Tampa Bay Lightning
Lightning's Aulie shows improvement in short season
When the Lightning acquired Keith Aulie from Toronto at the trade deadline last season, Tampa Bay hoped the 6-foot-6 defenseman would bring some size to the its backline and develop into a shutdown defender.
Aulie has the tools to do that and more.
Though he continues to be a work in progress — the team would like to see Aulie be more physical and use his size to his advantage more often along the boards and in front of his own net — Aulie has improved in the past calendar year.
“Keith is very underrated for his offensive instincts for the game,'' Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “I've really watched him grow. I think he gets labeled sometimes as this big, huge, hulking defensive defenseman. But there is a lot more to his game than that, which I have really been impressed with, especially being able to jump into holes in the offensive end and really create some offensive opportunities. It's something we want to encourage with him a little bit more.''
Part of Aulie's development was aided by being a part of a championship run with Norfolk in the American Hockey League last season after he was acquired from the Maple Leafs for forward Carter Ashton. After initially trying to feel his way into the Admirals' blue line, Aulie became a big part of the team's 15-3 run to a Calder Cup championship.
Then, when the NHL was shut down this season due to the lockout, Aulie signed to play with Tampa Bay's new AHL affiliate in Syracuse, appearing in 20 games with the Crunch.
For any young defenseman, the more games the better to gain experience reading the rush and understanding the position better as the play comes at them in their own end.
“That was invaluable,'' Aulie said of his time with Syracuse. “If you talk to any good stay-at-home defenseman in this league, they all tell you that it took a while to find their stride and find their confidence. It's just a constant learning curve.
“We are a different breed than those young 18-year-old scorers are, and it just takes a while to learn the game.''
There is a belief Aulie can eventually develop into a top-four defenseman playing a shut-down role. And when this abbreviated season began, Aulie was looking at more of a No? 7 role as an occasional healthy scratch.
But his play in the early going forced the coaching staff to keep him in the lineup. Aulie was not a healthy scratch until Feb. 16, 14 games into the season.
“He's a big man that can defend well,'' said Lightning assistant coach Dan LaCroix, who handles the defense. “With the puck in breakout situations, just being more comfortable with the game, it takes time at any level. But it's even more for a guy his size at the NHL level.''
Aulie knows he has more growing to do as a player. But in the 14 months since he was acquired from Toronto, the 23-year-old has made strides.
“If you look at the season as a whole, I think I've grown as a player,” Aulie said. “I've got more confidence out there and moved the puck better as the season has gone on, which is something I've tried to work on, and just keep on using my body more and more.
“It's just a process and I've been a slow and steady learner my whole life, so I think I'll be able to look back on this season as something I can be happy about.''
Nuts and Bolts Tampa Bay signed defenseman Mathieu Roy to a contract Tuesday for the remainder of the regular season. Roy, 29, who appeared in four games with the Lightning during the 2010-11 season, played in Germany with Hamburg. The addition of Roy allows Tampa Bay to potentially send rookie defenseman Radko Gudas to Syracuse for the start of the AHL playoffs on Saturday. … Tampa Bay players will wear Boston Strong stickers on their helmets during Thursday's game in Boston. The helmets will be signed and auctioned off, with proceeds to benefit The One Fund Boston to help those affected by the Boston Marathon bombings.