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Anton Stralman overcomes odds to star for the Bolts on the blueline

by Samantha Ouimette / Tampa Bay Lightning

The odds are stacked against any hockey player who dreams of playing in the NHL. But poor odds have never fazed Anton Stralman.

According to a recent study by St. Lawrence University, the probability of a seventh-round draft pick playing in at least one NHL game is 21 percent; the probability of a defenseman picked in the seventh round playing in more than 200 NHL games is 8 percent. Stralman is then an anomaly, a seventh-round pick in the 2005 Entry Draft that has skated in over 400 NHL games in his career.

But the defenseman has done more than simply make it to the NHL. Stralman has made himself known as a versatile talent within the league, able to play the part of a stay-at-home defenseman as well as serve as a threat on the power play. The seamless transition he makes between the two roles appears to be done easily, but Stralman is the first to say that it was not always this way.

Growing up in a small town in Sweden, Stralman spent much of his free time playing sports. A self-professed “sports nerd”, he participated in a wide range of activities such as tennis, soccer, and ice hockey. One of the biggest encouragements Stralman had in focusing on hockey was his brother, who is sixteen years his senior; watching him play for the hometown team gave the young athlete a goal to work towards.

“I guess I was pretty talented in all those three sports, but hockey is probably the one thing that if you look at my family tree, it’s always been there. My grandfather was involved, my dad played, and my brothers played as well,” Stralman said. “I think hockey was always number one in my head, even though I was maybe equally as talented in soccer. I just felt that hockey was the way I wanted to go.”

At the age of 14, Stralman quit soccer and completely turned his focus to hockey, and at 16 he began playing junior hockey in the town which he attended high school. After a year, he signed a two-year contract with the city’s senior team in a semi-professional league, and the defenseman describes his stint there as some of the best times he’s had playing hockey because of the development he was able to see within himself in such a short time.

By the second year of his contract, Stralman’s team was playing at the second-highest level in Sweden, and his individual play was good enough to draw looks from the Swedish Elite League.

Presented with the opportunity to play at the highest level of professional hockey in Sweden, Stralman signed with Timrå IK.

It was during his time there that he realized he might have a shot at the NHL.

“My first year playing professionally with Timrå was pretty challenging but I thought it worked out well in the end; my second year I took another step, and that was the first time I really thought that I really had a shot at coming over here,” Stralman said. “I was close, I knew I had a talent for it, it was just a matter of getting the good breaks and taking every chance I got.”

Stralman was the 216th pick in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, selected by the Toronto Maple Leafs with their second-to-last pick. His first reaction to being drafted was excitement, noting Toronto’s history and role model Mats Sundin playing for the team made him realize what an opportunity this was for him. But that excitement would turn to disillusion when the defenseman arrived in the NHL.

Admittedly unaccustomed to the business aspect of professional leagues in North America, Stralman says the biggest awakening he had was when he was sent down to the minors for the first time with Toronto. No one had prepared him for such an event, and when it happened Stralman notes that he had no idea what to expect.

The defenseman would continue to struggle with the Leafs before being traded twice in two months, first to Calgary and then to Columbus, where he would battle injuries and illness for two seasons before becoming a free agent and eventually signing with the New York Rangers.

Figuring that it was his last chance in the NHL, Stralman embraced the opportunity given to him by the Rangers, and would turn his three seasons there into the best of his NHL career. Though his game was never flashy, the defenseman played a key part in New York’s deep playoff run last season, and Lightning coach Jon Cooper notes that Stralman’s skill set allowed him to excel in whatever situations the Rangers placed him in.

“I think he’s got a skill set that kind of compliments all parts of the game. He’s been used in different areas by different teams; the last year is really the one that we remember him coming into his own,” Cooper said. “He was used in that way because they had Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, Staal; Stralman fit in that roll of no power play time, big penalty killer, playing defensive against the top lines. The team used him to their strengths and used him in the ways that they needed, and clearly it worked because they made it to the Stanley Cup Final.”

Now with the Lightning, Stralman has been given the opportunity to show off the offensive prowess that may have been stifled while playing elsewhere. The defenseman has already exceeded his goal total with New York last season, and is tied for second in the league in plus/minus with a plus-14 rating on the season. His ability to see the ice, play both ends, and jump into holes have prompted Cooper to give him time on the team’s top power play unit.

Stralman’s excellent two-way game and experience within the league have prompted many to expect that he’d act as a sort of mentor to a young Victor Hedman. However, Stralman notes that Victor’s level of talent has meant that not much teaching needs to be done; the relationship between the two is mutually beneficial, with them feeding off of each other to be better players on the ice.

“I think both of us can benefit from each other. I think that’s the way I’m looking at it. If we can build up a good chemistry and really get to know each other, I think both of us can evolve into better players,” Stralman said. “That’s my goal, and I’m pretty sure that we’ll be able to do that if we just get it right and work hard at it. He’s a huge part of this team, and I’ll do everything I can to help him become a better player. And hopefully along the way I’ll become a better player as well.”

The development of chemistry between the pair of Swedish defenseman has been stalled for the moment, as Victor Hedman recovers from a fractured finger. But a spark was apparent in the first five games of the season, during which time Hedman put up three goals and four assists while paired with Stralman.

Referring to them as the Lightning’s “Topflight defenseman”, Cooper remarked that he has no doubt that the pairing will be an unyielding force against other team’s top lines. A big part of that force will be Stralman’s ability to focus on every aspect of the game, and his ability to always put himself in the right position.

“The one thing he oozes is poise,” Cooper said. “Excellent stick position, excellent puck possession, excellent first pass. You add those up, and you’ve got a hell of a defenseman. I truly believe that Anton Stralman may not win the Norris Trophy, but I’m fairly convinced that his partners will. That’s how much he compliments these top-end players. I think he’s a top-end player, but he does it with no fanfare. He makes his partners look good, and he makes his coaches look good.”

For now, the thing that Stralman is embracing the most is stability. After spending years not knowing where he might go next, Tampa Bay’s offer of a five-year contract came at the perfect time. With a wife and four children, Stralman says that his ultimate goal heading into free agency last summer was to find somewhere to settle down. With the Lightning, he finally feels like he’s been able to settle into a community and become invested in it; that investment has extended to the organization and the team.

Reflecting on how he beat the odds, Stralman isn’t quite sure how it all worked out. What he is sure of is that he’s had to work for it all, re-inventing himself and adapting to the different teams and situations he’s been put in over the years. Taking the good with the bad, Stralman notes that the path to playing in the world’s most elite hockey league hasn’t been easy. But, he says, it’s certainly been worth it.

“I decided that I probably had to re-invent myself as a player, more towards the defensive side, and when I figured that out I hoped I could draw from the defensive part that’s always been a part of me. That’s still my goal. I still think that I can do better and that’s what I’m working towards. It’s been quite a trip; it’s been a lot of hard work and not always fun, I’ll tell you that much. But it’s been a journey that I wouldn’t change for anything either.”

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