Defense is now a position of depth for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
After a season filled with an inordinate amount of injuries, there are currently 10 defensemen on the roster with at least 50 games of NHL experience along with 2009 No. 2 overall pick Victor Hedman
Not only are the Lightning equipped for the rigors of the long season and have assets to move if needed, it will allow their younger players to continue to develop at a more reasonable pace.
Both Ty Wishart and Kevin Quick, in their first full pro seasons, were needed in the NHL for a handful of games last season, ahead of schedule, and acclimated themselves well.
The taste of the big leagues was good for them. Quick played six games and Wishart five. Both played better in Norfolk of the American Hockey League after returning from Tampa and showed their progress and promise at the Lightning’s Young Guns prospects camp recently.
The Lightning brass is excited about their future and both players are willing to be patient.
“They signed a lot of good defensemen,” said Quick, a third-round pick in 2006. “You can’t complain about that. If you want a spot, you really have to battle.
“I’m definitely expecting a year in Norfolk and hopefully I can put up a lot of points and get on a roll going into  training camp.”
Wishart was a first-round pick in 2006, 16th overall, before being acquired from San Jose in a trade last summer.
“We’re still fighting for spots,” Wishart said. “If I have to go to Norfolk, I’m just going to go down there and work hard to have a great season.”
Wishart, 21, came into last season with just five AHL games (with Worcester) under his belt, but Norfolk GM Mike Butters said he played very well at the Traverse City rookie tournament before training camp.
The 6-foot-4, 205-pound defenseman from Comox, British Columbia admits he played too timid early on in Norfolk, not jumping into the play as much as he was used to in juniors with Prince George or Moose Jaw of the Western Hockey League.
“The elevated speed and strength of the pro game took its toll on his confidence the first 20-25 games,” Butters said. “He started to pick it up, especially near the end of the season playing with Mike Lundin.
“With Wish, it’s baby steps. He’s made little progressive strides. He’s got to get stronger and that’s going to come with time. It takes a little longer for the bigger guys to get their feet under them. It’s going to take him time, but I know he’s committed to being an NHL player.”
Wishart said his confidence rose as the season went on, especially after Christmas. The first thing you notice about Wishart is his calmness on the ice, something that can’t be taught. After a tough first game against Carolina, he even showed that for the Lightning.
“It was a lot of fun and a good learning experience for me,” Wishart said of his games in the NHL. “When you’re getting more games like that and you see the level of play you get used to it. Things start to open up for you.”
Wishart, who had one assist with the Lightning, had a goal and six assists in 61 games for Norfolk. He also had an impressive plus-5 rating. Wishart is confident he can improve those numbers.
“Last year kind of reminded me of my first year in juniors when I was 16,” Wishart said. “I had eight points that season and the next I jumped up to 30. Hopefully, I can do the same this season.”
Wishart looked comfortable and under control at Young Guns Camp, showing his versatility. He has to get stronger and improve his foot speed. He knows that.
Butters said he is looking forward to seeing his progress this season.
“We got a kid at the start of last season,” Butters said. “Now we’ve got a young man that looks you in the eye, shakes your hand and wants to get better every day.”
Quick, 21, was able to play 18 games for Norfolk in 2007-08 and started last season by playing 18 games for Augusta of the ECHL.
When Augusta folded, Quick was reassigned to Norfolk and soon he was playing his first NHL game in January.
“He got an excellent opportunity last year,” Butters said. “It can go either way with young players. When they come back down there’s a letdown period. Kevin never had that. He worked right through it.”
Quick opened some eyes with his play in Tampa, pushing his way up the depth chart. He did not show any jitters, eagerly jumping into the play and using his top-end speed. He had an assist and an even plus/minus rating for Tampa Bay.
In a strange way, Quick felt more comfortable in the NHL.
“I think it was easier to play up here with better players,” Quick said. “All you have to do is make a good first pass and life’s easy, especially when you are playing with guys like Vinny [Lecavalier] and Marty [St. Louis]. In the minors, the first guy in on the fore check is trying to kill you to make an impression. In the NHL, you get hit, but guys are not going to go out of their way and get out of position, because one mistake and it’s a goal against.”
Quick came to Young Guns Camp wanting to work on something new. Listed at 6-0, 175-pounds before the season, he said he has gained 20 pounds and is learning how to explode more on his skates with the added bulk.
“I still feel fast,” Quick said. “But I want to be faster.”
Speed is his game. He can be a puck mover, an offensive threat.
Still, Quick started slow offensively last season. He did not get his first point until January 29 and his first goal until April.
“After Christmas break, I was thinking about it too much,” Quick said. “I kept seeing that big goose egg up there and really wanted to get something. Then I got four points in one game [February 20 against Binghamton, tying a franchise record]. It’s all mental and I admit it got to me last year.”
Quick finished with a goal and eight assists in 49 games for Norfolk. He knows that can improve.
Butters said Quick has added weight in the right places and expects him to play a lot of minutes in Norfolk, in all situations.
“He’s confident with the puck and carries himself well,” Butters said. “We’d like to see more production. Last year was a developmental year. We want him to have the freedom to rush the puck and join the play, do the things that he’s got to do. He will see power-play time. How much is up to him. Kevin’s fast enough where he makes up for his lack of size and that’s going to be his game.”