There seems to be a hot new trend taking the NHL by storm this offseason.
“DE – FENSE!”
The chant can be heard echoing within the confines of any NHL arena, and as of late, has resonated down to within the walls of many NHL front offices.
Yes, it appears that defensemen are right at the top of many general managers’ wish lists this summer, as a number of clubs look to bolster their blue line in preparation for the upcoming 2012-13 season.
The evidence is everywhere.
Exhibit A: The first round of the 2012 NHL Draft, for the first time in the history of the annual showcase, produced eight defensemen in the top 10 picks. In total, 13 defensemen were selected in the first round, tying the record that was previously set in 1996.
Exhibit B: This summer’s free agents. Among four of the most coveted free agents-to-be (aside from forward Zach Parise) are defensemen Ryan Suter, Jason Garrison, Matt Carle and Justin Schultz, all of who are set to hit the open market on July 1.
For the Lightning, no offseason necessity can be further overstated than that of the need for added strength on the blue line. To put things in perspective, the Bolts allowed the most goals of any team in the league last season, allowing 3.39 goals per game, well above the league-average of 2.66. The team also lacked strong defensive performance on the penalty kill, finishing 26th in the league.
Although a small portion of the blame may be placed on injuries to key players - Eric Brewer, Brett Clark, and Victor Hedman were the only defensemen to play more than 60 games in 2011-12 - it can’t be denied that a hole still needs to be addressed.
Fortunately though, general manager Steve Yzerman and others in the Lightning front office haven’t allowed for this issue to go unrecognized.
For starters, the Lightning contributed to the record-setting number of defensemen taken in the first round of the draft, selecting defenseman Slater Koekkoek with the 10th overall pick. Koekkoek posted impressive numbers in his third season with the OHL’s Peterborough Petes, tallying 18 points in his first 26 games while also demonstrating his shut-down skills in the defensive end. Although sidelined by an injury for a large portion of the season, Yzerman believes Koekkoek was too talented to be overlooked with the 10th pick.
Tuesday's re-signing of defenseman Brendan Mikkelson just a piece of the puzzle to building the Bolts' blue line presence for next season. (Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)
Yzerman then even further asserted his philosophy to develop young players within his own system by extending qualifying offers to defensemen Brendan Mikkelson (signed a one-year deal with the Lightning on Wednesday), Brian Lee, Keith Aulie and Evan Oberg, all of which are under the age of 25.
Yzerman is undoubtedly looking to develop a young defensive core around new goaltender Anders Lindback as well, to ensure the 24-year-old goaltender acquired from Nashville two weeks ago will have plenty of support in front in order to be successful.
Like the young defensemen Yzerman looks to develop, Lindback possesses a large amount of potential.
Ultimately the goal is to provide Lindback with defensemen he can grow and mature with in the coming years, which is where Mikkelson, Lee, Aulie, and Oberg all come into play. It is also possible that the free agency market will play into the Lightning’s offseason blueprint.
With several big-name blueliners set to become available July 1, Yzerman has publicly made it known that he intends to improve the Lightning’s defense, through either free agency or via trade.
Regardless of the way they choose to go about it, the Lightning are making moves, and important ones that are expected to bolster the blue line and usher in a promising brand of Lightning hockey for years to come.