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Tampa Bay Lightning defense is going through growing pains that should help in the end



The Lightning defense is going through a transition. It's been a work in progress for almost two seasons, but it has been interesting what has gone on the past few weeks and what still might play out in the near future.

Consider that rookie defenseman Victor Hedman has hit a rough patch. Andrej Meszaros, after being benched for a game for the first time in his career, responded Monday against the Hurricanes with a standout game. Mike Lundin is making a case to stay in the lineup, and coach Rick Tocchet called him the team's most reliable defensemen the past two weeks. And Paul Ranger, away from the team since Oct. 23 for personal reasons, could be ready to come back as Tocchet said there might be some sort of announcement upcoming. Not a complete surprise as talk surfaced about 10 days ago that Ranger was about a week away from coming back.

All this makes for an unsettled situation at the moment, but through it all, the team should come out the other end stronger on the blue line.

Take Hedman, who was out of position on the goal Monday by Carolina's Chad LaRose. The lesson, Tocchet said, is that Hedman has to be in front of the play slightly and more toward the middle of the ice. had he been there, LaRose could not have gotten free in the defensive zone off the long pass. The way Tocchet sees it, it's another less for a 19-year-old. Asked if we sometimes forget Hedman, who shows so many skills, is so young and still learning, Tocchet said, The coaches, too."

As for Meszaros, Tocchet said he loves the way he handled his benching.

"He didn't pout," Tocchet said. "He realized and accepted, 'Yeah, I'm not playing good,' and he's played well since. I want to give him credit. It says a lot about a guy when a guy takes it (a benching) and uses it the right way."

Said Meszaros: "it definitely was not an enjoyable experience sitting for that one game. I mean, it's never fun, but I learned from that, talked to the coaches. I just have to play harder and smarter and compete every night. In practice, I went back to basics, make good passes, good shots on net, just relax because, I guess, I was squeezing too tight. But I'm feeling better now and, hopefully, that will never happen again."   

Finally, there is Lundin, who is averaging 19:26 of ice time and is plus-1 in 15 games. He is paired with Mattias Ohlund going against opponents' top players, and doing well. If and when Ranger comes back, don't expect Lundin to be the odd man out.

"I don't think he's as timid," Tocchet said comparing last season's Lundin, who spent most of the season with Norfolk, to this season's. "I shouldn't be using this analogy, but Nick Lidstrom is not going to kill people, but he angles well, he boxes out well. He's always around the puck. Mike Lundin is that type of guy where he can play all the angles properly, and he's such a good skater. He poke checks. He blocks out well. That's kind of his game. He's done a really nice job in that regard."  

More stuff from the morning meetings with players: Antero Niittymaki gets the start in net. Tocchet said it is important Niittymaki knows that while Mike Smith is out, Niittymaki is the guy. "He can play a bunch of games. He's capable of doing it. I really feel right now that Nitty has to take the ball. he has to know from the coaching staff and myself that 'it's yours, go.' " ... Speaking of Niittymaki, he said daughter Alina, born six weeks premature on Dec. 26, and five pounds, three ounces, is out of the hospital, at home and "getting fat." ... Trainer Tommy Mulligan said Smith skated Monday and today and is expected to take shots Wednesday and practice with the team. Even if the team doesn't practice, Mulligan said some forwards will be asked to come in and shoot on Smith. Mulligan reiterated Smith is not having concussion symptoms and is being worked on to relieve spasms in his neck. "Nothing has gone backwards," Mulligan said, and added, "There is no concern about a concussion." ...  Tocchet was asked if Dustin Tokarksi, who is up from Norfolk and backing up Niittymaki until Smith gets back, could get in a game. Didn't sound promising. "I don't think we have time to experiment and stuff," Tocchet said. "But this is valuable. he's up spending time with (goaltenders coach) Cap Raeder. He's going day-to-day life in the NHL, traveling, practicing. The first practice till now, it's made a difference. The first practice, the speed of the puck, the speed of the players, you could tell he was, like, 'Wow.' Now, he's caught up, so this is big for him, even just practicing with the NHL guys." ... Former Norfolk coach Darren Rumble finally spoke about being fired. He didn't say much, but it was something. "Id' like to thank the Lightning for the opportunity," he said in a text message. I am very proud of the players that have come through Norfolk. I wish the organization and the players continued success." Very diplomatic, but not surprising if, as Lawton has indicated, Rumble, perhaps, could end up in another position with the organization, though that determination has not yet been made. "Darren was a real professional about it," Lawton said. "We'll sit down with him in a couple of weeks and figure out where we go from here."  Lawton, too, did not want to concentrate on negatives when it came to Rumble. "Darren did a lot of positives, too," Lawton said. "Sometimes when you get let go, you focus on the negatives. But he did a lot of positive things. He's a good coach and he could get an opportunity somewhere else. We've had a lot of guys come up and make strides, so those are all the positive things and they shouldn't be lost because a person was let go. He did  a lot of positive things and we're thankful for that. We wish him the best of luck, whether or not he stays with us or not." ... A good question was raised to Lawton about Rumble being hamstrung a bit by a lack of minor-league depth, the result of a decade of poor drafting. "I still think we're thin," Lawton said. "It's just going to take time until we draft better and more consistently. That in some ways is a little  unfair to Darren, just because the organization has not drafted well. It's going to take time to build that end up." 

[Last modified: Thursday, February 18, 2010 12:15am]


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