BUFFALO, N.Y. – Slater Koekkoek has been through this before, but it doesn't get any easier.
The Lightning defenseman is still trying to find a consistent spot in the lineup, getting healthy scratched in 26 of 57 games. But the 23-year-old has felt good about his game when he plays, saying the key is remaining positive.
Koekkoek got another shot Tuesday night against the Sabres, returning to the lineup after sitting three straight.
"I've just got to worry about what I can control," Koekkoek said. "I don't think it ever gets easier. But there's no use being upset about sitting out every day. That'd be a pretty tough life if I mope around about it."
Koekkoek has played well when given the opportunity, showing a comfort level when getting more playing time during Victor Hedman's five-game absence. He's averaging 1.41 points per 60 minutes, third best among the team's defensemen.
But both Koekkoek and Jake Dotchin have found themselves scratched recently with the Lightning going with Andrej Sustr and Braydon Coburn in the third pair.
"It's a variety of things – how you're playing, how the team is playing, there's a long list of things," coach Jon Cooper said of deciding who plays on defense. "Ultimately, it's how are we going to put our team in best position to win that night. Putting the lineup out is not gratuitous. It can be frustrating for guys, but it's about keeping guys part of it."
With the trade deadline less than two weeks away on Feb. 26, there's plenty of curiosity and anxiety in dressing rooms around the league, including Tampa Bay. The Lightning would like to add a defenseman, which could make for some changes on the blueline.
Koekkoek said he will have trade chatter with buddies away from the rink, but otherwise he tries to keep that out of his mind.
"We're all playing for the Lightning until told otherwise," he said. "But it's still a nervous time. We'll see what happens. I don't know what will happen."
PALAT, BUDAJ UPDATE
Cooper indicated both wing Ondrej Palat and backup goalie Peter Budaj are ailing from the similar injury as Buffalo's Jack Eichel, who is out 4-6 weeks with a high ankle sprain. Budaj is in the seventh week of a 6-8 week recovery from a Dec. 29 injury but has yet to begin skating with the team. Palat has been out since Jan. 20, so he's still in the early stages of a 6-8 week absence. It's a slow, and sometimes unpredictable, rehab.
"I hate to say this, but you almost wish there was a break instead of a sprain," Cooper said. "It's amazing to say, but those are way worse. It's frustrating because you'll be able to walk normally again and everything feels right, but when you're pushing off, it's way different."
The Rangers were scheduled to have two reps at the Lightning-Sabres game, including director of pro scouting Kevin Maxwell. The Senators, Ducks, Hurricanes, Kings and Flames were among the others. … Keep an eye out on Oilers wing Patrick Maroon at the deadline. Not sure if Edmonton will move the 6-foot-3 left wing, but he provides some size and punch to a bottom-six, and he played for Cooper in the NAHL.
* Koekkoek, Dotchin and Matt Peca returned to the lineup against the Sabres. Cory Conacher, Cedric Paquette and Sustr were healthy scratches. G Louis Domingue started in net.
WHAT THEY'RE SAYING
"I don't know if he's going to win, but it's going to be hard – especially if he continues this – to not make him in the top-3."
– Cooper on the darkhorse Calder Trophy candidacy of rookie Yanni Gourde, who has 21 goals.