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Mihalik is in top six on defense



It's a pretty good bet that if you were asked entering preseason if Vladimir Mihalik would make the Lightning's opening roster, not many people would have said yes. Even Mihalik himself said, "That's true."

But here is Mihalik with a spot on the roster and coach Barry Melrose assuring that Mihalik would play in Saturday's opener against the Rangers in Prague. In our opinion, that means Andrew Hutchinson may be on the bench.

"He's been great," Melrose said of Mihalik. "He's smart, and he moves the puck well. He played in four (preseason) games and I can't think of play where a guy toasted him or he made a horrendous play. He's got that gigantic reach. He's good with the puck. I've been happy with him."

At 6 feet 7, 222 pounds, Mihalik, 21, is quite the sight on the ice. Add the three inches of his skates and he is 6-10. He is soft-spoken but confident, and he said he expected to make the team because he knew his game had improved.

He's a defensive guy, primarily, and Melrose said he likes best of all that Mihalik does not try to over-extend his game. It's an awful phrase, but in Mihalik's place, it's true. He plays within himself.

"I knew," he said when asked if he thought he would make the team. "I just wanted to show up and make some people know I'm here. I'm so happy I made it."

He made it, in part, because Paul Ranger (shoulder) is out and likely will be on the disabled list, and because Hutchinson has played so poorly. If Mihalik is preseason's biggest surprise, then Hutchinson is its biggest disappointment. Hutchinson had a terrible game Tuesday against HC Slovan, likely has fallen to seventh among defensemen, which means he may not play Saturday, and has lost his power play spot. What makes it worse is he has a two-year, one-way contract that pays $500,000 whether he is in the NHL or the minors.

You recall, signing Hutchinson was touted because of his right-handed shot. So it told you something Tuesday when first Mark Recchi, and later Steven Stamkos were tried at the left point with the man advantage.

Melrose said the lack of another right-handed shot among his defensemen, besides Andrej Meszaros, might force him to put a forward at the left power-play point. Melrose said he generally doesn't like that because a forward has such an offensive mind-set he might forget some of the defensive responsibilities of the point (remember, there is no one but the goalie behind him). Melrose said he liked Recchi on Tuesday, but that Stamkos is a good option, too, or perhaps Radim Vrbata.

But back to Mihalik. The bottom line is is playing better than Hutchinson and earned the spot. What happened when Paul Ranger (shoulder) is back and people are pushed down a notch? Too early to tell, but how fun we get to see Mihalik try and establish himself.

Here are some other odds and ends:

The players had Wednesday off but are scheduled to skate twice Thursday, once in a real practice and once in a skate open to the public. ...  Right wing Michel Ouellet was assigned to AHL Norfolk. I'm sure Tampa Bay is hoping someone will claim him off recall waivers, which means the claiming team and the Lightning would split the $1.2-million Ouellet will make this season. ... Learned something today: teams have up to 30 days to assign players to the minors after they clear waivers. ... Hockey ops chief Brian Lawton said left wing Ryan Malone, who sat out Tuesday with what Melrose said was a sore shoulder, is "100 percent." ... As we have said, the final cut will be a forward but definitely not David Koci. The enforcer, though, will not necessarily play every game, Melrose said. Much likely will depend on what kind of muscle the opposition has. With Colton Orr playing for the Rangers, expect Koci to be involved.

[Last modified: Sunday, August 16, 2009 4:38pm]


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