tampabay.com

Lightning's young D has flourished

Circumstances dictated the triosink or swim. So far, it's the latter.

By EDUARDO A. ENCINA
Published November 23, 2007


For Lightning rookie defenseman Mike Lundin, the toughest hurdle of his transition from college to the NHL was realizing he belonged.

"All of a sudden, you're playing alongside guys you grew up following and watching," said the 23-year-old Lundin, recalling his first regular-season game last month. "You just don't want to make a mistake because you don't want to let them down."

But 21 games into the season, the Lightning blue line, the seventh-youngest defensive unit in the league with an average age of 26.63, has grown by leaps and bounds. Injuries and offseason departures created minutes for the young defensemen, so it has been a trial by fire. Three of the Lightning's seven are 24 or younger: Paul Ranger 23, Shane O'Brien (24) and Lundin.

"I think confidence comes with preparation and experience," said associate coach Mike Sullivan, who handles the defense.

"With each additional game they get under their belt, they feel much more comfortable. I think our guys have really stepped up to this point, and we've needed them to."

The Lightning has been without Dan Boyle - and his 20 goals last season - for most of the season because of a freak wrist injury. That could have been devastating considering the offseason departures of veterans Cory Sarich and Nolan Pratt.

"Over the summer, we were wondering what was going to happen," Ranger said. "But now we're confident about it. ... As far as us having three guys 24 or under, we don't think of it that way. We've been faced with a challenge. We've talked about it. We're ready to take it on."

Ranger said this defensive unit - which includes veterans Brad Lukowich and Filip Kuba along with 27-year-old Doug Janik (who has just 98 games under his belt) and newcomer Dan Jancevski - has bonded unlike any other he has played with.

The players have figured out ways to pick each other up, such as Wednesday night, when Rangers sat out with a shoulder injury. O'Brien (26:48) and Lundin (21:36) played well while logging season highs in minutes. O'Brien has doubled his career high in goals with four. Lundin had his first multipoint game last week. And Ranger recently had a three-game goal streak.

Coach John Tortorella says defensemen don't often reach their prime until 27 or 28. It's difficult for a young player to adapt to the speed of the game, be comfortable with the puck and maintain consistency over the grind of the NHL's 82-game schedule.

Sullivan, in his first season with the Lightning, remembers the discussions he had with Tortorella and general manager Jay Feaster before training camp when they told him they added depth along the blue line. The numbers have translated into a unique competitiveness, he said.

"I think you're seeing evidence of it playing itself out through the first 20 games," Sullivan said. "I don't think it's a surprise from anyone within our organization. I think everyone feels we've got capable guys. Injuries are a part of the game, and you have to find a way to fight through them as a team. Players are afforded certain opportunities because of it. I think our young guys have taken advantage of that."

Lundin agreed.

"You need to have something that gives you a little edge when you're going against some of the more experienced, wiser guys," he said. "So that's where the competitiveness helps."

It's a good situation for the Lightning, especially with the constraints of the salary cap, to have a young foundation that can be together for years.

"It's just great to be with a good team and have the opportunity," O'Brien said. "Hopefully, we all keep getting better and we're here in Tampa Bay for a long time."