On paper, the Tampa Bay Lightning shouldn't see too much of a change in their defensive unit this season.
The Lightning bring back everybody from their playoff top six along with familiar backups in Slater Koekkoek and Jake Dotchin looking for an increased role. Only Andrej Sustr, who wasn't offered a new contract and signed a one-year deal with Anaheim during the offseason, isn't returning.
That continuity should help Tampa Bay improve its 13th-place rank in the National Hockey League for goals against from the 2017-18 regular season. The Lightning under head coach Jon Cooper had made strides each season to improve defensively until two seasons ago. In 2011-12, the season before Cooper arrived, the Lightning ranked dead last in the NHL for goals against at 3.39 per game.
The following season when Cooper was named head coach in late March after the dismissal of Guy Boucher, the Bolts were 26th in the League at 3.06 goals a game.
That ranking has steadily climbed under Cooper. His first full season behind the bench, the Lightning shaved half a goal from its goals against (2.55) and had the League's eighth-best average. The Bolts were only 19th in the NHL the season they advanced to the Stanley Cup Final but continued to drop their goals-against total, posting a 2.51 average.
Video: Anton Stralman on how he spent his offseason
That number fell to 2.41 in 2015-16 (5th in the NHL), the second-lowest goals against in franchise history, but jumped up to 2.73 (16th in NHL) during the non-playoff 2016-17 season.
Despite advancing to the Eastern Conference Final in 2017-18 for the third time in the last four seasons, Tampa Bay was a middle-of-the-road 13th in the NHL for goals against at 2.85.
That's an area where the Lightning will have to improve if they want to get over the proverbial hump and capture the organization's second Stanley Cup after coming oh-so close in recent seasons. The offense was certainly there in 2017-18, the Lightning setting franchise records for total goals (290), home goals (145) and road goals (145) and pacing the NHL for goals per game at 3.54.
Defensively, and tied to that, the penalty kill, the Bolts could use some work, however.
"I think you always can improve," said Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman, who began on-ice preparations for the upcoming season Monday at the Ice Sports Forum. "There's always small things. You look at the PK for one aspect of the game. I think we can do better there. It's not all just the D obviously. It's two forwards out there as well. If you look at all year, 5-on-5 play was pretty good. Our power play was excellent. Our PK was below average, and that's something that will make a big difference for confidence and just kind of going through games without hiccups and kind of keep the momentum a little better."
The good news for the Lightning: Despite icing the same personnel this season, those players should have a firmer grasp on the Bolts system. Dan Girardi joined Tampa Bay as a free agent prior to 2017-18 and will be in his second season with the team. Mikhail Sergachev, who wasn't even a guarantee to make the Lightning out of training camp last season, set franchise records by a rookie defenseman for assists (31) and points (40) and was playing his best hockey during the playoffs according to Tampa Bay general manager Steve Yzerman. He should be much more confident during his second season in the League, although Stralman cautioned against the dreaded sophomore slump.
"With Sergy having such a good year, I found the second year to be a little bit harder," Stralman said. "You have raised expectations, especially having a good year like he did and it's tough to live up there. He's got a tough challenge ahead of him. I'm sure if he keeps his head straight and plays the way he did, I think he'll be fine."
And, of course, the biggest reason for optimism on the blue line heading into 2018-19 is a full season with Ryan McDonagh in the lineup. Despite playing just 14 games with the Lightning in the regular season, McDonagh established himself as one of the Bolts' top defensive blueliners by the playoffs, joining Stralman as the team's shutdown pair. This despite coming off an upper-body injury upon his arrival to Tampa Bay.
Now healthy, acclimated to the Lightning system and a full training camp with the Bolts on the horizon, McDonagh should be able to make even more of an impact on the Bolts' blue line.
Video: Dan Girardi on his offseason training
"Having Mac come in fit to begin the season and already kind of know the system and everything we play, I think that will help too coming in this year into the team and into everything," Stralman said. "We have a good set of D. Like everything else we have to work on it and make sure we stay on top of things."
A full season of McDonagh on the penalty kill should also help that unit rebound from a dismal ranking of 28th in the NHL.
"He's a great PK D-man, blocking shots, sacrificing, doing all those things," Stralman said.
The most glaring change among the defense will come from who's coaching it. The Lightning parted ways with associate coach Rick Bowness, who coached both the D and the penalty kill. The Bolts brought in former player Jeff Halpern as well as former Iowa Wild head coach Derek Lalonde to join the coaching staff this offseason to replace Bowness and Brad Lauer, who was also let go.
"Anytime you get new people in the coaching staff, they bring different experiences, different ways to look at things," Stralman said. "I'm sure they're doing their scouting of all the players and watching a lot of tape and see patterns and habits in players that maybe other coaches didn't, small things that maybe are worth changing or worth thinking about a different way. So I think it's good in that way. At the same time, it's always hard when you have somebody new come in, try to build that relationship with somebody and you lose a guy like Bones that you've been working with for a long time. It's hard too because you build that relationship, you kind of know the day-to-day routine, you know the expectations and there's a two-way street of communication. That's something you have to work on with the new coaches. I look forward to it."