For most NHL teams, losing a burgeoning star on defense like Victor Hedman to injury would be a major, if not catastrophic blow. But if a team (at least, an Eastern Conference team) is equipped to weather the absence of a key cog on the blueline, it’s the Tampa Bay Lightning. Despite the fact they'll now be without Hedman for at least a handful of games, if not longer thanks to a suspected broken hand he suffered Saturday against Vancouver, the Bolts are still looking as dangerous as many expected they would after their off-season additions.
When Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman signed free agent blueliner Anton Stralman away from the New York Rangers and traded for former Vancouver Canucks d-man Jason Garrison, he turned a group that included Hedman (who demolished career bests in goals and assists last year), veterans Matt Carle and Eric Brewer, and rugged 24-year-old Radko Gudas into arguably the Eastern Conference’s deepest defense corps. And that argument got much stronger after the Bruins dealt Johnny Boychuk to the Islanders. They’re so deep on defense, they made Brewer a healthy scratch for the first two games of the season. (Gudas is a little banged-up himself, but hoped to return to the lineup as soon as Monday.) There’s more than enough talent and balance there to hold the fort until Hedman returns. (And nobody quite knows when that will be just yet. If their worst fears come true and Hedman’s hand is broken, he’s likely looking at a 4-to-6-week recovery period.)
But even if that defense corps weren’t so sturdy even in Hedman’s absence, the Lightning would still be favored to win more games than not because of two main reasons:
Steven Stamkos and Ben Bishop. The former is off to a blazing start, with five goals and six points in his past three games; the latter is looking just as much of an all-star (1.71 goals-against average and .933 save percentage in four games). And when you look at their recent history, you see this team, under coach and 2013-14 Jack Adams Award finalist Jon Cooper, has shown a resilience despite major injuries (including the broken leg Stamkos suffered last year) to key players.
Yes, they won’t be as grave a threat without Hedman, whose seven points had him tied with Stamkos for the team lead and who was playing 21-23 minutes a game on the top defensive pairing with Stralman;the 23-year-old is starting to play like the Norris Trophy contender scouts envisioned he would be when the Bolts drafted him second overall in 2009. But this team’s shot at winning a Stanley Cup this season doesn’t live or die depending on him being in the lineup. As of Sunday, Tampa Bay had the NHL’s sixth-best defense (allowing just 1.8 goals-per-game) and the league’s No. 6-ranked offense (averaging 3.4 goals-per-game), and their special team averages were also in the top 10. That’s taking place because of the organization’s depth, balance and skill.
The reason so many people like the Bolts this year is the same reason for their early success and the same reason they’ll be fine until Hedman returns. And if all the Lightning’s players ever are healthy for any stretch of time, look out.