Four months ago it looked like the Tampa Bay Lightning were trying to phase out veteran defenseman Matt Carle. Now he's being asked to play 20 minutes a night as the Lightning try to compensate for the loss of Anton Stralman as the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin.
Carle has averaged more than 21 minutes of ice time since Stralman fractured his left fibula against the New York Islanders on March 25. Stralman is out indefinitely.
Although Carle hasn't been the offensive threat the Lightning expected when they signed him to a six-year, $34.8 million contract in 2012, he has significant playoff experience and will be a key piece in the effort to fill the void left by Stralman.
"Matt's always been a professional," coach Jon Cooper said. "He knows there are going to be times during the season when things aren't going well, and he's gotten through that. There were some things that showed up on the stat sheet that weren't his fault. But he never stopped working hard and now it's paying off for him and this team."
Video: TBL@NJD: Carle pushes lead to four in the 3rd period
After going through a significant stretch of healthy scratches in January and February, Carle got another opportunity to play when Jason Garrison went down with a lower-body injury on Feb. 8. Carle's first four games back in the lineup were rough; he was minus-6 and got benched in the third period of a 4-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks on Feb. 15.
However, Carle has produced better results with an increase in ice time. He had a goal and an assist against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Feb. 20, his first points of the season, and is plus-16 with two goals and seven assists in his past 24 games.
"It's hard to get comfortable when you aren't playing consistently," Carle said. "But the more I'm on the ice, the more I experience things at full speed and understand what I'm capable of doing. It's just about getting into the flow of the game."
When Carle is at the top of his game, he can provide some offense from the blue line. He has two seasons with more than 40 points and three with more than 30 points during his 11-season career.
His playmaking ability on offense will not be as important as his decision making in the defensive end and his ability to help goalie Ben Bishop by blocking shots and keeping the puck out of the Lightning zone.
Carle is likely to be paired with Victor Hedman, if Hedman is healthy; that means he'll spend the lion's share of his ice time against top-line opposition.
Video: TBL@PIT: Carle sneaks one in from point on deflection
He'll also have to contribute on special teams, especially on the Lightning's struggling power play.
Carle is more than happy for the increased role, considering how much his name was tossed around before the NHL Trade Deadline on Feb. 29. Whether GM Steve Yzerman actually made an effort to trade Carle is unknown; instead, the veteran defenseman will have a major role in Tampa Bay's quest to return to the Stanley Cup Final.
"I couldn't think about that stuff because that was out of my hands," Carle said. "I just want to focus on doing my part to help this team win because that's something I can control."