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The time is now for defensemen

"They all have to take a step,'' Lightning's Ludzik says of the young unit.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 4, 2000


BRANDON -- The average age of the Lightning's eight youngest defensemen is 23.5. Three are just 22. One is 21. The average number of NHL games played: 105. Petr Svoboda, at 34 and with 1,009 games under his belt, gives those numbers a boost. But the fact remains that the bulk of Tampa Bay's defensive duties will be manned by players with, on average, little more than one season of experience.

Coach Steve Ludzik doesn't want to hear it.

"It gets to the point where they all have to take a step," he said after a recent practice at the Ice Sports Forum. "They can't use age as an excuse. They have to expect excellence."

Expecting is one thing. Producing is another.

There is no doubt the level of raw talent among the Lightning's back-liners is high.

"Not only the guys here, but in the minor leagues," assistant coach John Tortorella said. "One of the key questions is, when do they decide to mature mentally?

"Defense is the most difficult position to play because it involves thinking and positioning. You can get away with a lot of deficiencies with thinking and being in the right place."

It also is more interwoven with the forward positions than the casual observer might realize, so the give and take between the units is primary. That's where experience comes in.

The Sept. 26 preseason finale against the Panthers was a perfect example. Florida scored three goals, each on a defensive breakdown. The breakdowns, though, were not confined to the defense.

What was most evident on the first goal was Ivan Novoseltsev standing undisturbed next to the crease, whacking at the puck three times before getting it past goaltender Dan Cloutier.

What you might not have seen was Lightning right wing Stan Drulia failing to make a clearing pass and defenseman Pavel Kubina leaving his position to attack the puck in the corner. That left defenseman Bryan Muir to defend a two-on-one.

What irked Muir just as much, however, was that Novoseltsev remained standing.

"You can't ask a goaltender to stop three rebound shots," he said. "You just have to hammer (the opponent) and show him he is not welcome there."

The second goal occurred when Ray Whitney got behind the Lightning defense and scored after collecting a long pass from Rob Niedermayer that ricocheted off the back boards.

How did he get so open?

As the Lightning forwards changed, Kubina pinched too far into the neutral zone. The speedy Whitney saw this and took off. Could Cloutier have played the puck away from Whitney? Maybe, maybe not.

The lasting picture of the third goal was of defenseman Paul Mara trailing goal-scorer Novoseltsev to the net.

What didn't get any exposure was that Mara, as well as his teammates on that penalty-killing shift, was trying to re-establish position after a bad change. All four of the previous penalty killers went to the bench instead of the usual two.

"They will learn from their mistakes," Tortorella said. "It's not the mistakes, it's how they respond to the mistakes."

Tortorella said the defense responded well after the Sept. 19 game against the Capitals, who burned Tampa Bay's down-low coverage for three power-play goals.

Now, it's the team's transition defense, which was responsible for the problems against Florida, that needs to be tweaked.

Though Tortorella cautioned there are no quick fixes, Svoboda likes what he sees.

"I like the way they approach the game," Svoboda said. "I like the way they practice. And they have a lot of confidence."

Defenses will always have breakdowns.

"It's the nature of the game," Svoboda said.

The thing is to minimize the chances to fail. That's why Tampa Bay's defensive scheme is to force opponents away from the opportunity-laden slot and limit teams to 25 shots on goal or fewer.

The Lightning succeeded just once in five preseason games, though the most it allowed was 28 to the Panthers. It gave up 15 goals, an average of three, which is ahead of last season's average of 3.8.

"I don't like talking about learning curves," Tortorella said. "We're teaching the defense we want them to play."

"From an experience fact, we're a little limited," defenseman Cory Sarich said. "But being with a young team, you get thrown into every situation. The learning process seems to happen a little quicker."

For the Lightning, it can't happen quickly enough.

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