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Best Foote Forward: The Importance of Cal Foote's 2021-22 Defensive Partner

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By Michael Wax

Cal Foote is back! After a summer surgery to repair a ruptured tendon in his pinky finger, Cal Foote will be making his return to the Lightning lineup this week. The sophomore was in and out of the lineup during his rookie season, playing his last game on April 21 before being the extra defenseman for the rest of the regular season and the entirety of the playoffs. Overall, the second generation NHLer was solid in his first season, playing in 35 of a possible 56 games and providing a solid defensive game.

Lightning GM Julien BriseBois was very complimentary of Foote during the 2020-21 midseason check-in, especially the strides that Foote has made in his foot speed and strength, but said "there's still untapped potential on both fronts... but I like how I can see his confidence grow from game to game." To follow up on his solid rookie season, Foote will need to take another step forward. But a question remains: Who should his partner be?

For this question, there are two options: Victor Hedman and Mikhail Sergachev. As good of a mentor as I think Ryan McDonagh can be for Foote, the McDonagh-Cernak pairing has solidified themselves as the best pair on the Bolts. If it works, don't mess with it. Let's start with the potential Hedman-Foote pairing.

Foote being paired with a fully healthy Victor Hedman is probably what the Lightning brass have envisioned for years, ever since they drafted Foote 14th overall in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. Foote is a very technical player, much like Hedman, and has a lot of similarities to the young Noris trophy winner. One example of this is both Hedman and Foote were not offensively minded at the start of their careers. Another is that Hedman and Foote spent a lot of time in the penalty box, which is something that is still an issue for the Lightning today. Hedman has gotten better since his younger years, and Foote could learn a lot from one of the best defensemen in the NHL. The one issue that keeps this from being a slam dunk is that playing with Hedman might be too much of a good thing for Foote's development. Since Hedman partnered with prime Anton Stralman back in 2016-17, Hedman has had a multitude of defensive partners and has spent much of his time making up for their mistakes. Since 2017-18, Hedman has played extended minutes with Anton Stralman, Jake Dotchin, Dan Girardi, Jan Rutta, Zach Bogosian, Mikhail Sergachev, and Kevin Shattenkirk. In many cases, because Hedman makes up for most of his partners' mistakes, which would indicate these players never learned from their mistakes. If Foote is going to get better, he needs to both make mistakes and learn from said mistakes, and that won't happen if Hedman is his partner. Could Foote be a permanent partner for Hedman in the future? Sure. But that just doesn't seem to be the ideal scenario for Foote's development.

Shifting over to a possible Sergachev-Foote pairing, this seems to be the path that the Lightning might want to take with Foote's development. Sergachev has struggled this season, but a steady presence like Foote in the other corner could be a massive boost to Sergachev and his willingness to take risks. Even though Sergachev is only 7 months older than Foote, he can be a good mentor due to the amount of experience he has accumulated so far in his career. Sergachev and Foote have played together before, including during this Blue Jackets-Lightning in April. After a questionable hit from Stefan Matteau to Sergachev, Foote was the first to the scene and took exception to the contact. Foote's toughness was another big question when he was drafted by the Lightning, but plays like these show that he is willing to grow, and has immense respect for his teammates.

Sergachev was even the primary helper on Foote's first NHL goal.

Regardless of who actually becomes Foote's partner this season, it'll be great to see him back on the ice, and hopefully his play gets better as the season goes on.

Let us know what you'd like to see out of Cal Foote this season, and who his defense partner should be, in the comments below.

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