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Stanley Cup Final Preview: Defense wins championships

Tampa Bay’s stout defense has driven the Lightning’s sustained success.

Tampa Bay Defenseman Ryan McDonagh
Ryan McDonagh is the key to Tampa’s defense corps
Tampa Bay Times

The Tampa Bay Lightning’s back-to-back championships and pursuit of a third this season have made household names out of forwards Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov and put goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy on some pundits’ goaltending Mt. Rushmore. But, every season, this team’s engine has been an elite group of defensemen led by former Norris Trophy winner and current finalist - along with our boy Cale Makar and that Predators guy who disappeared a month or so ago - Victor Hedman.

Hedman remains a dominant force at 31 years old and absolutely deserves to come in third for the Norris this year, but he’s not even the guy playing the toughest minutes for Tampa. That’s former New York Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh, who, alongside partner Erik Cernak, has shut down dynamic top lines featuring leading regular-season scorers Auston Matthews, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Chris Kreider.

This defense is elite at the top, excellent in the middle, and strong at the bottom - by far the toughest test the Avalanche has faced thus far.

Projected Defensemen

Victor Hedman — Jan Rutta

Ryan McDonagh — Erik Cernak

Mikhail Sergachev — Zach Bogosian

Cal Foote

Top Pairing: Offense Unlocked

Hedman had a couple of down years in his late twenties, but since being paired up with Chicago Blackhawks castoff Jan Rutta and shifted into a more offense-focused role following the acquisition of McDonagh he returned to form and the team won two Cups. Can’t argue with success.

At 6’6” and 240 lbs, Hedman’s massive reach, hulking frame, and powerful skating make him extremely difficult to beat off the rush or on the cycle. But it’s his elite vision and mind for the game that makes the Lightning assistant captain truly dangerous, helping him rack up a career-high 85 points in the regular season this year and 14 points in 17 games thus far in the playoffs. Hedman kills penalties and quarterbacks the Tampa’s top powerplay unit. He’s a gritty, emotional leader too, and he’s going to be a factor in all facets of the game, every game.

Rutta has proven to be the perfect partner for Hedman since his arrival in Tampa in 2019, as his steady play and high hockey IQ allow Hedman to roam free and Rutta to chip in the offense when the opportunity presents itself without exposing the team to odd-man rushes. He won’t see the ice on special teams and is frequently replaced next to Hedman when coach Jon Cooper finds in-game situations to change things up, but Rutta is a two-time cup champion for a reason - he’s smart and positionally sound at all times.

Second Pair: Shut it Down, Boys

Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak block more shots than Dikembe Mutombo in that Geico ad.

We’re not sponsored by Geico, don’t go to their website or anything, but McDonagh-Cernak should be with a combined 79 blocks in 17 games. They take the toughest matchups at even strength, serve as primary penalty killers, and generally succeed at both. Through three rounds, the pair put up an Expected Goals For Percentage above 50 and generally frustrated literally the top regular-season scorers in the NHL one after another - Matthews, Huberdeau, and Kreider led the league in Goals, Points, and Power Play Goals, respectively.

McDonagh’s 50 blocks this postseason all seem to come at huge moments because he’s on the ice all the dang time - it’s McDonagh, not Hedman, who leads the team in even-strength ice time - and is seemingly always in the right position. He’s not the biggest guy at 6’1” 218, nor the fastest nor most talented, but his positional awareness would be off the charts if there were charts for that sort of thing. He’s out of position about as often as milk is purple. That’s a saying, I promise.

Cernak is the unsung hero of the Tampa D, playing third and sometimes fourth fiddle to Hedman, McDonagh, and Mikhail Sergachev (who we’ll get to in a minute), even though he’d be an unquestioned top pair RD on most teams in the league. Brought to Tampa from Los Angeles as seemingly a throw-in to the trade that sent Ben Bishop west, the massive native of Slovakia has blossomed into one of the best defensive defensemen in the game.

Third Pair: Surprise! We’re Good Too

Sergachev and Zach Bogosian have been a shockingly effective duo in somewhat sheltered minutes, skating to nearly 60% xGF playing against mostly third and fourth lines. Edmonton, St. Louis, and Nashville all had very exploitable third pairs, but this duo has been sturdy defensively and ended a lot of shifts in the offensive zone.

Even most casual hockey fans have heard of Sergachev at this point, in part because he’s a former top ten pick and back-to-back Cup winner, and in part, because he got to Tampa in the unexpected trade that sent Jonathan Drouin to Montreal. The Habs might want that one back, as Sergachev has become an asset to Tampa on the second powerplay unit, killing penalties, and driving play at even strength. Like Cernak, he’d be a top pair guy on a lot of teams, and given that chance, he’d very likely elevate his game even higher.

Zach Bogosian, on the other hand, some people might remember as the 2008 third overall pick by the Thrashers, though even NHL die-hards have done their best to forget Atlanta had a team. He never fulfilled his draft-day promise, but he’s a steady stay-at-home guy who has really meshed well with his young partner and even chipped in a highlight reel assist against the Rangers.

Wow. Who knew he had hands.

Number Seven: The Ol’ Boy’s Boy

It’s a Foote! You know the name Foote from Avs legend Adam, and his son Cal really is a chip off the old block. He’s not as mean as his pops (who is?) but he’s more skilled and showed flashes this season of potential to become a mainstay in Tampa’s top four if the other guys ever slow down or leave. Tampa played with seven defensemen in many games in the first couple of playoff rounds, somewhat due to injuries up front but also to get one of their best young players on the ice.

Do the right thing, Adam. Root against your son.

Who Has The Edge?

If you read all that and didn’t just skip down to this section, you know Tampa Bay has a really good defense - but Colorado does too. The Avs top pair in Makar and Devon Toews is the best pair in this series and the entire NHL by metrics and the eye test, and they’re going to tilt the ice toward Vasilevskiy when they’re out there even though they’ll likely see a ton of McDonagh and Cernak.

But that means Hedman will be out there against Erik Johnson and Bowen Byram, so they’ll need to be constantly vigilant positionally to avoid deadly Hedman to Kucherov stretch passes. If Josh Manson can be his best self that will help, but Hedman against the Colorado Avalanche bottom four is definitely the main concern keeping the coaching staff up at night. Nolan Pratt probably has nightmares where the giant Swede is eating Bo or something. I wish I hadn’t thought of that.

Manson and Jack Johnson (or Ryan Murray if he ever gets to play) are a solid third pair but Sergachev is a more dynamic player than Manson and Bogosian/Foote both bring more to the table than JJ. If Murray is in, he’s pretty comparable to those guys and evens the playing field a bit, but Bednar and Pratt clearly like what they’re getting from Jack so he’s likely to draw in most games.

Overall, the Avalanche top pair is so darn good it’s hard to pick against them, but the Lightning defense holds the title of best in the league until someone (CALE!??!??) takes it from them.

Gonna be a fun series, y’all. All stats come from Natural Stat Trick.