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Return to Final validates worth of Lightning's Stralman

by Corey Masisak

TAMPA -- A year ago, Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman was three wins shy of winning the Stanley Cup but also faced a summer of uncertainty as an unrestricted free agent.

The pain of losing in the Stanley Cup Final was compounded when his agent and the New York Rangers were unable to work out a new contract.

"At that time, I was very disappointed I didn't get a chance to stay. Honestly, that's all I wanted to do," Stralman said.

The disappointment didn't last very long. Stralman signed a five-year, $22.5 million contract with the Lightning hours after the free agency period opened July 1, and it has proven to be a perfect match.

Stralman is no longer one of the most underrated players in the NHL. He's a top-pairing defenseman and back in the Stanley Cup Final, helping the Lightning defeat the Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final in the process.

The Chicago Blackhawks lead the best-of-7 series 1-0 after a 2-1 victory in Game 1. Game 2 is at Amalie Arena on Saturday (7:15 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).

"Yeah, it did work out," Stralman said. "I feel very fortunate to be back. You don't get a lot of chances at the Final. This is definitely, with the outcome last time, you feel like you want to take this chance and really go for it. I think we have a great team and we've showed the potential we have. I think we can really do some damage."

Stralman's surge from being a tryout player at New Jersey Devils training camp in 2011-12 has been swift. He eventually signed a three-year contract with the Rangers and moved up their depth chart. Coach Alain Vigneault gave him tougher assignments and more ice time, and he continued to excel.

Last season, he was arguably New York's best defenseman during the playoffs, but the Rangers had Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi on long-term contracts and wanted to lock up Stralman's partner, Marc Staal.

That's where the Lightning came in.

"I had the opportunity to come down here and it couldn't have turned out better," Stralman said. "When I had the chance and saw that Tampa had interest, I felt very fortunate. This is a great young team that has been built well from the ground out. At the time, I thought it was a team that was definitely going to keep growing and maybe wasn't ready yet, but just the steps we took this year, and took them pretty quickly, exceeded all of my expectations."

Stralman set NHL career highs in goals (nine) and points (39) in 2014-15, but his value has been about far more than those statistics. In each of his final two seasons with the Rangers, Stralman was one of their best possession players and his strong work at helping his team keep the puck has continued in Tampa Bay.

When Stralman was on the ice at even strength, the Lightning had 55.9 percent of the shot attempts (SAT%), the third consecutive season for him with an SAT% of at least that much.

That made him an analytics darling with the Rangers, but his strong play in the 2014 playoffs and work with the Lightning has made him one of the best No. 2 defensemen in the League.

"I was very unaware of it at first," Stralman said of his high regard in the stats community. "I still can't tell you what it means or how they do it or how they'll calculate it or anything like that. I'm definitely more aware of it now. It is definitely nice to see that there are some stats I'm actually doing pretty well in. It is fun. I've definitely enjoyed it. It's always fun to be high up in anything, so it's been an interesting couple of years because I had no idea they were tracking that stuff, and then all of a sudden I was an underrated player and I've kind of gone from there."

Stralman's response when asked about advanced statistics is not uncommon. Many players have said they're not entirely sure how things like SAT% are calculated, but he does have a pretty good handle on why they are important.

"You're pretty vulnerable as a defenseman. You have the puck in a lot of situations that you can do a lot of trouble if you don't do it right," Stralman said. "That's what people see, and obviously they see all the talented defensemen who score the goals and all the stats that get all the attention and all the big hitters. That has always been my mindset, to try do everything as well as I can, but it doesn't have to be flashy. It just has to be the right play. Sometimes those are the easy plays and sometimes they are hard, but regardless, it is about being consistent and doing your job more than anything else.

"I think the stats that are coming out with now show that in a good way somehow. To give a little more credit to players who do all the right things but don't necessarily get seen for it. It is a fast sport. It is hard if you're not looking at the game a certain way and analyzing each player, it is hard to see those players from a fan's perspective."

This season, Stralman has been paired with fellow Swede Victor Hedman, who has become one of the best defensemen in the game. Hedman and Stralman have become coach Jon Cooper's go-to pairing and are going to see a lot of Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, like they did in Game 1.

Playing with Hedman has raised Stralman's profile. He averaged nearly 22 minutes per game this season after never playing more than 20:29 per game in his career. When Hedman was injured earlier this season, Stralman assumed all of the responsibilities of a typical No. 1 defenseman.

"If I knew what made him so good, I'd use that and hopefully I'd be that good," Lightning defenseman Jason Garrison said. "I think he's just very level-headed on the ice. He's cool, calm, collected. He skates tremendously well. He can escape from any kind of trouble that we might get into. He really has everything going for him. It's easy to see when you watch him how calm he is on the ice. He makes the easy plays, but at the same time, he can create. He has great hands and he can shift around on the blue line and get pucks on net. He's been very, very steady this whole year. It's fun to watch."

Another veteran defenseman on the Lightning had a similar assessment.

"I watched him in the playoffs a lot last year, but he's not the type of guy that people really watch when they are watching the game," Matthew Carle said. "He flies under the radar a bit. I saw it as early as training camp just how good he really can be. He has a ton of poise. He never really panics with the puck. Any time it looks like he is in trouble, he seems to be able to get out of it. He isn't flashy, but never, ever makes mistakes. As a defenseman, that's what you'd love to be known for. You don't really want to be noticed out there. He's been a huge part of our team this year."

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