The learning curve of Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Keith Aulie hinges on a technicality, in that many ways it resembles more of a straight line.
Yet, one that continuously extends in an upward direction towards success, seemingly with no immediate ceiling in place to limit neither his potential nor the opportunity to gain additional knowledge.
In a way, that visual representation pays close semblance to Aulie’s season, which too has yet to come to an end.
Currently, the 6-foot-6, 217-pound defenseman from Rouleau, Saskatchewan is headed for his first-ever trip to the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup Finals as a member of the Norfolk Admirals, his fourth club in the past eight months. Thus far, he has recorded a goal and three points in 14 postseason games for the Admirals, and also had a plus-five rating.
These are the footnotes in the tale of Tampa Bay’s tall traveler, for if Aulie, 22, is too young to be considered a journeyman, the story of how he arrived in Norfolk certainly seems to suggest otherwise.
Aulie began the season with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, the top minor-league affiliate of the Toronto Maple Leafs, before receiving the call to the big club and appearing in 17 games this past season with the team at the NHL level. From there, he would go on to one more stint with the Marlies before being acquired by Tampa Bay in a Feb. 27 trade that sent forward prospect Carter Ashton north of the border.
After finishing out the final six weeks of the regular season with the Lightning, Aulie was reassigned to the Admirals to not only assist in the team’s playoff run that was to begin timely in part with his arrival, but to further accelerate his development by exposing him to as much game experience as possible.
“It’s been a whirlwind since the start of the year for me, but I look at it as just another opportunity to get better and to learn different systems than what I’ve been used to,” Aulie said. “To have all these different experiences, and to play under a lot of different coaches and in different situations is only going to benefit me in the future.”
Call it the education of Keith Aulie, who since October, has gone from playing on the Maple Leafs’ top defensive pairing alongside NHL All-Star defenseman Dion Phaneuf to often dressing as a seventh defenseman in Tampa Bay, only to return as a key component in one of the top defensive pairs in Norfolk.
While the transition from team to team, city to city, and defensive partner to defensive partner has seemingly gone without a hitch, Aulie nonetheless remains a work in progress. Although he possesses much-desired qualities such as a big body, the willingness to be physical, an extra-long reach with his stick, and hits as well as blocks shots, there are areas the team would like to see improve.
In 19 games with the Lightning, Aulie recorded just one assist, but he isn’t on the ice to showcase a nifty toe drag move or even perform a cheeky spin-o-rama. Rather, he is called upon to be a shutdown defenseman, but needs to better with his stick handling skills, as well as his poise with the puck within his own defensive zone.
It is perhaps a hard lesson to absorb for a young kid with a bright future, but nonetheless one that will prove beneficial in his development.
“Playing at the pace of the NHL goes a long way,” Aulie added. “I feel like no matter how many games you play at that level, just to get in there and see how fast it is and to see how you improve each day by reacting faster and playing against some of the world’s top players certainly helps you.”
For defensemen, the 300-game plateau is often considered by pundits to be the magic number at which they begin to round out their game, so the more minutes he receives in ice time, the better off he is expected to be.
“It takes time for big guys and big bodies like Keith, but he has the potential to be a solid defensive defenseman,” Lightning assistant coach Dan LaCroix told The Tampa Tribune earlier this season. “He's a guy that can kill penalties, that seems to be a good team player, brings a strong and physical element to the table. And guys that are that size and can play a regular shift in this league are few and far between. So, he has a lot of time and growth ahead of him.”
The Lightning acquired Aulie from the Maple Leafs organization in a Feb. 27 trade for Carter Ashton. (Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)
Also helping in his quest is his familiarity with Lightning head coach Guy Boucher, who coached Aulie and Team Canada to a gold medal at the 2009 World Junior Championships in Ottawa, where he was paired with Buffalo Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers.
Now, three years later, Aulie can only hope his journey from the past will pay off for what he hopes will become a successful NHL career in the near future.
“Being in Toronto and learning that system, and then to Tampa Bay and seeing coach Boucher’s system, and now in Norfolk trying to adapt to Coop’s [Admirals’ head coach Jon Cooper] has been fun to jump in to,” Aulie said. “All of them are a lot different, so it’s challenging, but you do get to see a bunch of different things, and you have to keep an open mind and remind yourself that it’s all for your own benefit, and so far it’s been great.”