Through a roller coaster season in which the Lightning has experienced more lows than highs, Tocchet has watched in almost disbelief as Tampa Bay’s defense has been decimated. One comparison of the team’s media guide to the players on the ice is proof of that.
Gone thanks to injury or other means are defensemen such as Matt Carle, Mike Lundin, Shane O’Brien and most recently Andrej Meszaros and Paul Ranger – both of whom had season-ending shoulder surgery this week. In their place fans find names such as Murphy, Smaby and Krajicek - with less than five years of combined NHL experience to their credit.
And yet, Tocchet remains unabashedly optimistic.
“We have some young guys back there and the trend is going up. That’s good to see,” Tocchet said. “We still have to tighten up, but a lot of them are playing a lot of minutes. The good thing is that guys are improving.”
Maybe Tocchet knows something most others don’t. For every forgetful 5-1 loss to visiting Washington on their last home stand, there are efforts like the one in a 4-3 win against East-leading Boston or a 2-1 loss at playoff-hungry Vancouver.
But maybe more important than final scores, it’s what fans don’t always see that gives Tocchet such hope for the future. It’s a host of newcomers playing more minutes than they’ve played before at the NHL level. It’s a hobbled Cory Murphy prepping himself for an upcoming game despite pain in his knees and ankles from blocking pucks that often makes it difficult for him to walk. It’s even the disgust his players elicit following a disheartening loss despite facing often overwhelming odds against them.
Still, don’t give the Lightning’s defensemen a bit of pity. They neither want, nor expect to receive any - especially from opponents.
“We have good players and there are nights where we get exposed because we don’t play well together and we’re still trying to learn each other’s game,” Matt Smaby said, “but then there are other nights where we put it together and show what we’re capable of.
“Right now, it’s that consistency that we’re looking for. We want to be able to come out every night and play well in front of whoever’s in net.”
Smaby, with all of 14 games of NHL experience prior to the season, and his defense-mates will undoubtedly spend much of the remainder of the season attempting to form some cohesion despite even more changes this week. Wednesday’s trade deadline saw the Lightning send Steve Eminger to Florida in exchange for defenseman Noah Welch and a third-round draft pick. Fellow defenseman Matt Lashoff was also acquired from the Bruins in a trade that sent veteran Mark Recchi to Boston. Eminger, a seven-year NHL veteran, was the most experienced of the Lightning’s ultra-young defense.
I think there’s a lot of great players in this room and they’re going to surprise some people. - Cory Murphy
For Tocchet, the moves that have completely reshuffled Tampa Bay’s defense before and after the trade deadline are opportunities to evaluate talent and possibly find a gem for the future he didn’t know existed before. For Murphy, it’s an opportunity to solidify a spot in the line-up he said he never imagined was possible.
“I know this isn’t how we wanted to get here, but I’ll take it, because this is where you want to be as a player,” Murphy said of his expanded role with the Lightning.
“Everybody knows we haven’t always played well this season, but I think there’s a lot of great players in this room and they’re going to surprise some people. It may not be right now, but they are going to do it.”