BRANDON — Mathieu Joseph practiced with the Lightning throughout their stay in the NHL’s playoff bubble but didn’t see any game action during Tampa Bay’s run to the Stanley Cup.
Suddenly, the 23-year-old forward has become an important piece to the Lightning’s championship defense. He’s found his way onto three different forward lines through the season’s first four games
And now, Lightning coach Jon Cooper is trusting Joseph to anchor the team’s blue-collar fourth line by replacing center Mitchell Stephens, who is out indefinitely following a right leg injury suffered during the Lightning’s loss Saturday in Columbus.
This time last season, Joseph was toiling at the Lightning’s AHL affiliate in Syracuse, where he spent most of the season following a strong rookie campaign in 2018-19. The Lightning wanted to see better consistency, to know they could trust Joseph over the course of an entire regular season. Joseph’s play in Syracuse earned an invitation to the bubble, but the fact that he didn’t play served as motivation.
“You don’t want to be the odd man out,” Joseph said. “And we all want to play, we all want to be in the lineup every night. I think you’ve got to work and you’ve got to earn it. That’s definitely what I’m trying to do. I want to be in the lineup every night, and I really want to help the team win and have success. That’s my priority.”
Now, he’s one of the last players off the ice, working with assistant coach Jeff Halpern after practice on subtleties of the game that will take Joseph to the next level: stick carrying, puck possession, receiving passes, positioning — skills that aren’t a part of usual NHL practices.
“He’s found his way back here, and he deserves to be back here,” Cooper said. “... He’s a pretty committed kid. He’s out there early, and he’s staying late and he wants to play. So he’s not taking this — if you want to call it (his) second opportunity — for granted.”
Joseph’s biggest strength is his speed, but for now he’s going to make a name for himself by being physical and doing all the little things expected of the Lightning’s fourth-line grunts.
“I’m a guy that plays a pretty simple game,” Joseph said. “I don’t try to complicate it that much. I want to be good on the forecheck, try to be good in my zone and good in transition and try to use my speed. I’m not the most creative guy all the time, but I’m trying to work as hard as possible every shift. I think that’s what’s helped me try to fit in with some of the different lines that ‘Coop’ has changed so far in games.”
The Lightning traded center Cedric Paquette, who previously anchored that line, to secure salary-cap flexibility. Then Stephens went down to an unsightly injury that will keep him sidelined a while, his right ankle twisting awkwardly as he was tangled with a Columbus player.
So now, Joseph will likely be the team’s fourth-line center when the Lightning resume play Thursday in Carolina alongside wings Pat Maroon and Alex Volkov.
“We definitely believe the line is sped up a little bit, which is an asset to the line,” Cooper said. “I still think they can play that puck-possession game down low, with the added speed. It may not be as rumbly and tough as it was before. But I think Joe adds an element that they haven’t had. I think, especially with him in the middle of the ice, it might be able to open up some time and space for the guys.”
Joseph grew up playing center but shifted to wing in juniors and has been there ever since, so there will be a trial-by-fire element to the move. But the strides he made since his time in the bubble, through offseason training and in the first weeks of a new season, should help him.
“It’s going to be an adjustment, obviously,” Joseph said. “I haven’t played center in a bit, but I think I can use my speed and be good down low in my d-zone and try to outsmart the other team as well and be good support to the defensemen. It’s just gonna be just a little bit of adjustment talking to the d’s a little bit and faceoff-wise, but I’m excited for the challenge.”
Joseph said his experience in the bubble was invaluable, even without the playing time. As he entered training camp, he felt stronger but lighter on his skates. He’s been better at winning puck-possession battles and can maintain more ice time. Offensively, he has two goals in four games.
The Lightning will need that from Joseph moving forward, but teammates have noticed the strides the young player has made when most aren’t looking.
“Being in the bubble and not playing a single game, he just worked and worked and worked,” Maroon said. “He worked on his game, he worked on his fitness and got bigger, stronger, so I’m very, very happy for Mathieu. He’s come a long way. He deserved this opportunity. He’s playing really good hockey right now, and he’s getting rewarded.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.
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