TAMPA — Veteran defenseman Matt Carle couldn't help but feel a bit relieved after Monday's trade deadline came and went without any Lightning deals.
Carle, 31, had been a subject of trade speculation considering his declining role and $5.5 million cap hit the next two seasons. Even with a limited no-trade clause — a list of 14 teams he couldn't go to — he noted it was "open season" for the other half of the league.
"It's hard not to think about it," Carle said. "I'm happy to still be here and be part of this team. I've got a lot of good friendships in this locker room, all the players and staff, training staff and equipment staff. So it would be tough to have to make a transition away from that. You're happy that everything worked out."
Things have worked out lately for Carle, who is playing his best hockey of the season after finally getting consistent playing time.
After being scratched in 10 of 13 games, Carle has played in 12 straight. He is plus-10 in his past eight. He stepped up during the absence of injured Jason Garrison, providing a boost to the blue line in the Lightning's club-record-matching eight-game winning streak, which is on the line tonight against the Hurricanes.
And Carle's emergence likely made it easier for general manager Steve Yzerman not to feel the need to address the blue line for the team's playoff push.
"I've never questioned whether I can play in this league," Carle said. "It's a matter of getting comfortable, getting your timing, knowing when you have time to make plays and when you don't. That's pretty much what it is."
It has been a trying season for Carle, in his fourth year in his second stint with the Lightning. This is the first time he has been a healthy scratch this often, playing in 48 of 64 games as Nikita Nesterov, 22, has gotten more of an opportunity.
But Carle, the team's highest-paid defenseman, has handled it as well as he could. Teammates say they can't tell by his attitude and work ethic if he is playing 20 minutes or watching from the press box.
And when Garrison went down with a lower-body injury Feb. 8, Carle was inserted back into the lineup. He was minus-6 in the first four games — coach Jon Cooper said it wasn't all his fault — before settling in. After going without a point in his first 40 games, he has three in his past eight (two goals). Plus, he has had a few points taken away on scoring changes; an assist was removed Thursday against the Senators when Anton Stralman's goal was disallowed due to goalie interference.
"That just tells you he's a pro," Cooper said. "There are ups and downs in seasons; there's up and downs in careers. But Matt Carle, he's just hung with it, and he's stepped forward."
Carle's reads and decision making have been better, which he attributes to getting regular minutes. At points this season, he'd bounce between 15 minutes a game to less than 10. He had a season-low 7:35 on Dec. 15 in a 5-4 overtime win against the Maple Leafs.
But Carle has logged at least 15 minutes in 10 of the past 12 games, 20-plus minutes in two. He said that has helped him get in the flow of the game.
"It's getting a feel for the game, ultimately," Carle said. "Getting used to the forecheck, getting forechecked at full speed, getting used to making decisions a lot quicker than you normally would in practice. That's the biggest difference between playing and not playing and being comfortable and having confidence to make plays."