TAMPA — The difference separating Mathieu Joseph, Adam Erne and Ryan Callahan stood so thin for most of the season that Lightning coaches rotated them on the fourth line.
Jon Cooper says the coaches “want our players to have an impact on the game in a positive way.” All three do that, and Danick Martel, who has been a consistent scratch, is capable.
Coming out of the all-star break, however, Cooper decided to stick with a consistent lineup of forwards rather than continue to rotate the three on a line with Cedric Paquette.
Callahan is the odd-man out.
Going into tonight’s home game against St. Louis, the 13-year veteran called it a huge adjustment. Settling into the fourth line and then rotating in and out of the lineup were already major challenges. This is just the next one.
“Obviously, every guy in here wants to play 20 minutes, but at the end of the day we’re not all going to play 20 minutes,” Callahan said. “At the end of the day, you take what you’re going to play and you take your role. For me, I just try to execute it to the best that I can.”
When he does get a chance to play, Callahan will do whatever he can to stay. That’s what he tried to do when Brayden Point was a late scratch against the Rangers on Saturday and Callahan got in the lineup.
“The next time I get the chance to play again, I just have to do what I can to go out there and contribute, and try to do enough to stay in the lineup,” Callahan said. “The most important thing for me, now, is morning skates and practice, when I’m on the ice, is just work and make sure my conditioning is up, my skills are there. So when I do get that opportunity, I’m ready.”
He’s realistic in his approach. And though Callahan isn’t happy, he’s not letting it show. He demonstrates the same attitude in the dressing room and during practice as always. During a not-particularly-intense drill on Wednesday, Callahan laid out to block a shot. He’s doing the same little things.
The coaching staff has not elaborated on how it reach this decision. On Friday, before the Islanders game, after the decision had been made, Cooper didn’t sound like someone who had informed a player he’d be out of the lineup.
“Callahan is a proven player in this league, he’s a proven player on our team,” he said. “We have some young guys that really haven’t been able to prove themselves. This is what we’re looking to see. But to do that you need to give the guys a chance, so that’s what we’re doing now.”
Cooper wasn’t available on Wednesday. When asked about the combination of Erne, Paquette and Joseph, assistant coach Todd Richards included Callahan in his response.
Asked what the coaches look for when evaluating the fourth line on Friday, Cooper listed: “You need to play the 200-foot game, you can’t come off the ice and be a minus, you need to have that physical edge that may put teams on their toes.”
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All of those describe Callahan. He is having his most offensively-productive year since his first two with the Lightning (13 points in 41 games). He has a plus-rating for the first time in four years. He plays a physical game.
The list also describes Joseph (19 points in 45 games), Erne (14 points in 38 games) and Paquette (11 points in 52 games). The most obvious difference is age; Callahan is the oldest forward among the four by eight years at 33. Paquette is 25, Erne 23 and Joseph, tied for second among rookies in goals scored, turns 22 on Saturday.
The Lightning’s success makes the move down the lineup easier to swallow than it may be otherwise.
“You see the big picture and you see what we’re working toward, what we can accomplish, what we’re trying to accomplish,” he said. “You grab a piece of it and you do what you can with it.”
With the Feb. 25 NHL trade deadline looming, the Lightning may resolve its log jams — its also rotating seven defensemen for six spots — with a deal. The team is said to be potentially looking for a physical forward.