An NHL defenseman must have his head on a swivel, aware of impending danger from all sides or a teammate to pass the puck to in a pinch. The job is difficult enough without playing against special talents, those who can put up 50 goals or 100 points without breaking much of a sweat.
Mike Lundin has matched up against many of those elite players while lining up as the right defenseman most shifts for the Lightning. Left wingers Alex Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk and centers Evgeny Malkin and Sidney Crosby have been in his kitchen a lot this season and Lundin has rarely been burned.
Lundin, who started the season in the minors, has earned his keep this season with his heady, efficient play and his efforts against the top players have stood out. He owns a plus/minus rating of plus-2 against the Capitals, Penguins and the Thrashers (when Kovalchuk was there).
“[Lundin] is very good at gapping up,” Lightning Head Coach Rick Tocchet said. “Usually, with great players you see defensemen back up. You have to really be in their face, before they can get a head of steam. With guys like Ovechkin and Kovalchuk, he’s matching their speed instead of backing up.”
The 6-foot-2, 197-pounder from Burnsville, Minnesota isn’t a physical force, but his speed and aggressiveness have helped him move up the depth chart this season and play in the top pairing with Mattias Ohlund for a long period -- before Ohlund was injured recently.
Anticipation is key for Lundin’s game, and the importance of that knowledge goes up a few notches against the Ovechkins and Kovalchuks.
“For me, it’s just knowing where they are at all times,” said Lundin, who has two goals and four assists in 37 games. “Whether they are in the neutral zone or in their zone I see them circling on the far side. What sets those types of players apart is how quick and easily they find holes, then get to that spot. If you give them time and space, they will make a play or they’re going to beat you.
“If you’re playing 4-on-4, when you get right up on the forwards it makes life a lot easier. A light bulb went on for me one day. Why not do that all the time? It’s worked for me.”
Lundin is a student of the game, always asking veterans for tips on positioning and opponents’ tendencies.
“He’s a tremendous skater, he’s very calm and he reads the ice very well,” Ohlund said. “He’s very easy to play with. He does some things that the normal fan doesn’t see and that shows me he knows the game of hockey very well. Mike is a great young guy and I’m quite sure he has a lot of good years ahead of him.”
Lundin, 25, was a fourth-round pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft and played 160 games for the University of Maine. Lundin helped the Black Bears to the Frozen Four three of his four seasons in Orono, Maine.
After signing with the Lightning, Lundin surprised many by making the team out of camp and playing 81 of 82 games. He contributed six assists and was an impressive plus-3 as a rookie.
“It was good for me mentally, learning to deal with the stresses of this league,” Lundin said. “It’s tough, coming from college and playing with all the expectations. It was a definite learning experience and I grew from that.”
Lundin started the 2008-09 in Tampa, but was sent to Norfolk of the AHL after 25 games.
What looked like a negative, Lundin quickly turned into a positive. He worked on the things in his game that needed to improve and relaxed.
“I had no confidence at the time,” Lundin said. “So I just went down there and started having fun playing hockey again, playing in all situations, wanting the puck on my stick. I wanted the puck the whole game and got that confidence back playing the type of game I need to be successful.”
Lightning forward Brandon Bochenski saw Lundin’s confidence rise in Norfolk last season. Bochenski said one of the things that helped Lundin was the fact that circumstances would likely keep him there the rest of the season. If the Lightning tried to recall Lundin, they would have had to put him through re-entry waivers and probably would have lost him to another team.
“It gave him a chance to not worry about what the big club was doing, just stay there and focus on his game,” Bochenski said. “He worked hard and you can see the difference this year. He’s a lot more confident, stronger, quicker and he already has a good skill set.
“He’s not a physical defenseman. He gets to pucks and he separates the man from the puck. Teams are looking for those big, tall brutes to play defense. That doesn’t always work. You are going to see a lot more guys like Mike in the future.”
Lundin was a restricted free agent in the off season and watched as the Lightning signed Ohlund, Matt Walker, Kurtis Foster and No. 2 overall pick Victor Hedman to add to their defense. They also resigned Lukas Krajicek and brought in David Hale through a trade. Depending on who you asked before camp, Lundin was somewhere between ninth and 11th on the depth chart.
Lightning Executive Vice President and General Manager Brian Lawton said before camp he liked Lundin and wanted to keep him. Lundin signed and went to work, climbing the charts.
“He had a pretty good training camp,” Tocchet said. “But he’s gotten a lot better since then, no question.”
Lundin was recalled for four games in November, one in which he tracked down Kovalchuk to stop a breakaway. He was sent down, but returned the day after Christmas and has not left.
“The summer was tough,” Lundin said. “It didn’t look like I was going to have a chance. I just knew I had to work my way up from the minors and try to keep improving my game while playing well at that level.”