One of the good things about organizational depth is that it protects a team from taking a big hit if a trade doesn’t pan out.
Many Lightning fans were skeptical when Keith Aulie was acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs on February 27th of this year. Most people (whether for or against the trade) were surprised to see young forward Carter Ashton going the other way, though many used some iteration of “you have to give to get” as their rationale for the trade. Detractors of the trade saw Ashton as a successor to Ryan Malone and wondered why the Lightning would dish the big forward when he was still a rookie finding his way in the pros. Supporters (myself included) looked at Aulie and saw a guy who was struggling to stay in the lineup for a team that was deep on D and was a risk worth taking. Aulie played 19 games with Tampa Bay after the trade, picking up one assist along with 13 penalty minutes and a +/- rating of -5. He then joined the Norfolk Admirals for the end of their regular season and subsequent run to the Calder Cup championship.
The feeling this summer was that Aulie would start this season in the NHL, though more because of his non-exempt waiver status than earning it. The lockout, though, allowed Aulie to go to Syracuse and keep playing in games. He played in just six before suffering an injury and he’s been out for about a month now. The injury couldn’t have come at a worse time – in addition to missing out on a chance to make a long-term impression, players like Dmitry Korobov have stepped up and proven that they belong in the lineup.
Let’s look forward to next season. The Lightning have five surefire NHL defenseman under contract – Victor Hedman, Matt Carle, Sami Salo, Eric Brewer, and Brian Lee. Marc-Andre Bergeron is an unrestricted free agent and one assumes he will be departing given the number of prospects knocking on the door. Mattias Ohlund’s career remains in limbo and we have to assume he won’t be playing. The trouble comes when you look at the huge crop of young RFA defensemen: Aulie is joined by Brendan Mikkelson, Mark Barberio, Radko Gudas, Matt Taormina, and Evan Oberg. Barberio is, in my opinion, a sure bet to slot in on Tampa’s 3rd pairing, so there’s one spot gone. I also have to believe that the team will give Gudas a shot, even if it’s as an occasionally used 7th defenseman. If the team wants to carry eight defensemen on the roster, then you’re left with Mikkelson, Aulie, Oberg, and Taormina. I think you can count Taormina out as he was probably just a depth signing for Syracuse. Oberg has proven capable in the NHL and the team obviously trusts him since they called him up so many times last season. Mikkelson has also proven capable after being acquired in the Blair Jones trade last season. He was a steady presence in 41 games for the Lightning and he rarely made mistakes. I’m not even delving into potential free agent signings, which would make the logjam even worse.
What I’m getting at with all of this is that Aulie needs to get healthy and back in the lineup so he can prove his worth to the Lightning brass. The very same depth that he was brought in to bolster is now threatening to hasten his exit from the franchise. He’s a big guy and fairly mobile as well, so he definitely has the tools that teams look for in a defenseman. Now it’s on him to grow and excel and show the team that he belongs on Channelside Drive.