When Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Jan Rutta was recalled from AHL Syracuse March 8, the transaction was viewed as a temporary move to supplement a Bolts blueline beleaguered by injuries to veterans Dan Girardi and Anton Stralman
Fast forward a month later and Rutta remains in the Lightning lineup despite the return of Girardi - Stralman is still out with a lower-body injury -- and will make his Stanley Cup Playoffs debut when the Bolts host the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game 1 of the First Round series between the two teams.
The 28-year-old Rutta played the final 14 games of the regular season for the Lightning and proved himself a steady defenseman that takes care of the puck in his own end and can break the puck out of the zone consistently.
Video: Cooper on Game 1 of The ECQF
"He moves the puck. He plays with poise. He's competed hard," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said during his morning skate press conference at AMALIE Arena. "We've run into some injury troubles, and he's stepped right in. It's one of those kind of sneaky, under-the-radar moves that was made toward the end of the season. We were looking for a right-handed shot defenseman that could give us some depth. Probably didn't anticipate that he'd be starting in Game 1, but here he is, playing in his first NHL playoff game."
Rutta came to the Lightning from the Chicago Blackhawks, where he signed a one-year contract before the 2018-19 season and played 23 games to start the season, notching two goals and four assists. Tampa Bay made a deal with Chicago on January 11 to send Slater Koekkokek and a 2019 Fifth Round NHL Draft pick to the Blackhawks in exchange for Rutta and a 2019 Seventh Round selection. Rutta started his career in the Lightning organization with their AHL affiliate in Syracuse, where he skated 18 games with the Crunch, tallying three goals, five assists and a plus-15 rating.
The move didn't generate much attention at the time. For Lightning fans, it was more about giving up on Koekkkoek, who showed so much promise after bursting onto the scene during the 2016 playoffs and being a major blue line contributor on a team that advanced to the Eastern Conference Final.
But Koekkoek couldn't consolidate that spectacular playoff run into a regular spot in the Lightning lineup over the next couple seasons, and the Lightning opted for the less dynamic offensively but more sound defensively Rutta.
That's he's a right-handed shot and, when partnered with Mikhail Sergachev, allows the Russian to play his preferred left-hand side, also factored into the decision to make the trade.
It was a barely-noticed move at the time, one made over a month before the NHL trade deadline, that's paying dividends right now for the Lightning.
"He's very consistent out there, every shift is very predictable. Can get in the offense but very responsible defensively," Bolts defenseman Dan Girardi said. "He's been, like I said, very reliable back there for us, and that's why he's playing Game 1."
That Rutta could fit seamlessly into the back end and the team didn't miss a beat speaks to how Rutta has adapted since his arrival in Tampa Bay and the admirable job Syracuse Crunch head coach Benoit Groulx and his staff did bringing Rutta up to speed with the Lightning system.
Tampa Bay went 11-3-0 with Rutta in the lineup, the Czech defenseman contributing two assists over that span.
Video: Girardi on Staying Disciplined
"He's a really good player. He knows what he has to do," said fellow defenseman Erik Cernak, who will also be making his Stanley Cup Playoffs debut tonight. "He played a couple of games in Chicago this year, so I think he was ready when he came here and play when we need him. That was great to see, and he's doing a really good job for us right now."
HEDMAN TO START: There was some concern Victor Hedman might not be back in time to play Game 1 of Tampa Bay's First Round series versus Columbus after missing the final four games of the regular season with an upper-body injury.
But Hedman was a full participant in both Monday and Tuesday's practice sessions as the Lightning geared up for their playoff opening, and Cooper declared after Tuesday's practice Hedman would be available for Game 1.
"He's fine, good to go," Cooper said.