EDMONTON — After missing four games with an upper-body injury, D Sami Salo was in the lineup Sunday against the Oilers.
"A wily vet," coach Jon Cooper called the 39-year-old, "and you can't have enough of those guys on the back end."
For Salo, though, the emphasis was on youth, specifically how well Tampa Bay's young defensemen have played, especially during the combined 12 games this season he and Eric Brewer have been down with injuries.
"They've grown a lot in the time they've been here," Salo said. "It's promising for the organization, to be sure."
Defense and youth dominated the conversation as Tampa Bay entered the game third in the league with an average 2.22 goals allowed. G Ben Bishop gets most of the credit, but the Lightning also had five of the top 10 rookies in plus/minus: D Mark Barberio and LW Ondrej Palat tied for fourth at plus-11; RW Nikita Kucherov and C Tyler Johnson tied for eighth at plus-8; and D Andrej Sustr 10th at plus-7.
On defense, Sustr, Barberio and Radko Gudas, all 23, are rookies. Victor Hedman, though in his fifth season, is just 23. Jean-Philippe Cote, though 31, has played just 16 NHL games.
"For sure, they bring a lot of energy to the table," Salo said. "For sure, it brings me a lot of energy to see how hard they play and how fast they are and how they've grown during the year."
Tampa Bay plays eight rookies, so blips are inevitable, such as the five goals the team gave up to the Oilers in a 5-3 loss.
But considering it finished 26th or worse in defense five of the past seven seasons and last twice, being near the top is okay.
"It's a team stat," Cooper said of his rookies' gaudy plus/minus numbers. "If your guys are a plus, it means your team is doing well, and we'll take that."
MORE DEFENSE: Kucherov, with six goals in 19 games since his callup from AHL Syracuse, gets much praise for his offensive instincts. But he said he took "very seriously" Cooper's advice that his stay in the NHL depends on playing responsible defense. He is plus-6. "I decide myself I want to stay here for a long time," Kucherov said. "Sometimes when you play in the D zone, it actually feels good. I never knew that before. When you backcheck hard and help stop the puck and take it away, you feel good."
COTE KEEPS GOING: Cote on Sunday played his eighth game since his callup from Syracuse, matching the total number games he had played previously in the league. "I'm trying to stick around by doing the simple things," said Cote, who has three assists and 10 blocked shots.
"I'm feeling better and better playing the game at this level."
Cote said he believes the AHL is a physically rougher league because players try to impress to make the jump to the NHL.
"So any hit that is a little harder than usual, you'll have someone on your back," he said.
ODDS AND ENDS: Palat has two goals, five assists on a six-game points streak, tied for this season's rookie best with Winnipeg's Mark Scheifele. … The Lightning played 11 forwards and seven defensemen. … Barberio and forwards Tom Pyatt and B.J. Crombeen were scratched.