BRANDON — You've heard the one about the difficulties fitting a square peg into a round hole?
How about wedging three players into one position?
That is the mind-bender that faces Lightning coach Jon Cooper every game when he decides whether Mark Barberio, Andrej Sustr or Keith Aulie will fill the lineup's final spot on defense.
"It's tough when they're giving it their all and battling as hard as they can in practice," Cooper said. "You know they can play in this league."
But with eight defensemen on the roster and six on-ice positions, Barberio, Sustr and Aulie compete daily for that last spot.
Barberio, 23, a rookie, is the incumbent, having played the past two games and four overall.
Sustr, 22, also a rookie, has played 10 of 14 games, though he was scratched in three of the past five. Aulie, 24, with 123 career NHL games, has played twice.
"It's not easy," Aulie said Wednesday at the Ice Sports Forum. "It's something you don't want to go through. But … all you can control is what you do on the ice. You work hard every day and hope you're bringing something that they want."
Even then, that might not be enough. Consider how highly the Lightning thinks of Sustr. As Cooper said of the 6-foot-8, 225-pounder, "There's not much not to like. He's hard to get around. He's confident. He sees the ice."
But he needs to get stronger and acclimate more to the speed of the game. So he was scratched in favor of Barberio for Friday's 3-0 win at Carolina.
Barberio played well in that game and in Saturday's 4-2 victory over the Blues, in which he got his first NHL point, an assist. Coaches don't like to tamper with a winning lineup, which is why Barberio, a lefty puck-mover, is expected to play tonight against the Oilers at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
Aulie or Sustr could get in if Cooper goes with seven defensemen instead of the usual six. And with the Lightning (10-4-0) to play 12 games in 23 days, chances are injuries or simple rest and recovery will create openings.
Until then, "they understand we're going (well) right now," Cooper said, "We're probably not going to change things up much."
How did this glut happen?
Well, sending Barberio or Aulie to AHL Syracuse would mean first exposing them to waivers, and the probability is high both would be claimed. Sustr, signed in March out of the University of Nebraska-Omaha, forced his way onto the team with a strong preseason.
That said, each still is raw, so the rotation gives them opportunities to sit and regroup.
"And it keeps guys honest," Barberio said. "It keeps guys on their toes. It creates healthy competition. By doing that, we can be better players."
Aulie said he has seen situations where battles for playing time cause jealousy. That has not happened in this case.
"We don't want bad apples here," he said. "We don't want that negative-attitude stuff. Are guys disappointed when they don't play? Of course. At the same time, we're professionals."
"It's three guys competing for one spot on the roster," Sustr said. "You have to battle through it, work hard and earn your spot."
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]
Lightning vs. Oilers
When/where: 7:30; Tampa Bay Times Forum
TV/radio: Sun Sports; 970-AM
Key stats: Lightning C Steven Stamkos has six goals, four assists in a six-game points streak. … Tampa Bay has killed 32 of its past 33 penalties. … With 10 points, the Oilers are at the bottom of the Western Conference. … Tampa Bay is 5-0-0 against the West this season. … Edmonton C Marc Arcobello entered Wednesday leading all rookies with 10 assists. … Oilers goaltenders are last in the league with a 3.76 goals-against average and a .875 save percentage.