SUNRISE — Matt Carle is the first to tell you he did not play well to start the season.
His gaps against opponents were too loose, he said. He wasn't reading plays as well as he should in the offensive zone. He sometimes was caught in limbo between wanting to pinch into the zone and retreating.
Part of it might have been adapting to coach Jon Cooper's system, but it also might have been just one of those rough patches every player endures.
Either way, the Lightning defenseman said, "There was a tough stretch there when I was trying to figure some things out."
And that is what happened.
"Matt Carle has really taken a step," Cooper said. "He has become the defenseman we always thought he could be."
Transitions like that usually need a catalyst.
For Carle, 29, it was knowing he was being counted on to carry an extra load when defenseman Victor Hedman was lost for six games on Dec. 5 because of a lower-body injury.
In the nine games since Hedman was injured, Carle has averaged 23:40 of ice time (1:25 more than his team-most season average of 22:15) and is plus-6 (he was plus-1 his previous 27 games).
In his past five games he has blocked 11 shots, and his team-most 75 blocks entered Sunday tied for 14th among league defensemen.
In Saturday's 3-2 overtime victory over the Hurricanes Carle blocked four shots and had seven shots on goal.
"Now, he's up in the play, he's gapping, he wants the puck, he's defending, he's leading the rush," Cooper said. "He's way more engaged in the game."
With Carle, though, the knock always has been turnovers. That he has 16 this season — 88 league defensemen entered Sunday with more — indicates progress.
As assistant coach Rick Bowness, who handles the defense, said, "Every defenseman turns the puck over, the all-stars, the Hall of Famers, they all make mistakes. That's what the game is. Matty has minimized that for me."
What has been consistent for Carle — paired this season with rookie Radko Gudas — is the ability to eat up minutes; no easy task in Cooper's system, which requires defensemen to join the rush whenever possible.
Add Carle's power play and penalty kill responsibilities and the demands increase.
The key, Carle said, is to "pick your spots where you're going to be a little more aggressive in getting up into the play, or you might make an early change and conserve some energy."
"He doesn't waste a lot of energy running all over the ice," Bowness said. "He knows when the game has to come to him, so his positional play has been very strong because of that."
Whatever the calculation heading into tonight's game with the Panthers at the BB&T Center, it is working.
"When you have the trust of the coach it makes it fun to come to the rink every day and contribute and be on the ice in any situation," Carle said.
Said rookie defenseman Andrej Sustr: "It just seems so easy for him."
Carle can tell you all about when it wasn't.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]