TAMPA -- When defenseman Anton Stralman signed a five-year contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning on the opening day of NHL free agency last July, he did so with the hopes of becoming a top-pair defenseman.
Nine months later, Stralman has exceeded expectations in many ways. He has played in all 71 games and held the Lightning blue line together when it was dealing with injuries to Victor Hedman, Matthew Carle and recently acquired Braydon Coburn.
It's the opportunity that Stralman, a 28-year-old native of Tibro, Sweden, has embraced. He has remained a steady presence on defense and become a valuable part of the power play. He has matched a career high with 34 points (six goals) and is plus-20 averaging about 22 minutes a game.
"When I came here (from the New York Rangers), I looked at it as a chance to be able to challenge myself a little bit more," Stralman said. "I knew I was going to be asked to play more time on the ice and play in a lot of different situations. The last couple of years I've taken small steps as a player, and this year has been another step. I'm just trying to be better every day and take advantage of the opportunity."
With 11 games remaining, including Friday against the Detroit Red Wings (7:30 p.m. ET; NHLN-US, TVA Sports, SN360, SUN, FS-D), Stralman continues to look for ways to improve his game before the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin.
He isn't vocal but provides leadership through his work ethic. Stralman was one of the last players off the ice at practice Thursday after spending an extra 30 minutes working with goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy and defensemen Mark Barberio and Jason Garrison.
Stralman said he understands that with the playoffs approaching, there's little time for rest. He remembers how close he was to winning the Stanley Cup last season with the Rangers, who lost the Final to the Los Angeles Kings in five games, and is hopeful similar success, with a better ending, is in store for the Lightning.
"The playoffs are obviously what everyone wants to be in," Stralman said. "I had a great run last year, and it was so much fun even though we didn't win. I'm definitely excited about this group. I think with all the talent we have in here, we can do some damage as long as we play our game."
The extra work after practice is important to Stralman, but his experience with the Rangers showed him it was equally important to embrace the moment and enjoy it for what it is.
"I think last year I found that calm in the storm. But just playing all those games and all those Game 7s (two), I learned to just focus on what's in front of you and not get too excited " Stralman said. "Just go out and do your thing and really enjoy it. Just have fun because they are going to be the best hockey games you've ever played. You can't let all that pressure weigh you down."
It's an attitude he's tried to share with his Lightning teammates. Stralman said Tampa Bay is a much different team than the one that was swept by the Montreal Canadiens in the 2014 Eastern Conference First Round.
"I think a lot of the players that were here last year have grown a lot, not just skill-wise but mentally and experience-wise; that's going to help us a lot," Stralman said. "We have a very talented team, but we are going to have to earn it. We can't have a bad start or a bad period like we've been doing in recent games. We're going to have to find our way and follow our system, follow our structure. If we can do that, I know we can win a lot of playoff games."
Lightning coach Jon Cooper said Stralman's calm demeanor hides a fierce competitor who strives hard to be a good leader and teammate. Like many in the Lightning organization, Cooper said Stralman has been everything he was billed to be and more.
He has a shot attempts percentage of 56.69 (shots for his team compared to shots against when he is on the ice 5-on-5). That leads the Lightning and was tied for 15th in the NHL, third among defensemen who have played at least 40 games. On a team that excels in puck possession (the Lightning are second in the League with a SAT% of 53.65), Stralman manages to make them better with a shot attempts percentage relative of 4.5, meaning they're that much better when he is on the ice.
"He's just an outstanding defenseman and he's got the skill set that can really complement any style of play," Cooper said. "He's shown the ability to be a penalty-killer, but he's also a very smart offensive player and very valuable on the power play. And he just plays, 20 minutes every night (21:56), and plays every shift hard."
Stralman has come a long way since being a seventh-round selection (No. 216) by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2005 NHL Draft. He struggled to find his game for two seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets before coming into his own with the Rangers. Now he believes he's ready to play the best hockey of his career and is happy to be doing it in Tampa Bay.
"I think the organization is top-notch," Stralman said. "They take care of the players and they treat you like part of the family. Coming in here from a smaller market like Columbus and then a big market with the mighty Rangers, I wasn't sure [what] this was going to be, but I'm very happy with the organization and [owner Jeff] Vinik. They aim high, and I know for sure they will reach their goals, and I want to be part of that."