Immediately following Tampa Bay's 4-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday, veteran defenseman Braydon Coburn was walking toward the AMALIE Arena players parking lot holding a box of leftover food and wearing his game-day suit.
Coburn didn't play in the game against the Leafs, which ended about five minutes prior to his exit. He wasn't hurt. And he wasn't benched because of poor play. Quite the opposite, in fact. Coburn had a rebirth of sorts down the stretch run of the 2017-18 regular season and in the playoffs that continued into 2018-19, a time period in which he has played some of his best hockey with the Lightning.
Video: Derek Lalonde on the D-Man Rotation
Coburn watched the Toronto game on TV from the Lightning locker room because the Bolts have too many defensemen playing at a high level. There are seven blueliners on the roster currently. All of them deserve to play. But in the Lightning's 12 forward/six defensemen alignment, which head coach Jon Cooper has used almost exclusively this season after going 11/7 at various times in seasons past, one defenseman has been forced to sit despite being healthy and available to play. On Thursday, it was Coburn. He's sat three times since the Lightning started rotating a defenseman in and out of the lineup. At various times, Dan Girardi, Anton Stralman, Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak have been healthy scratches too.
It's not an easy sell to a player asking him to sit out, especially a veteran like Coburn, who is six games away from playing in his 900th career NHL game. But in the grand scheme, the plan should help the Lightning remain fresh for a potential lengthy playoff run. And showing how a rotation could possibly help the Lightning achieve their ultimate goal of winning a Stanley Cup, well, that is an easy sell to a player.
"It's a good luxury having seven that can play, that should be everyday NHL D-men, but it's hard for those guys to sit out," Lightning assistant coach Derek Lalonde said. "…I think in the big picture, it's worked out well. As a teammate, as a group, it's worked out very well. Coop did an excellent job communicating it."
The problem in the short term, however, is when a defenseman sits out, he might be rusty the next game when he gets back in the lineup.
"What I think you've seen a little bit…guys have sat out and they've gotten out of rhythm a little bit," Lalonde said. "They haven't been as sharp coming off that sit out."
Because of that, the Lightning are going to re-evaluate their defenseman rotation during the bye week, which begins after Saturday's game versus the San Jose Sharks at AMALIE Arena (7 p.m. puck drop), to decide whether it's something they wish to continue doing over the second half of the season.
"With that said, our team defense, we've been committed to that of late and we have been better," Lalonde said. "Even (Thursday) night, obviously a very talented offensive team, a scary forward group, I thought for the most part we didn't give up a ton. It was a pretty good defensive game for us…Defensively, we're happy where we are as a team right now, but there's plenty of room for improvement there."
In his mid-season state of the team interview with local media on December 29, Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois stated he and the coaching staff were still working to identify the best defensive pairs for the team moving forward. The defensive rotation has allowed them to see how different players partner with one another. In recent games, Victor Hedman has played with Dan Girardi and Anton Stralman. Stralman has seen time with Ryan McDonagh and Mikhail Sergachev. McDonagh has paired with Erik Cernak at times, capably guiding the rookie blueliner through his first season in the NHL.
The Lightning want to have a set top six by the time the playoffs come around, Lalonde said. But right now, they're still trying to figure out who those six are. And what combination of those six produces their best three pairs.
Video: McDonagh on the loss to the Maple Leafs
"The luxury now is no matter what our six is, we think it gives us a very good chance to win," he said. "We don't think we lose anything no matter who's in. Now, we're going to get down the stretch to that playoff where the margin of error is razor thin, we will play our best six. Some nights, I don't know if we have an answer on our top six. That's a positive, and I think it speaks for where our D corps is right now."
No matter who's manning the blue line on a given night, the challenge remains the same: Keep the puck out of the net. The Lightning are the NHL's top scoring team but need to be better not allowing goals BriseBois and the coaching staff admit. The Bolts have been better at that of late, but they want to keep improving, especially when they remember how tight games get in the playoffs and how goals are often at a premium the deeper into the postseason a team goes.
"You get through a part of your season, people don't tighten it up as much," Lalonde said. "I think we saw it with the New York Islanders. They're probably structurally playing what you guys have seen in playoff hockey. They're not giving up very much, they're owning the middle of the ice, they're very careful with their game. There's that point that we've got to get to."