history have shown that it’s difficult to make a big run without depth. Especially on defense, where Tampa struggled so mightily last year.
Looking at the 2017-18 roster, the Lightning’s list of NHL-available defensemen is likely to look like this:
- Braydon Coburn
- Jake Dotchin
- Dan Girardi
- Victor Hedman
- Slater Koekkoek
- Anton Stralman
- Andrej Sustr
It’s admittedly difficult to be overly inspired by that cast of characters beyond a name or two. Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman will keep doing their thing, but the rest of the core is a mixed bag.
Hence, my thesis: The Lightning will sink or swim in 2017-18 based on what they get from Braydon Coburn.
I say this not because I expect Coburn to become a Norris-caliber guy at 32 years of age, but rather because he is, in effect, the line in the sand between the top and bottom. Filling the role of capable number-three, he is the buffer between good and bad. If Coburn plays well, the Lightning will see less of a need to balance his minutes with Andrej Sustr and Dan Girardi. If he doesn’t, though, the potential consequences are grave.
Unfortunately, the trouble is that it’s difficult to predict which Braydon Coburn we are going to get in 2017-18. Looking back to when he was acquired by the Lightning and subsequently extended, things were bleak. Last year, though, something clicked. If the Lightning are going to contend in 2017-18, they are going to need the Braydon Coburn they saw at the start of last season.
The potential benefit of Coburn playing well is twofold; not only would it just be a generally positive thing to have a third reliable defender on the ice, but it would also give the Lightning three potential anchors (in a positive sense), one for each pairing. Hedman can be trusted to carry the first pairing, Stralman the second, and good-Coburn the third. Shielding inexperience would be so much easier, as would shielding the special kind of ‘experience’ that Girardi is likely to bring to the ice.
The bottom line: With a mix of young players and less-than-highly-skilled (read: bad) players set to compete for the remaining spots on the Lightning blue line, the team is going to need three guys who can carry the load by making those around them better. They know they have two in Hedman and Stralman, and Coburn has shown that he’s capable of being the third in the right situation. They need to find that situation for him again this season, as he might just be the difference between a great year and another early golf season.
As always, thanks for reading. And stay safe, Florida.