On Friday, the Tampa Bay Lightning re-signed defenseman Jan Rutta to a one-year contract worth $1.3 million. Following his January acquisition from the Chicago Blackhawks in a trade for Slater Koekkoek, Rutta began his Lightning tenure with AHL Syracuse.
Once injuries hit the Lightning’s blue line, they recalled Rutta, leading to him playing some important minutes on the back end. When the Bolts traded for him, many considered Rutta a depth piece. A future third-paring type guy who would toil with the Syracuse Crunch for at least the rest of 2018-19. Boy were they wrong.
In all sincerity, Rutta was one of the few bright spots for the Lightning in their extremely disappointing first round defeat. The Columbus Blue Jackets may have taken down the Lightning in four games, but they seldom fooled the 28-year-old Czech native. In the four games the Bolts skated, Rutta not only displayed impressive puck control, skating and calmness for his age and lack of experience, he was also a plus-4 with two assists and three shots.
The most baffling is the plus-four, considering Tampa Bay was outscored 19-8. No, that’s unfortunately not a typo, and neither is Rutta’s rating. To put that in perspective, only three players on the entire Lightning roster were above a goose egg: Rutta, Alex Killorn and Braydon Coburn hit the benchmark, clocking in at plus-two.
I Know the Pieces Fit
There’s absolutely zero doubts about the rich pool of talent the Lightning possess on the back end. Victor Hedman. Mikhail Sergachev. Ryan McDonagh. Erik Cernak. Enough said. The question becomes, with Rutta remaining with a crowded group, not only where does he fit in, but how does the puzzle fit together? When does prospect Cal Foote make the jump?
The 2017 first round pick paced Kelowna blueliners in his final WHL season with 19 goals and 70 points last year, and had three assists in seven games to lead the Canadians to a gold medal at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. Foote followed that up with a 10-goal, 31-point season with Syracuse in 2018-19. He’s clearly a player the Lightning want in game action soon, but family issues held him up at development camp.
Nonetheless, the aforementioned family is a decorated one. His father is former NHL-er Adam Foote. You’d assume the Lightning will do everything in their power to speed up his process, within reason. ““We’re a hockey family through and through with my dad, my mom and my brother,” Foote told NHL.com. “So we’re always talking about hockey and my dad is always there to tell us about his experiences in the NHL and offer advice on what we can do to be the best players we can be.”
So where does Rutta land in the Tampa Bay lineup for 2019-20? He spent the playoffs playing on the third pairing with Coburn, due to a multitude of factors. Injuries played a part, with Hedman missing two playoff games and Anton Stralman missing the entire series. Lightning’s fans hearts were hurt, but Rutta’s confidence wasn’t. As the sky grew dimmer on the Bolts’ hopes, he only got better.
The former Blackhawk seemed to gel very well with Coburn, who had a solid season, yet was strangely a healthy scratch for two playoff games. That could be a good third pairing, with Coburn’s stellar positioning and veteran voice in the locker room. However, if Foote outperforms Rutta in training camp, Tampa general manager Julien Brisebois will have no option but to pull the trigger and keep the youngster on the roster.
Worst Comes to Worst
As far as the prospects of Rutta being a Bolt, or even with the Crunch for that matter, the worst possible thing that can happen for him is if one of the talented young defensemen, like Foote, lights it up. Keep in mind, the Bolts have Cameron Gaunce, Dominik Masin, and Ben Thomas just chomping at the bit in Syracuse.
If one of them earns a roster spot, Rutta would need to clear waivers. Remember the Koekkoek days, Bolts fans?
Knowing all of this, the fact that the Lightning’s defensive game is as stellar in Syracuse as it is in the Sunshine State, what does Brisebois decide?
It’s common knowledge that the Bolts have three pending unrestricted free agents in Dan Girardi, Coburn, and Stralman. Who gets the pink slip? Definitely not Coburn after the series he just had and the development and leadership he displayed this season. Girardi appears to be on the way out. Stralman, talented as he is, is a prime candidate to leave with his injury problems. Regardless of who leaves town, someone simply has to due to the team’s salary cap crunch. In addition, Brisebois may even snap a trade this summer that radically changes the future of the team’s roster. Either way, the Lightning’s blue line is going to have a different look next season, at least on the bottom pairing.
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