As you would expect to hear from any hockey player, one of the ultimate goals is to make it to the NHL. That goal isn't any different for center Nick Tarnasky who found himself on the Tampa Bay Lightning's opening night roster in just his third professional season.
For the energetic Tarnasky, the road to the NHL has been a swift one. After spending only two full seasons in the Western Hockey League, Tarnasky got his first crack at the NHL in his second year as a pro.
While playing for the Lethbridge Hurricanes in his final season of junior hockey, Tarnasky led his team in goals (26), tied for the lead in points (49) and ranked second on his club with seven power play goals. He went on to spend the 2004-05 season playing for the Springfield Falcons of the AHL, where he scored 17 points and amassed 176 penalty minutes in 80 games played.
The physical nature of Tarnasky's game earned him his first call-up to the Lightning during the 2005-06 season. He made his NHL debut in October of 2005 and played 12 games for the Lightning over the course of the year, picking up his first point, an assist, against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Even though he got a taste of the NHL, Tarnasky spent the majority of last season with Springfield where he doubled his goal output from the previous year to 14 and picked up 23 points in 68 games. As he has done every year during his career, Tarnasky finished the season having shown significant improvement.
This year Tarnasky found himself with an opportunity to return to the NHL and that was a chance he wasn't about to pass up.
"Camp was the most important thing for me. I came in good shape and played well, played consistent and showed that I was willing to work hard," Tarnasky said. "I tried to provide something this team didn't have and wrap up a spot for myself."
What Tarnasky brings to any lineup, and what the team was looking for, was a sense of toughness on the third and fourth lines.
Known for being responsible on both ends of the ice, Tarnasky is also regarded as a player who is not afraid to mix things up. Whether it means dropping the gloves to give his team some momentum, or simply laying out for a big hit, Tarnasky can be counted on to play hard on every shift.
"I think I definitely have to be physical and be dependable defensively for my teammates so they trust me," Tarnasky said. "I think I need to start contributing offensively. Obviously we're 10, 11 games into the year now and I should probably be a little more productive up front."
It's natural that being more productive offensively is something Tarnasky has his eye on considering he has improved offensively in each of his past four seasons.
Even so, Tarnasky realizes that scoring goals and putting up points comes with playing hard and adjusting to the level of play found in the NHL.
"It's definitely a much quicker game," Tarnasky said. "You don't have as much time and space with the puck when you get it and you've got to be quick. In the America League you have an extra second with the puck to make a decision, whereas here you've got to be sharp and prepared to make the play."
Being sharp with the puck and getting comfortable with the speed of the NHL is a challenge that Tarnasky has a lot of help with, however.
As the youngest player on the roster Tarnasky realizes he's lucky to be surrounded by the experienced players in the Lightning locker room. The opportunity to learn from those players is one that he doesn't take for granted.
"There are a lot of guys in the room to take things from," Tarnasky said. "I'm not the same type of player as those guys, but they all do something that I think I can adapt to and kind of add to my game somewhere along the way. Maybe it's just the veterans that show how to be a good leader and [the] smart plays to make defensively and whatnot, but it's definitely nice to take a lot of things away from guys like that."
So far Tarnasky seems to be taking his lessons to heart. Though playing limited minutes, he never presents himself as a defensive liability and plays with the kind of effort and grit that will gain him long-term respect.
The effort that Tarnasky puts forth on a nightly basis, as well as the physical aspect he brings to any game, is something that has defined his career and is something the Lightning have been looking to add to their roster. The energy he brings to games is also arguably what has helped Tarnasky progress through hockey's ranks so quickly.
Now that he's reached his goal of making it to the NHL, one can bet that the energy and enthusiasm Tarnasky brings to his game won't drop off any time soon.