X-Factor: Callahan a game-changer for Lightning

Monday, 04.14.2014 / 12:00 AM
Arpon Basu  - Managing Editor LNH.com

Ryan Callahan could not have joined the Tampa Bay Lightning under worse circumstances.

Embroiled in very public contract negotiations with the New York Rangers for weeks leading up to the NHL Trade Deadline, Callahan and his expiring contract were acquired by Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman in exchange for Martin St. Louis in a swap of team captains on March 5.

Callahan's departure from Manhattan was always seen as a distinct possibility, if not a probability, but the decision by St. Louis to request a trade to New York blindsided the Lightning fan base. It was something completely out of left field.

Gone was St. Louis, a hero from Tampa Bay's run to the Stanley Cup and a player who defied the odds to become a star in the NHL thanks largely to the opportunity afforded him by the franchise from which he orchestrated his own departure.

As soon as Callahan arrived in Tampa Bay, coach Jon Cooper made sure Callahan felt no need to try to replace what St. Louis brought to the team.

"It's tough, but coming in Coop was great with me, saying to continue to play your game, we got you for a reason," Callahan said. "I knew I wasn't going to be able to replace what Marty brought to this organization or this team on and off the ice. I'm just coming in trying to continue to play the way I can. If you don't put that pressure on your shoulders, then you don't worry about it."

Another reason Callahan didn't need to worry about it was because the toolbox he brought with him from New York contained the ingredients Cooper felt his team was missing.

"It's a complete different dynamic," Cooper said. "We lost a top-10 scorer in the League for a guy that probably is not going to finish in the top-10 in scoring, but he makes other guys finish in the top-10 scoring, if that makes sense. He attracts attention; he goes to all those areas that are really hard to go to, something our team's been lacking.

"It all of a sudden turns … I don't want to say we were a perimeter team, but we had a little bit of that quick-attack, perimeter-type style. Now we have another guy that goes in those dirty areas, makes us a little bit harder to play against. That's what he's brought."

That "perimeter-type style" has a tendency not to work in the playoffs, and if Callahan's arrival is what triggered the transformation of the Lightning away from that, his contributions will become that much more amplified now.

Callahan's first game with the Lightning, on March 6, coincided with the return of Steven Stamkos from a broken leg, and Tampa Bay lost 3-1 in regulation at home to the Buffalo Sabres.

They would not lose in 60 minutes again for 24 days.

Two nights later, the Lightning began a streak of collecting at least one point in the standings in 11 straight games, a 7-0-4 run that ended March 30 in a 3-2 regulation loss at the Detroit Red Wings, by which point Tampa Bay's spot in the playoffs had been solidified, though not guaranteed.

Stamkos obviously played a huge role in that streak with nine goals and four assists during the run, but Callahan was no slouch either, with five goals and four assists during the same span while facing the opposition's top forwards on a nightly basis.

It is a role Cooper will ask him to play again in the playoffs, where the games become more of a chess match and coaches attempt to get the upper hand with matchups.

If Stamkos represents Cooper's queen in that chess game, Callahan's two-way abilities certainly make him an extremely valuable rook.

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