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Off-season will have to wait for defenseman Keith Aulie

by Mark Pukalo / Tampa Bay Lightning
The first three years of Keith Aulie’s professional hockey career have provided quite an education.

The 6-foot 6, 217-pound defenseman has had to deal with two trades, playing with three different organizations. Aulie, 22, was beside Dion Phaneuf on the top pair in Toronto a little over a year ago and now he is a key building block for the future of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“When you are playing well in a city, you kind of think that you’re going to be there for a long time,” said Aulie, acquired from the Maple Leafs for power forward Carter Ashton on Feb. 27. “But organizations change and need different position players. It’s amazing how fast things change.

“Right now, I’m just happy to be here and I’m looking forward to the AHL playoffs.”

Aulie will join the Norfolk Admirals, who have won 25 straight games, as they prepare for the postseason. It will be another step toward the standout player he has potential to be.

In 19 games with the Lightning, Aulie had just one assist. But as head coach Guy Boucher said, Aulie isn’t here to dance on one leg and do spin-o-ramas. He’s a shutdown defenseman and he had 78 hits in 36 games between Toronto and Tampa Bay this season.

“Keith has brought something that we didn’t have much of – physicality,” Boucher said. “He’s a guy that can hit and fight. I really liked his gap [control] and as we went on he got better and better defensively. I think he’s shown a lot of good things.

“What he’s going to have to work on is his puck handling and trusting his vision, to hesitate a little less and make the play he needs to make with the puck. But those are all the things that young guys have to work on.”

Aulie played at least 11 minutes the last six games after logging under 11 in eight of his first 13 with the Bolts.

Once nicknamed “Muhammad” Aulie for his prowess with his fists, Aulie pounded Ottawa’s Colin Greening in his third game with the team. He had three hits each in five games and four in the victory over Washington.

“Every game, every practice was a huge help,” Aulie said. “I felt a lot better as time went on. Guy’s teams definitely play a different way than what I am used to.

“Being a young defenseman, you kind of have to learn where to pick your spots – when you can step up, when you should stay back. You just try to be in the right spots and your game will come.”

Aulie grew up in Rouleau, Saskatchewan and participated in volleyball as a youngster, helping his team win a provincial title. Aulie later played for the Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League from 2005-09. The Wheat Kings produced former Lightning Stanley Cup winner and current television analyst Chris Dingman.

The pressure of major junior hockey was nowhere close to what he experienced in December of 2006. His father Bill was clearing snow off a dugout for an outdoor shinny game when his tractor fell through the ice. Aulie was able to pull his father out of the water.

Boucher coached Aulie with Team Canada at the 2009 World Junior Championships in Ottawa, where he was paired with Buffalo’s 6-foot-7 defenseman Tyler Myers. They were nicknamed the Twin Towers as the Canadians won gold with Lightning goaltending prospect Dustin Tokarski in net. Aulie and Tokarski then bested Sweden, led by Victor Hedman, 5-1 in the title game.

Keith Aulie looks on during a break in NHL game action against the Toronto Maple Leafs April 5, 2012 (Photo by Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images)
Aulie, drafted in the fourth round by Calgary in 2007, started his professional career with the Flames’ AHL affiliate in Abbotsford, British Columbia during the 2009-10 season before being traded to Toronto in the Phaneuf deal. He played 40 games for the Maple Leafs last season, scoring two goals and averaging more than 19 minutes.

Aulie did not start this season with the Leafs, but joined them just after Thanksgiving. He played 17 games before being sent down two weeks before the trade deadline. Tampa Bay was in search of a young defenseman and Toronto needed depth among their forward prospects, which made the deal a natural.

“It’s a shock,” Aulie said. “I didn’t expect it at all. People kind of forget that you are a normal person. To lift up and move your whole life is tough. But it’s a testament to how good the guys are here in Tampa. Everybody’s been great.

They’ve welcomed me in and helped me out. It was a pretty smooth transition.”

Boucher is confident Aulie will improve his steadiness. If Aulie can make sharp passes to take pressure off and escape the zone on a consistent basis, his extra-long reach and physical play will be a major asset.

Aulie hopes to add his experience to the backline for Norfolk in a Calder Cup playoff run and continue to move forward in his education, “rounding out” his game in various areas.

“My biggest goal is to come back stronger and faster,” Aulie said. “I’m really looking forward to next season.”

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