With season still young, Keith Aulie making an immediate impact
When the Tampa Bay Lightning acquired defenseman Keith Aulie last spring, there was little doubt that the towering defenseman would one day play a significant role in adding both size and speed to the Bolts blue line.
Few, however, expected him to do so this soon.
That includes even Lightning head coach Guy Boucher.
Through nine games this season, Aulie has a goal and two points, but ranks second on the team with 22 hits and is fifth with 12 blocked shots.
It, too, seems that Aulie, who is averaging just 12:51 of ice time per game, is using his minutes to his advantage.
“The experience of playing in Norfolk last season and being back in the AHL this year during the lockout really helped me,” Aulie said. “For me personally, it was kind of just a perfect situation.”
These are just the mere footnotes of the 2013 season for Tampa Bay’s tall traveler, for if Aulie, 23, is too young to be considered a journeyman, the story of how he arrived in Tampa Bay certainly seems to suggest otherwise.
Aulie began last season with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, the top minor-league affiliate of the Toronto Maple Leafs, before receiving the call to the big club and appearing in 17 games in 2011-12 with the team at the NHL level. From there, he would go on to one more stint with the Marlies before being acquired by Tampa Bay in a February 27 trade that sent forward prospect Carter Ashton north of the border.
After finishing out the final six weeks of the regular season with the Lightning, Aulie was reassigned to the Norfolk Admirals, the Lightning’s AHL affiliate last season, to not only assist in the team’s playoff run that was to begin timely in part with his arrival, but to further accelerate his development by exposing him to as much game experience as possible.
The strategy certainly appeared to pay off, as Aulie joined forwards Cory Conacher and Pierre-Cedric Labrie as one of just three of the organization’s prospects to make the big club’s NHL roster out of training camp approximately three weeks ago.
“We knew he had all the tools and that he would develop, so I’m not surprised,” Boucher said. “If anything, I’m surprised at how quickly it’s happened.”
Call it the education of Keith Aulie, who since October, has gone from playing on the Maple Leafs’ top defensive pairing alongside NHL All-Star defenseman Dion Phaneuf to last season often dressing as a seventh defenseman in Tampa Bay, only to return as a key component in adding both youth and depth to the Lightning blue line.
While the transition from team to team, city to city, and defensive partner to defensive partner has seemingly gone without a hitch, Aulie nonetheless remains a work in progress. Although he possesses much-desired qualities such as a big body, the willingness to be physical, an extra-long reach with his stick, and hits as well as blocks shots, there are areas he himself would like to see improve.
It is perhaps a hard lesson to absorb for a young kid with a bright future, but nonetheless one that will prove beneficial in his development.
“Playing at the pace of the NHL goes a long way,” Aulie added. “I feel like no matter how many games you play at that level, just to get in there and see how fast it is and to see how you improve each day by reacting faster and playing against some of the world’s top players certainly helps you.”
For defensemen, the 300-game plateau is often considered by pundits to be the magic number at which they begin to round out their game, so the more minutes he receives in ice time, the better off he is expected to be.
Also helping in his quest is his familiarity with Guy Boucher, who coached Aulie and Team Canada to a gold medal at the 2009 World Junior Championships in Ottawa, where he was paired with Buffalo Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers.
Now, four years later, Aulie is taking all of it into account as he looks to apply his previous knowledge and experience to his ever-evolving game this season.
“It’s coming along,” Aulie said. “I’ve tried to become more physical, which is something that this team can use to its advantage. I feel like I’ve improved in a lot of areas, and it’s because of playing on a lot of different good teams and in some different situations.”
And gaining more NHL experience with each passing game?
Well, that certainly helps too.