For more than half a season, everything — and we mean just about everything — had gone right for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Captain Steven Stamkos’ return to action had gone off without a hitch, Nikita Kucherov picked up where he left off, the defense was rock-solid and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy started hot and has since turned himself into the Vezina Trophy frontrunner. But the Lightning finally got their first bit of bad news in what has otherwise been a dream season in Tampa Bay: defenseman Victor Hedman is out for three-to-six weeks after sustaining a lower-body injury in a contest against the Calgary Flames last Thursday.
Remarkably, though somehow unsurprisingly for the Lightning given how things have gone this season, the injury doesn’t necessarily spell disaster in any way, shape or form.
One major reason for that, and maybe the most important reason, is that if there was ever a time for Hedman to suffer such an injury, now was that time. Thursday’s game against the Flames in which Hedman fell injured was the Lightning’s last as they begin their league-mandated bye week, meaning at least one of the weeks that Tampa Bay’s No. 1 defenseman was set to miss is a week without even a single game. And better yet, when the Lightning do return to action they’ll have only five games to play before another four-day layoff coming by way of the all-star break. So, in the best-case scenario, Hedman would miss eight games if he only needs three weeks to recover.
But the other major reason Tampa Bay could come out the other side of the Hedman injury no worse for wear is that the Lightning are well-equipped to deal with such an injury. And that starts at the top of the blueline where, as a safety net for Hedman missing time, coach Jon Cooper will be able to turn to Anton Stralman as his top defenseman. While Stralman doesn’t possess the all-around game of Hedman, the veteran rearguard is as steady as they come and has proven time and again to be one of the most integral parts of the Tampa Bay blueline. He provides a calmness and precision in moving the puck and allows Cooper the comfort of knowing no matter Stralman is paired with, the Lightning will have a steady top pairing.
That, however, brings us to the issue of who Stralman skates with, which is the other reason Tampa Bay need not worry all that much with Hedman on the shelf. While there are a few potential partners, Jake Dotchin and Braydon Coburn among them, the clear-cut choice for the role is rookie Mikhail Sergachev, who has quickly asserted himself an offensive force on the Lightning blueline. Already, Sergachev has eight goals and 26 points, only seven points back of a true Norris Trophy contender in Hedman, and his role on the back end has only increased as the season has worn on. Starting the year as a third-pairing blueliner with heavy minutes on the power play, Stralman’s ice time has gradually grown and the signs of Cooper being ready to give him a bigger piece of the ice-time pie have been there.
For instance, Sergachev, whose average ice time this season is below 16 minutes, had an average ice time above 17 minutes per night across the 20 games leading up to Hedman’s injury. In six of those games, Sergachev skated 18-plus minutes, including three 20-plus minute outings. And if there was any indication that Sergachev is going to get the call to fill in for Hedman, such evidence may have come in the game the Lightning’s star defender hit the shelf. Against the Flames, Sergachev skated 21:07 and more than one-third of his total ice time was alongside Stralman.
The 5-1 loss last Thursday against the Flames left much to be desired, sure, but one game doesn’t make the pairing, nor is a single outing an indictment of Sergachev’s ability to take on the increased minutes. In many ways, Sergachev is the perfect short-term replacement for Hedman, just as Stralman is the perfect player to be slotted alongside the youngster for the time being. A steady, heady defender, Stralman can provide Sergachev with the cushion he needs and be a reliable partner who will allow him to take the offensive chances he needs to be most effective. And the secondary benefit in all of this is that pairing Sergachev with Stralman now allows Cooper to know what he has in that potential pairing for a time in the future — you know, like the playoffs — when he might need to shake things up to get a different look in a seven-game series. Cooper certainly wouldn’t mind having another effective two-way pairing in his back pocket.
As fate would have it, though, Hedman’s injury won’t only impact the Lightning. As noted, Hedman is — or was — having a season worthy of Norris consideration, which made him a no-brainer for the Atlantic Division all-star team. And while Sergachev stands to replace Hedman’s day-to-day work, who replaces the Lightning rearguard when the All-Star Game heads to Tampa Bay? Here are three candidates:
Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs
If the divisional format was scrapped in favor of an East vs. West game again, there’s little doubt Rielly would've been among the initial group of defenders named to the all-star squad. With five goals and 31 points in 45 games, Rielly is the fourth-highest scoring defender in the Eastern Conference and has had a brilliant campaign as he continues to stake his claim as the top defender in Toronto. However, the limited spots available on the divisional team paired with the Maple Leafs’ representation by Auston Matthews meant Rielly missed out.
With Hedman out, though, there’s no reason to keep Rielly off the team. He’s the second-highest scoring rearguard in the division and a member of the Atlantic’s third-best club. He can be flashy offensively, too, which will make him a joy to watch in the 3-on-3 tournament.
Charlie McAvoy, Boston Bruins
It seems wrong that Boston is sending only one player to the All-Star Game. Over the past couple months, no team in the East has been hotter than the Bruins, yet the roster limitations pared down a roster that could've easily sent three forwards, two defensemen and a goaltender to Tampa Bay to a group that will be represented by Brad Marchand alone. Now, Hedman’s injury doesn’t fix the fact that Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak are still going to be missing out on the game, but the injury on the blueline does open up a spot on the back end. And why not fill that spot with McAvoy?
It’s not as if the NHL is afraid to send rookies to the game — Brock Boeser will be in Florida as the face of the Vancouver Canucks — and there’s really no reason not to send McAvoy. Good numbers? Check. He’s tied for sixth among Atlantic Division defenders with five goals and 23 points. Solid season-long performance? Check. He has the 11th-highest average ice time among Atlantic blueliners. And an influential member of a successful team? Check. McAvoy is a top-pairing rearguard on the Atlantic’s clear-cut second-best team.
Mikhail Sergachev, Tampa Bay Lightning
Good enough for one, good enough for both, right?
Some fans of the other seven teams in the Atlantic Division groused at the fact the Lightning were taking over the all-star roster with four players heading to the event — two up front, one on the blueline and one in goal — but those complaints didn’t carry any weight given how dominant Tampa Bay had been all season. So, even though Hedman’s injury opens up the opportunity for the wealth to be spread around to other fan bases, why not stay with the initial decision and give another roster spot to a Lightning player? Sergachev is definitely worthy, too.
On the attack, the freshman has been brilliant, as noted earlier, and his role throughout the season has only increased. Across the first few months, he was a power play specialist and not much more, but he’s moved up to the second pairing as the season has worn on and he could be seeing even more ice time in the coming weeks with Hedman out. Lightning fans are starting to fall for the young Russian rearguard, and there’s no good reason not to give their Calder-contending crush some all-star love given the game is in Tampa Bay.
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