Sami Salo is in no rush. He slides to his left with a puck at the blue line as the defense moves with him, waiting one, two, three seconds, before delivering a short pass to Marty St. Louis.
The patience, composure, allows St. Louis to take the Philadelphia penalty killers farther out of position before slipping a pass back to Vincent Lecavalier at the right circle. The captain is wide open and ready to hammer a shot to the roof of the net for another Lightning goal.
Salo has learned the value of that extra time with the puck on his stick, wherever he is on the ice, through 14 NHL seasons and several international competitions. The 38-year-old from Finland was the veteran presence on defense the Lightning needed and he has made an immediate impact with five assists and a plus-11.
“He gives us a boost on the power play obviously, but every shift he is out there he is a calming influence,” Lightning center Steven Stamkos said. “As a veteran leader, he doesn’t panic. When you have a guy like that it makes everyone else on the ice more at ease.”
Lightning coach Guy Boucher said you can manage in the NHL without a top goalie or an abundance of top-notch offensive players, but having a steady top-four on defense “is everything in the NHL.”
A big part of the offseason efforts for Lightning vice president and general manager Steve Yzerman was reworking the defense. He signed Salo to a two-year deal and Matt Carle for six. Carle is a steady, mobile, two-way threat. Salo’s two-way abilities and leadership in the room filled the hole left by injured Mattias Ohlund, becoming what Boucher termed, “the calm in storms.”
“That’s what Sami’s brought already,” Boucher said. “We’ve got so much more of a mature group this year and he’s a big part of that.”
Salo, a 6-foot-3, 215-pound right shot, was a ninth-round pick of the 1996 draft by the Ottawa Senators and broke into the NHL during the 1998-99 season.
In September of 2002, Salo was traded to the Vancouver Canucks for forward Peter Schaefer and recorded 40 goals and 126 points combined over the next four seasons. With that kind of production, Salo was known more for his offense but he developed the same poise on defense and is plus-125 in his 770-game NHL career. His best season was in 2006-07 when he had 14 goals, 37 points and plus-21.
“I was taught to be humble,” Salo said. “My dad always told me that everything was about hard work and to appreciate what you have.
“I’ve had a chance to play with a lot of great older players during my career, guys that have really helped me a lot. [Composure] comes with that experience. It helps your teammates get into the best positions where they can make a play.”
Salo moved to the Tampa area in August to get settled and the lockout afforded him a chance to get to know many of his new teammates better and adjust to the climate and the city.
There was no transition period needed for Salo when he hit the ice for his first Lightning practice, paired primarily with 22-year-old Victor Hedman right away. Salo’s stability on defense has allowed Hedman to use his skating ability to get forward and make things happen. They have been the definition of what Boucher wants from his team “patient aggressiveness.”
“We talk the game and that makes it easier,” Hedman said. “I’ve learned a lot.”
Boucher said Salo has helped Hedman become more assertive. Salo leads by example and has a simple message for young defensemen like Hedman, who is a plus-10 through nine games.
“Just keep an even keel,” Salo said. “Don’t get too high when things are going well and don’t get too low when they aren’t going well. You have to find a balance. [Hedman] is already a great hockey player, so there’s not much I need to tell him.”
Salo has been a big part of the improved Lightning’s power play, which is among the league leaders at 32.5 percent. He has only contributed two assists with the man advantage, but his presence has been important. The threat of his slap shot, which has been clocked at more than 100 mph, has allowed teammates to find more room.
“We have a lot of firepower up front,” Salo said. “I just try to keep it fairly simple. It’s been pretty good, but there’s always another step you can take.”
Teams will adjust to Tampa Bay’s high-scoring offense. Salo helps give the Lightning more answers when they do.
“Sami is smart,” Stamkos said. “He knows what to do with the puck. He doesn’t try to be too fancy or do too much. He realizes what he was brought here to do and he’s doing it to a T.”
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