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Unheralded veteran defensemen may be keys to Lightning's improvement

TAMPA — Jay Feaster, the architect of the Lightning's 2004 Stanley Cup championship team, was back at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on Tuesday night, reminiscing about that magical season.

Sure, he mentioned Marty St. Louis' MVP award and bragged about Brad Richards, Vinny Lecavalier and the Bulin Wall. He laughed about coach John Tortorella telling folks to shut their yaps.

But when asked the key to that Cup season, do you know what Feaster said?

Adding veteran defenseman Darryl Sydor.

How interesting.

Something similar could be said about this year's Lightning, which is starting to have that same hey-what-do-we-have-here look that the 2003-04 team did.

St. Louis and Lecavalier are still kicking around and there's Steven Stamkos, of course. Rookie Cory Conacher, with a spectacular breakaway goal Tuesday night in the Lightning's 5-2 victory over the Panthers, looks like something special.

But do you know who might be two of the most underrated, yet critical pieces to the Lightning's 2013 puzzle?

A couple of veteran defense­men signed just days apart as free agents in July. That would be 38-year-old Sami Salo and 28-year-old Matt Carle.

It's not about their goals. Heck, they only have one between them. It's not about big hits. Neither is a bone-crusher.

It's not even something that can be found on a scoresheet or even in a highlight clip. Yet their fingerprints were all over yet another Lightning victory.

Their play has been crucial to the Lightning's fast start and could be the reason it has legitimate Cup hopes this season.

Says who? Says everybody with the Lightning, starting with coach Guy Boucher.

"A huge impact," Boucher said.

What exactly have Salo and Carle done? Here are just a few things.

Turned a below-average defense into an above-average one

An NHL defense isn't defined by its parts, but by the sum of those parts. Last season's leaky defense was made up of a couple of dependable defensemen and whole lot of spit and duct tape. Adding Salo and Carle means adding a combined 19 years of NHL experience, as well as the necessary pieces to put together three solid defensive pairings.

"What they do is solidify pairings, not what they do individually," Boucher said. "We very often look at what this guy is bringing or what that guy is bringing. You can never take a player out of the context and circumstances."

In other words, they make everyone else on defense better, including specific individuals. For example …

They make Eric Brewer better

Adding Salo and Carle means that Eric Brewer, the team's de facto No. 1 defenseman last season, doesn't have to overextend himself. Instead of playing 27 or 28 so-so minutes, Brewer can now play a sturdy 18-20 minutes.

"Now he gets the opportunity to play in a slot that he can handle," Boucher said.

Brewer has been paired with Carle, and the result is Brewer already has three goals and looks as fresh in the third periods as he does in the first.

"It has been good, so far," Carle said.

"We're trying," Brewer said, "and it is getting more comfortable every game."

They make Victor Hedman better

Two years ago, playing alongside long-time NHL veteran Mattias Ohlund, Hedman had his best and most consistent season. Perhaps it's no coincidence that Hedman's game turned erratic last season with Ohlund missing the entire season with a knee injury.

Salo has replaced Ohlund as the steady hand next to Hedman and Hedman, again, is getting more A's and B's on his report cards than C's and D's.

"When you look at Heddy," Boucher said, "he needed an older guy to give him a chance to go on offense without having to worry what's going to happen back (on defense.)"

The result of that pairing? Salo is an NHL-best plus-10. Hedman is a plus-8 and had another assist Tuesday.

Final analysis

When it comes to Salo and Carle, it's the subtle things. It's the poise to hold on to the puck an extra second in the defensive zone instead of playing hot potato. It's shifting a few feet this way or that to give someone like Lecavalier or St. Louis an open shooting lane. It's knowing when to pitch in on offense and get back on defense.

As Boucher said, teams can win with average goaltending, but they cannot win unless they have a good defense. The Lightning, for now anyway, has a good defense thanks to Carle and Salo.

If this season does turn into something special, someday general manager Steve Yzerman might reminisce about the time he signed Salo and Carle

Unheralded veteran defensemen may be keys to Lightning's improvement 01/29/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 30, 2013 6:32pm]
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