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Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Matt Smaby keeps his team-first fire as playing time decreases

“It’s more than just about me,” says Lightning defenseman Matt Smaby, left, battling the Blue Jackets’ Jason Williams.

DIRK SHADD | Times

“It’s more than just about me,” says Lightning defenseman Matt Smaby, left, battling the Blue Jackets’ Jason Williams.

RALEIGH, N.C. — Practices are important, Matt Smaby said.

The Lightning defenseman said he tries to be one of the first players on the ice before workouts and one of the last off when they are done.

Goaltenders need to take some extra shots? Smaby is there. Extra work on breakouts? Smaby is part of it.

"Practices are important," Smaby said, "especially if you're not playing."

Smaby did not play in the season opener. He is not expected to play tonight against the Hurricanes at the RBC Center.

Even with defenseman Kurtis Foster out with a lower back injury, Smaby was not part of the conversation. Coach Rick Tocchet said the replacement will be David Hale or Lukas Krajicek.

What a role reversal for Smaby, 24, who last season couldn't be dragged from the ice. In fact, Smaby was a savior of sorts for a blue line shredded by injuries and short on depth.

The Minneapolis native played 43 games, averaged 19:05 of ice time and led all Tampa Bay defensemen with 122 hits.

He also played several months with a broken right foot as well as other injury "issues" Tocchet declined to reveal.

"There were issues with pain tolerance that I don't know how many NHL players would have played," Tocchet said. "It doesn't give him a free ride, but it just goes to show you what type of guy he is."

"He wanted to play in as many games as he could," captain Vinny Lecavalier said. "That's the type of player he is. He's a great guy to have on the team."

So, why is the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Smaby stuck in the press box?

There is speculation the Lightning is using the opportunity provided by Foster's injury to showcase Hale and/or Krajicek as possible trade bait. Tocchet took a simpler route.

Hale "had a good camp," he said, and Krajicek "skates a little better."

As for Smaby, "His camp was just okay, and right now there are people ahead of him. That's just the lay of the land. It has nothing to do with him being a bad defenseman; it's just we have a lot of depth at that position."

In other words, Tocchet said, "He just has to wait his turn."

"It's tough," Smaby said. "I'm a really competitive guy. I want to be in there as much, or more, than anybody else. At the same time, I want to be a really good team guy while I'm here. I realize it's more than just about me. As long as I'm a part of the team, I'm going to do everything I can to make it better."

That includes practicing hard, making mental notes in the press box during games. And if not watching the game — Smaby said he generally watches two periods — working out, instead.

"That's why we signed Matt Smaby," Tocchet said. "Those are the intangibles he brings. He's a great team guy, not a high-maintenance guy, and wants to continually work on his game."

"I'm just waiting for my shot," Smaby said. "I'm going to take the opportunity when it comes. You've got to earn some respect. That's what I'm trying to do."

Didn't he do that last season?

"Well," he said, "it's a new year."

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Matt Smaby keeps his team-first fire as playing time decreases 10/05/09 [Last modified: Monday, October 5, 2009 10:51pm]
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