Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning's Carle proving to be a true pro on, off ice

DETROIT — Matt Carle could have thrown a hissy fit.

He could have sulked his way around the locker room, running his mouth, infecting his teammates with his whining and bitterness. He could have taken his gripes to the media.

He could have given coach Jon Cooper the stink eye or, at least, the cold shoulder. He could have stormed into the office of general manager Steve Yzerman and demanded a trade.

Or he could have just packed up his gear and gone home. Wouldn't be the first Lightning player to do that.

These are the avenues a veteran often takes when his team decides it's better off with him not in the lineup.

What did Carle do when he found himself being scratched for big chunks of the season?

He kept his mouth shut. He went to work. He worked hard. He listened to coaches. Kept being a good teammate.

And he kept himself ready just in case the Lightning called upon him again.

Just in case has happened.

The playoffs are under way, and Carle has become a key contributor in the first two victories over the Red Wings. With veteran defenseman Anton Stralman out indefinitely with a fractured leg, Carle has been paired mostly with Victor Hedman to form, arguably, the Lightning's most dependable defensive unit.

"Just trying to fill Anton's shoes as much as possible," Carle, 31, said, "and just trying to complement Victor as much as I can."

Carle's aw-shucks attitude is not surprising given his humble Alaskan upbringing. But you have to know that, deep down, he feels some sort of redemption. He was a healthy scratch 18 times this season, the most since his rookie season. When he did play, he was a target of dissatisfied fans, who did not hesitate to show their displeasure with his play.

All of it just had to be eating up a proud veteran of 11 NHL seasons.

It quickly turned into a situation that could have been ugly. The Lightning probably would have liked to have traded him because it wasn't getting near the productivity it wanted for a player eating up $5.5 million of cap space. But it couldn't trade him because he wasn't productive enough for a player eating up $5.5 million of cap space.

The only option Tampa Bay really had was to sit him.

"It's tough," Carle said. "You kind of get out of the rhythm of the flow of the games. There was a certain stretch there in January where I think I maybe played three or four games in the span of a month. Then you throw the All-Star break in there, so that was pretty tough."

While he sat, he got rusty. The Lightning wouldn't play him and it couldn't trade him. An unfortunate dilemma. Carle could have made it a whole lot worse, if he chose to.

"When you go through your career, it's not all roses," Cooper said. "I know it has been difficult for him to be out of the lineup sometimes this year, but when you're a good pro, you know you're going to get your chance. So when you get your chance, you'll make the best of it, and he is clearly doing that."

Carle started playing heavy minutes again after Stralman fractured his leg March 25. That night, he played nearly 25 minutes, a season high. In the playoffs, he played 16:17 in Game 1 and 19:33 in Game 2.

Most of those minutes have been with Hedman, who, just like last postseason, has shifted his game into another gear. That means taking more gambles offensively, and that means his defensive partner has to be that much more reliable defensively.

"He and I are great buddies off the ice, so it makes it easy to talk about things," Carle said. "It's a familiar voice when you're trying to communicate on the ice. It has been going well."

Well indeed, while stepping in for one of the top defensemen in hockey.

Carle, in his fourth season during a second stint with Tampa Bay, has an assist and is plus-1 through two playoff games. In the 10 games since Stralman's injury, when Carle started playing more, he has six points and is plus-6. Impressive stuff, especially when you think about him being buried in the press box just a couple of months ago.

"I've been around long enough and (have) seen guys go through similar situations," Carle said. "It's a first for me in trying to handle it as a veteran. I went through it as a rookie. The coaching staff has been great with me, and I'm just trying to keep my head down and stay professional and come to work and be ready to go when called upon."

He has been ready, and he has been a model pro on and off the ice.

"Anytime you have successful teams," Cooper said, "you have to have good pros, and Matt Carle is a really good pro."

Carle and his teammates, for two games anyway, are playing so well that it might stay alive long enough for Stralman to work his way back into the lineup. If he does, what will happen to Stralman?

Hard to say, but this much is true: Carle will do what he's told without complaint.

That's what real pros do.

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