TAMPA — When the Lightning signed Anton Stralman on July 1, associate coach Rick Bowness got a phone call from a good friend who gave him a ringing endorsement of the veteran defenseman.
It was Rangers coach Alain Vigneault, who had just watched Stralman play a key role in his team's run to the Stanley Cup final.
"He said, 'You're going to love this guy,' " Bowness said.
And Tampa Bay certainly has, saying Stralman, signed to a five-year, $22.5 million deal, has been better than advertised in his first month. Stralman, 28, has helped cushion the blow of losing defense partner Victor Hedman, out four to six weeks with a fractured finger, by anchoring the top defensive pairing and running the point on the first power-play unit.
Stralman entered Sunday leading the league with a plus-9 rating, and he was the only Lightning player without a minus next to his name after Saturday's 7-2 loss to the Wild in Minnesota (he was plus-1). And he has don that averaging a career-high 22 minutes, 23 seconds of ice time.
"Anton Stralman is an outstanding defenseman," coach Jon Cooper said. "It's funny. Stats are stats. You people (media) can read into them whatever you want. But it's a 7-2 game (against the Wild) and you find a way to come out a plus-1, that's pretty impressive. And he plays 20 minutes. It's not like he plays one shift a period."
Stralman scored his first goal of the season Saturday — matching his total from 81 games last season — and his seven points trail only Steven Stamkos and Tyler Johnson for the team lead.
In the first period Saturday, Stralman went to the net and found himself alone, and defenseman Eric Brewer hit him with a pass from the point. Stralman patiently backhanded the puck past Wild goalie Darcy Kuemper, who had entered the game with three shutouts in four starts.
"It's always fun to get that first one, especially the way I did it, too. It's not the goal you may have in mind," Stralman said, smiling.
Stralman believes he has more offense in his game than he's shown in the NHL — just 18 goals in his first seven seasons — especially playing in Cooper's system and on the power play. But Stralman's biggest impact has come in the defensive zone. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound Swede is a calming force, seemingly always in position and making the right pass.
He's not an imposing enforcer, but he is hard to play against in the corners and in front of the net. And though he doesn't have a booming shot, he finds a way to get pucks through from the point. Center Brian Boyle, who played with Stralman in New York, said the defenseman has taken another step forward in his game.
"I watched him closely in the playoffs, watched all the games, and I thought he was a good player," Bowness said. "When you watch him play in practice every day, he's a much better player. He's better than we thought.
"I love his calmness with the puck. There's no panic in his game. One thing at ice level we can see is their eyes, and he's very calm. He sees the game. He knows the game. His positional play is very strong. He never panics with the puck. He never puts his partner in danger. He's just a very good player. We couldn't be happier."