Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Jan Rutta will miss significant time after suffering a lower-body injury in Tuesday's 4-2 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights at AMALIE Arena.
Rutta is currently listed as week-to-week. Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said after the win the hope was Rutta wouldn't be out long term, but it's definitely going to take some time before he'll be able to return.
Rutta had performed well playing alongside Victor Hedman on the Bolts' top pair. Although he wasn't a starter at the beginning of the season, the 29 year old had positioned himself as a reliable partner to the perennial Norris Trophy candidate and has been a mainstay in the lineup over the last month. He skated in 33 games this season, all of those coming in the Lightning's last 42 contests, registering a goal and six assists.
"You want players to go out and earn their spots and their positions and their ice time, and he did that," Lightning assistant coach Todd Richards said. "He was a good complement with Vic. Now, moving forward, we've got Schenn and Coburn, two proven NHL players and it's going to be a door opens for somebody. We'll see where it goes. We believe in those guys. We have faith in those guys that they'll step in and do a good job."
Video: Richards on state of Bolts defensive unit
How do the Lightning balance their defensive pairs moving forward while Rutta remains out?
That remains to be seen.
Braydon Coburn and Luke Schenn will get the first opportunity to replace Rutta, although which one gets the first chance Richards wouldn't reveal. Coburn was in the Lightning's top six at the beginning of the season, playing on a third pairing with Mikhail Sergachev, but a lower-body injury forced him to the sideline for 13 games from November 30 through December 28. Playing in eight of 17 games since, he's struggled to regain his spot in the top six, more so a reflection of the growth in Rutta's game and the trust the coaching staff has in Rutta. But Coburn, who will play his 950th NHL game his next game, has been a reliable option in the past and is a player the coaching staff has a lot of faith in.
Schenn was signed as a free agent during the offseason but hasn't found a regular spot in the lineup, mainly because of the unexpected signing of Kevin Shattenkirk late in the summer after the New York Rangers bought out his contract, allowing the Lightning to sign the former All-Star defenseman at a bargain price.
Schenn hasn't skated in the last 15 games, watching mostly from the press box. He saw his playing time increase when Coburn suffered his injury and has netted a goal in 15 games this season for the Bolts.
Whether it's Coburn or Schenn who returns to the lineup Thursday when the Lightning host the Pittsburgh Penguins, or both if the Bolts decide to go with 11 forwards and seven defensemen, there will undoubtedly be rust each will have to shake off.
"It's always the timing. You can't duplicate game situations in practice," Richards said when asked what challenges either will face. "You try as a coach, but you just can't do it. I know the players want the same thing too, guys that are trying to get themselves back into the game. So, it's going to be timing, it's going to be how they manage themselves, not over-extending shifts where fatigue becomes a factor. The pace last night might have been the fastest game we've played all year, our fastest opponent, and Pittsburgh's going to play a similar style of just the speed and the size, so it's going to be going out and just managing their shifts and not over-extending trying to do too much and let the feel of the game get back into their game just so they aren't getting exploited in any way."
The Lightning seemed to have their defensive pairs locked in with Rutta in the lineup. Now that he's gone for a spell, there might be a temptation to move pieces around. During Wednesday's practice session at AMALIE Arena, Mikhail Sergachev got the first crack alongside Hedman. Sergachev is certainly deserving of a top-pairing role as he's elevated his game and become one of the Lightning's more reliable and dynamic defenseman.
"Sergy has done a real good job of solidifying and showing that he can take more opportunities and different opportunities, 4-on-4, penalty kill," Richards said. "We know the offensive side of him, but, to me, what he's shown, especially last night against a big group of forwards in Las Vegas, he showed it in San Jose too, there's a couple plays that stick out in my mind where he physically went in and handled guys, big guys, big, strong guys, proven NHL players. He's earned that, and we'll just have to see going forward how we're going to manage the pairs."
Video: Sergachev on Bolts recent defensive efforts
Moving Sergachev up to the top pair, however, pushes him to the right side. Sergachev has played the right side for a lot of his NHL career and has thrived there, but his preferred side is on the left, and it's there where his game has reached another level partnered with the right-shot Shattenkirk over the last couple of months.
"We'll see how it goes," Richards said. "How these pairs work out, again, we haven't finalized what we're going to do with the pairs yet. I think we've always liked (Erik) Cernak and (Ryan McDonagh) together just because it's an easy fit for them starting on the penalty kill together. We'll just have to see. Sergy on the right, Sergy on the left, it's nice when you do have a player like that because it gives you some versatility, some options as a coach of where you want to play him."
It might be as simple too as inserting either Coburn or Schenn into Rutta's spot and keeping the other two pairs the same to maintain continuity.
Whatever the coaching staff decides to go with against the Penguins, they're not married to any one solution and are willing to tinker and adjust until they concoct the right formula.