Back in the summer, I wrote a piece about what I was hearing from fans at various Lightning functions. Many of the fans seemed exasperated as they attempted to determine which defensemen would start the season on the big club. “What’s going on with all the defensemen?” was a common question. Not including those players with only a few games of NHL experience, the Lightning entered camp with 11 blueliners.
At the time, I wrote that this depth on defense was a good thing. Last year, primarily due to injuries, the Lightning dressed a league-record 22 different defensemen. One never knows how many players will be pressed into duty because of the injury bug. Plus, the competition for spots – and ice time – is always an excellent motivator.
The Lightning began the regular season with nine defensemen on the roster. That’s a bit unusual, since it meant that the team was carrying no extra forwards. Head Coach Rick Tocchet has said that it’s probably not an ideal situation, since he’s not inclined to use a regular rotation. That would mean that one or more of the extras might be sitting out for quite some time. The odd guy out so far has been Matt Smaby, who has yet to play an NHL game this year (he did see action in Norfolk on a conditioning stint).
But the depth has been useful. In particular, David Hale has emerged as a key addition to the lineup. Acquired from Phoenix with Todd Fedoruk in the Radim Vrbata deal, Hale entered the preseason fighting for a roster spot. But now that Paul Ranger is on personal leave, Hale has gotten an opportunity to play and he’s made the most of it. He’s played a hard-nosed, physical brand of hockey and has earned a regular spot in the starting six. Over the last couple of weeks, Hale has averaged more than 18 minutes a game and he’s drawn a regular shift on the penalty kill. Most importantly, Hale competes hard and has consistently won puck battles. In other words, he’s not an easy player for the opposition to face.
We’re only 13 games into the season. There will be injuries and having the extra bodies will continue to come in handy. Smaby will get his chance. So too might Matt Lashoff and Mike Lundin, who were last two cuts on defense and have been logging big minutes for Norfolk. Stay tuned.
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