Lightning defense needs full-strength Braydon Coburn

Francois Lacasse/NHLI/Getty Images

DETROIT -- When Matt Carle woke up on March 2 and saw text messages from Radko Gudas from the middle of the night, he initially thought the big guy was just putting in a late shift while recovering from an injury.

Then Carle read the messages and became one of the first Tampa Bay Lightning players to find out the news that they’d added one of the biggest pieces at the trade deadline in Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Braydon Coburn.

Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, Coburn’s wife, Nadine, was the first one in the Coburn home to find out about the overnight deal. Up at around 6 a.m. to check on son Blair, she saw her phone was filled with messages from back home in Calgary.

Nadine woke up her sleeping husband with a suggestion.

“You need to take a look at your phone,” she said.

Among the messages on Coburn’s phone were voice mails from Flyers general manager Ron Hextall and Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman.

Hextall was giving Coburn a heads up that a deal could go down. Yzerman was welcoming him to the Lightning. Coburn slept right through both of them.

“Being a dad with two little kids, I was in bed probably around 10 o’clock,” Coburn said, “which was fine by me, because you get the luxury of a good night’s sleep.”

While he was sleeping, his world changed dramatically. He went from a team in Philadelphia spinning its wheels outside of the playoff picture to a Lightning team that has a Stanley Cup window opening this season -- if it can get through Detroit in the first round.

How quickly the Lightning get healthy and up to speed on defense could determine whether that happens.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of mixed emotions,” Coburn said of his initial reaction to the trade. “At the end of the day, I looked at it as a great opportunity for me. A great team, full of great guys. A lot of possibilities here.”

Those possibilities are threatening to disappear before things even really get going. First, Coburn was knocked out of the lineup four games into his Tampa Bay career with a lower-body injury on March 10.

He battled hard to get healthy for the playoffs, where the third-seeded Lightning find themselves in a 2-1 deficit, two games away from elimination. The two teams play Game 4 on Thursday in Detroit, starting at 7 p.m. ET.

“He worked his tail off to get back,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “Now, he’s jumping into a heightened situation, and [Game 1 is] your first game back after six weeks. I don’t care if you’ve been in the league 10 years, that’s still a hard thing to do.”

Injuries are part of life in the playoffs, but the Lightning, if they can manage to extend their season a little longer, can roll out the complete, well-rounded defense Yzerman envisioned when he traded for Coburn.

“We like his size and mobility,” Yzerman said. “And the fact that he can play both sides of the ice. We felt that one of our needs was to get bigger, and you have to be mobile on defense in this league now. We think he improved our team.”

When Coburn first joined the Lightning, he was paired with Jason Garrison, who is closing in on a return to action from his own injury. Garrison practiced Wednesday in Detroit.

Cooper really liked what he saw from that pair, and a defense featuring Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, Garrison, Coburn and Carle would be as good as any in the East. In fact, it’s hard to pick a guy to sit considering that Nikita Nesterov leads the team with three points in the series.

The Lightning just need to get healthy and get their timing together. The problem is that Detroit is threatening to end the Lightning’s season before it gets to that point. That the Lightning are being pushed in this series is no surprise to Yzerman.

“We’re two similar teams,” he said. “We play a similar style. Detroit has a very underrated and excellent defensive corps. They don’t give up a lot. I know we got a lot of shots, but they box out as well as anyone. They block shots, they get in shooting lanes. That’s no surprise. That’s how Mike [Babcock] coaches.”

In the meantime, Coburn continues to get his timing back. He impressed everyone with seven shots on goal in his first game back in the lineup, but his possession numbers are lagging behind his fellow Lightning defensemen. When he’s on the ice at even strength in the playoffs, the Lightning control just 45.8 percent of the shots, a number that’s well behind Hedman (62.5 percent) and Stralman (60.8 percent).

On the flipside, he's tied with Anton Stralman for the team lead among defensemen with nine shots on goal.

"He's probably been our biggest scoring threat on the back end," Cooper said. "He's had some outstanding chances. He makes plays on the back end. He's just a quiet, good defenseman."

An adjustment period was to be expected with Coburn having missed more than a month.

But once he’s going, he brings an element of physicality that was missing from the Lightning top four. He helps finalize that vision Yzerman had when he sent draft picks and Gudas to the Flyers for Coburn.

“He definitely adds a little bit of another dimension to our lineup,” Stralman said. “We don’t have a ton of physical guys on the back end. He’s definitely one of those guys who can step it up there and be tough to play against.”