Woodward: Forecasting The Bolts Defense

With the World Cup of Hockey now complete, the attention of the hockey world will soon be squarely targeted upon the start of the NHL regular season. On Wednesday October 12, eight teams will take to the ice for the commencement of the 2016-17 season. Twenty-four hours later, the Tampa Bay Lightning will kick-off their campaign with a home contest against Atlantic Division rival Detroit.

For the Lightning, a large majority of last year’s team members have returned to the Gulf Coast for another run with the Bolts. There have been a few minor alterations, but the fabric of the roster remains unchanged. Barring injury, the Lightning appear poised to enter the year with one of the league’s deepest and most competitive lineups.

With the season opener just around the corner, today we’re going to pull on the meteorologist cap once again and attempt to forecast the makeup of this year’s Lightning defense corps.

The Top-Four

Victor HedmanAnton Stralman

Slater KoekkoekBraydon Coburn


When healthy, Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman provide the Lightning with one of the NHL’s premiere defense tandems. Hedman has proven to be a dynamic, game-breaking player at both ends of the ice, earning his way into the ranks of the world’s best blueliners. Since arriving via free agency in the summer of 2014, Anton Stralman has emerged into a near-perfect compliment on Hedman’s right flank, adding steady defensive play and excellent puck-moving ability to Tampa’s top-pair. Forecasting this top pair did not require a second thought; Hedman and Stralman will remain the anchors of the Lightning defense each and every time they take the ice.

Nearly four years after being selected with the tenth overall pick of the 2012 NHL Draft, 23-year-old blue-chip defenseman Slater Koekkoek earned a promotion to the Lightning last season when the team became inundated with injuries. Though he entered the postseason as a healthy scratch, Koekkoek would soon emerge as an everyday player for Tampa Bay. Head coach Jon Cooper called on Koekkoek in Game 2 of the second round, inserting him into the lineup for his first career NHL playoff action. From that point forward, the dynamic defenseman out of Winchester, Ontario would take the job and never look back. While the offensive numbers don’t exactly leap off the page, Koekkoek clearly held his own in moments of high intensity, displaying tremendous poise, skating ability, and vision. On several occasions during last year’s playoffs, Koekkoek’s speed and willingness to jump into the rush created scoring opportunities for the Lightning. If he continues to display these traits, it is only a matter of time before he becomes one of Tampa Bay’s most indispensable blueliners.

3rd Pair: Jason GarrisonJames Wisniewski

Extras/Injury Replacements: 1) Nikita Nesterov 2) Andrej Sustr, 3) Luke Witkowski


The Lightning are one of few teams in today’s NHL able to enjoy the luxury of a surplus of talent on defense. All five of the players listed above are capable of serving in a top-six position. With teams typically choosing to retain seven or eight defensemen on the active roster, at least one of these five will likely begin the season elsewhere.

Listing James Wisniewski ahead of incumbents Nikita Nestervov and Andrej Sustr certainly required a bit of optimism, but if he can recover his old form, the Lightning will have found a valuable veteran asset at an extremely affordable price. His strengths on the power-play should help bolster one of Tampa Bay’s few weaknesses of a year ago.

The most ideal long-term scenario for the Lightning would be that two of the three young defenders force their way into a full-time top-six role. Nesterov, Sustr and Witkowski will each be given ample opportunity to earn a spot; who will be the one to seize the moment?

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