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Tampa Bay Lightning newcomers Mattias Ohlund, Matt Walker bring more than skill

TAMPA — Mattias Ohlund and Matt Walker bring the size, ability and nastiness that should help rejuvenate the Lightning's on-ice product.

But the team also wants the defensemen, signed as free agents, to add a level of professionalism and focus to a locker room that last season forgot a little bit about how to win.

We're not talking major dysfunction. But with injuries forcing a revolving door of players, and losses mounting, pregame preparation lagged, and coach Rick Tocchet admitted he probably did not do enough to fix it.

"It's really hard when you have different guys in the lineup every night," he said recently at the St. Pete Times Forum, "so, to be honest with you, I cut slack on that."

A difficult cut, Ohlund said.

"This is an awfully tough league to play in," he said. "If you're not mentally prepared to play, you have no chance."

General manager Brian Lawton confirmed "player preparation is an area we targeted" during the summer.

So, Lawton signed Ohlund, 32, an alternate captain with the Canucks; Walker, 29, who last season earned cult status with the Blackhawks by playing and fighting during the playoffs with a finger disfigured by a flying puck; and left wing Stephane Veilleux, 27, formerly of the Wild, a hard worker known for his Andre Roy-like playfulness.

"They add a level of professionalism," Lawton said. "Those three guys are definitely guys who come prepared to play every night. It's just three less guys you have to worry about, and that rubs off on the other guys."

The only thing rubbing off last season was frustration.

The Lightning lost 351 man games to injury, its most since 1999-2000. Fifty players suited up, including an NHL-record 22 on defense.

With player personalities generally quiet, and with the team plummeting to 29th in the league standings, center Steven Stamkos said focusing "was tough. I'm not going to sit here and tell you it wasn't. But as a professional, you have to find a way."

The way begins in the locker room, Walker said: "When you're planning to get on the ice, it's business. You just can't jump on the ice and be in a game and be ready to go. Things need to be said and talked about."

But that's where it could get tricky. The Lightning has established leaders such as captain Vinny Lecavalier, alternates Marty St. Louis and Jeff Halpern and goaltender Mike Smith.

No one wants to step on anyone's toes, Ohlund said. Still, "I do realize this is one of the things I'd like to bring to the team, to help out to make sure everyone plays hard."

He might wait until the regular season when he better knows his teammates.

"But I've been in the NHL a long time," Ohlund said. "If I have something to say, I will."

Walker said he will dive right in.

"In the hockey world, it takes about three minutes to feel like you've grown up with the guy beside you," he said. "If you have to stand up and address something, it's never anything personal. We're here for the same reason, to put the best product on the ice and play well."

"These guys are men," Tocchet said. "I've talked with some guys who have played with them, and the thing that comes out is they are great team guys. To add those two guys to the locker room is going to be key.

"Playing for the crest, that is what these guys are all about."

And getting their teammates to do it as well.

Around the league

Blackhawks: Recently signed wing Marian Hossa is rehabilitating an injured right rotator cuff. General manager Stan Bowman called the left-handed shooter's injury "relatively minor" but did not rule out surgery that could sideline Hossa, 30, for the start of next season. Bowman said the Blackhawks knew about the injury, which he said occurred during the playoffs when Hossa was with the Red Wings, when Hossa signed. Detroit GM Ken Holland said Hossa played all last season with a slightly torn rotator cuff.

devils: Center Travis Zajac avoided salary arbitration and signed a multiyear contract.

islanders: Goalie Martin Biron agreed to a one-year deal. He was 29-19-5 for the Flyers last season, with a 2.76 goals-against average. "Adding Marty gives us three bona fide No. 1 goalies," GM Garth Snow said.

red wings: The NHL scheduled an arbitration hearing July 30 for Jiri Hudler, who says he's leaving Detroit to join Dynamo Moscow of Russia's Continental Hockey League. The Wings want to retain rights to the 25-year-old should he return to the NHL in the future.

Information from Times wires was used in this report. Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Lightning newcomers Mattias Ohlund, Matt Walker bring more than skill 07/22/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 23, 2009 7:42am]

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