The official start of the NHL offseason is drawing closer by the day and we continue our Tampa Bay Lightning outlook with a look at the team’s defensemen situation.
The Bolts have a mix of youth and experience on the blue line but heading into the draft and free agency, they have only four players under contract: Victor Hedman, Matt Carle, Radko Gudas and Eric Brewer. Mattias Ohlund is also under contract but as has been the case for the last two years now, Ohlund will never play professional hockey again due to chronic knee injuries.
Sami Salo is an unrestricted free agent and it’s unlikely the Lightning bring him back, in large because he is 39. Mike Kostka is also an unrestricted free agent. Mark Barberio, Keith Aulie and Andrej Sustr are all restricted free agents that have yet to be signed.
If you missed our look at the goaltending outlook, you can read it by clicking here.
So, let’s take a look at each player who played on defense last season for the Bolts and what their outlook is.
One of the core members of the Lightning, Hedman had an incredible 2013-14 season. He had a career high 13 goals and 42 assists for 55 points and played well night in and night out. He also led the team in time on ice for the season, averaging 22.26 minutes a game.
Hedman will be a main stay on the Bolts blue line for years to come and at just 23 years old, his best days may still be ahead of him.
In his second season with the Bolts since signing a free agent deal two summers ago, Carle had one of the best seasons of his pro career. He sees top four minutes every night and contributes at both ends.
He still probably doesn’t score enough goals (just two in 82 games this season) but has good vision with the puck (29 assists). He’s also solid and steady at the back. Carle is signed for another four years and at 29, still has plenty of quality hockey left in him.
If there’s one thing we can say with certainty, it is that Brewer had a much better 2013-14 season than his disastrous 12-13 season. He still looks out of place at times on defense and has lost a step, which isn’t unsurprising considering he is 35 years old. He’s never been a big point producer but had 17 points this past year.
Brewer has one year left on his deal and I imagine that’ll be all he wrote in Tampa. He’s also only 35 games short of 1,000 in his career too.
Gudas’ first full season in the NHL was a success to say the least. He played top four minutes all season long and contributed offensively with 22 points.
The 24-year-old is signed for another two years, at which point he’ll then become a restricted free agent. Gudas still has areas of improvement, such as his skating, which was exposed in the playoffs, but teammates and fans love his toughness, along with his grit and determination.
Salo also played top four minutes on defense but at 39 years old, and out of contract, don’t expect him to be back in Tampa. The Bolts have three restricted free agents that they’d like to get in the lineup more regularly and by allowing Salo to leave they can achieve that.
In two years in Tampa, Salo put up 34 points (six goals) in 117 games.
The Lightning’s other unrestricted free agent, Kostka was picked up off waivers from the Chicago Blackhawks. He played well for the Bolts in 19 games, collecting eight points.
Kostka is an offensive defenseman who gets time on the power play. He’s just ok on defense and his inability to skate well really hinders him.
It’s a toss up if he’s back or not. He could probably get more playing time somewhere else, but may be worth re-signing to be the seventh defenseman.
Barberio is also a very offensive minded defenseman who has racked up points in both the QMJHL and the AHL. In 49 games last season, he had five goals and five helpers. Of the three restricted free agents on defense, Barberio saw the most playing time and stayed with the big club all season long.
Barberio should be playing every night on the blue line, and looking forward to next season, expect him to play close to a full 82-game schedule.
Sustr had an up-and-down season, literally, as he spent time at both the NHL and AHL level. He began the season with the Lightning but was sent to Syracuse in January for 12 games to get more playing time before winding back up in Tampa before the season finished.
He had eight points, including his first career NHL goal, in 43 games. The 6’8 Czech has a bright future ahead of him and can be a physical presense with his big body. He is also a restricted free agent who needs to be offered a qualifying offer.
A broken hand in December derailed Aulie’s season but he spent the entire year in Tampa. He played in just 15 games however, recording one assist.
Aulie is also waiting on a qualifying offer but it’s unclear if he’ll be offered one. Jon Cooper didn’t seem to have too much trust in the 6’6 defenseman, who averaged less than 10 minutes a game when he did play.
If the Lightning re-sign their three restricted defensemen they’ll have seven blue liners under contract. However, only Barberio and Sustr seem likely to get qualifying offers. With that in mind, Steve Yzerman may look to add a defenseman in free agency who can play top four minutes but doing so will prove to be difficult.
The Lightning could also address defense in the draft. They do need depth at Syracuse too which would aid their AHL affiliate while building future NHlers.
However, if Cooper trusts his young defensemen going forward, then the Lightning are going to have a very talented, and stable, blue line for years to come.