To need or not to need is the Lightning question

Published October 2, 2005

After spending the preseason without one, the team has proved it might not need a sixth defenseman after all.

As the preseason dwindles to a final few days, the biggest question of Lightning camp remains unanswered.

Who will be the sixth defenseman?

But with Wednesday's season opener looming and no one taking a stranglehold on the opening, maybe the question should be: Does the Lightning really need a sixth defenseman?

Sure, the Lightning has to have somebody - that is, some body - to fill the spot on the roster and take a few shifts here and there. But does it really have to have a sixth defenseman to play as many minutes as the other five?

Of course not.

"I can see us spreading a lot of minutes around the other five defensemen," Lightning coach John Tortorella said. "It all depends on the game and situations and circumstances."

But Tortorella doesn't feel comfortable turning over major minutes to either 19-year-old Andy Rogers or Timo Helbling, 24. Neither has played in the NHL.

"Right now, I'm still not certain we have a sixth defenseman," Tortorella said. "This coaching staff has some real concerns about playing a 19-year-old on defense. And Helbling never has played in the NHL.

"And I don't mean this as disrespect to them. They have talent. But I'm not sure it's good for their development to be rushed into the lineup. So I want to do what's best for not only the NHL team, but also what is best for these two kids."

The solution is finding a veteran with NHL experience on the waiver wire in the coming days. But as of late Friday night, general manager Jay Feaster did not see any players of interest. That could change in the next 48 hours, but it's becoming more apparent the Lightning might have to go with either Rogers or Helbling, or even keep both.

Whatever the case, it's not a major concern at the moment because it's likely the sixth defenseman probably won't play more than six or seven minutes a game.

But the fewer minutes played by the sixth defenseman means more minutes for the other five: Dan Boyle, Pavel Kubina, Darryl Sydor, Cory Sarich and Nolan Pratt. It might mean more minutes especially for one or two others.

The defensemen most likely to carry a heavier load are Boyle and Kubina. It's not uncommon for many top-two defensemen (think of Edmonton's Chris Pronger or Ottawa's Zdeno Chara) to play up to 30 minutes a game. But is that something Tortorella wants for his defensemen over a long season? Especially because the Lightning has little depth on defense?

"I don't even think about ice time," Tortorella said. "With the way we condition, it should not be a problem. ... And I don't think I've ever heard of a player complaining about too much ice time."

That's true.

"I won't complain. None of us will," Boyle said. "It depends on the game. Some nights, you have an off night and maybe you shouldn't be out there as much. But most nights, all of us would love to be out there. If you're having a good night, you should throw the guy out there as much as possible."

Even if it means 30 minutes.

"I've played low 30s before and I've felt fine," Boyle said. "You have to be smart with what you do off the ice to be able to prepare to play that much. But it shouldn't be a problem for any of us to play a lot."

The Lightning hopes so because, as of now, that appears to be the answer to the Lightning's biggest preseason question.