NEW YORK -- Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper thinks of Anton Stralman in the same way he thinks of elite defenseman in the NHL.
"This guy is a stud," Cooper said Monday. "He's a quiet stud. I had no idea how good he was."
Stralman almost wasn't any of that. He almost wasn't anything in the NHL but a castoff whose body betrayed him at too young of an age.
The asthma Stralman discovered he had as a kid in Sweden began to deteriorate his lungs through infections he once thought would be impossible to diagnose and cure.
Defense - TBL
GOALS: 2 | ASST: 11 | PTS: 13
SOG: 41 | +/-: 17
That was until Stralman got the opportunity to play in New York three years ago. He signed with the New York Rangers
on Nov. 3, 2011. A few weeks later he discovered a way not only to save his NHL career, but potentially his life.
"It did, definitely," Stralman said.
Had Stralman not signed with the Rangers he wouldn't have had the club's bevy of medical contacts at his disposal. That was important because Stralman needed a medical professional to diagnose why he was so susceptible to pulmonary infections, issues that derailed him in the 2010-11 season when he was with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Stralman said he typically would have six or seven pulmonary infections per year because of his asthma, but he counted at least 20 during the 2010-11 season, when he was limited to 51 games.
He said he spent the summer of 2011 recycling through infections every two or three weeks. He didn't re-sign with Columbus and the best he could get in the NHL was a professional tryout contract with the New Jersey Devils for training camp prior to the 2011-12 season.
"In Columbus we didn't find an answer for it," Stralman said. "I knew I had what it took to make it in the League and I just wanted another shot at it, and hopefully along the way everything would sort itself out."
The tryout with the Devils didn't yield a contract, but the Rangers showed interest because of their weakened defensive depth at the time that included Jeff Woywitka, Steve Eminger and Stu Bickel.
Stralman arrived in New York with a 103.5-degree fever. He thought there was no chance he was going to make it. He called home. He was crushed.
"I called home to my wife and said, 'This is not going to work,'" he said. "I just signed, just came into New York, came into the hotel and buried myself under the blankets and fed myself some Tylenol and Advil. I was really upset and frustrated.
"Luckily the Rangers have a lot of good contacts and there are tremendous doctors in the town."
Stralman found Dr. Emily Dimango at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. Dimango is a board-certified pulmonologist.
Dr. Dimango diagnosed Stralman with bronchiectasis, a condition that features scar tissue in the airways that prevents the person affected from clearing mucus. If someone can't clear mucus from their airways, they in turn can't clear dust and other bacterial particles that build up.
According to the American Lung Association, bronchiectasis can lead to repeated lung infections that over time can prevent oxygen from reaching vital organs, leading to respiratory failure, heart failure and collapsed lungs. It also says with proper treatment people can lead normal lives.
Dr. Dimango had Stralman start a course of treatment tailored for people with cystic fibrosis. It featured a dosage of antibiotics three times per week. Stralman doesn't have cystic fibrosis, but the treatment has staved off his infections.
He's been infection-free since and continues his treatment today.
"Ever since I started that treatment I haven't had any infections from germs," Stralman said. "I can't control viruses like the common flu, but it won't jump into pneumonias and stuff like that."
As a result Stralman has blossomed into a player who became a top-four defenseman with the Rangers and now a top-pair defenseman alongside Victor Hedman with the Lightning.
Stralman signed a five-year, $22.5 million contract with the Lightning on July 1. Cooper repeatedly has said Stralman is a better player than he thought he was the day Tampa Bay signed him.
"He may never win the Norris Trophy, but his partner probably will," Cooper said. "That's what he does for a guy."
Stralman has missed one game since the start of the 2012-13 season, and that was because of a minor hand injury. He played in 52 of New York's final 58 games in the 2011-12 season; he missed those six games only because he was a healthy scratch.
Heading into the Lightning's game at the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), Stralman leads the Lightning in ice time at 22:49 per game. He has 13 points, already tied for how many he had in 81 games with the Rangers last season.
Stralman flawlessly took over while Hedman missed 18 games because of a broken finger; he returned Saturday against the Ottawa Senators. With Hedman back, he and Stralman have rediscovered the chemistry that was so evident in training camp.
Stralman played 23:50 and was a plus-3 Monday in a 6-3 win against the Rangers; Hedman played a game-high 24:42 and had three assists.
"There's not much not to like with those guys," Cooper said. "You have a duo like that, that can come over the boards and play 25 to 26 minutes a game … it makes life easy for you as a coach."
Hedman said he and Stralman, both Swedes, read off each other well through their instincts and their excellent communication. Asked if they talk in Swedish or English, Stralman said it's a mix.
"We have a secret language," he joked.
"Our games fit perfectly together," Hedman said.
Stralman was hoping they would when he signed with the Lightning.
"I never had a Swedish partner over here and obviously coming from the same school I thought we could maybe do some things," Stralman said. "Look at the League, there are a couple of Swedish [defense] pairs doing some good things with [Niklas] Kronwall and [Jonathan] Ericsson, [Niklas] Hjalmarsson and [Johnny] Oduya. I was excited to get the chance."
He can't say with any certainty that he would have had the chance, or an NHL career at all, had it not been for his opportunity in New York, both with the Rangers and with Dr. Dimango at New York-Presbyterian.
"The best way to develop as a player is to get the chance, the minutes, the opportunity, feedback, everything," Stralman said. "It hasn't been until the last few years that I've been able to do that. It shows in my development as a player. There was a tremendous push."