Carter Ashton (shown here in the 2011 preseason) and his offense may turn heads more than Keith Aulie and solid defense. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
It's been about a week since the Lightning revamped their defense on Deadline Day 2012. Brian Lee and Mike Commodore have quickly fallen into place inside the mishmash that makes up the current Tampa Bay defensive scheme, and both are seeing nearly 15 minutes of ice-time a night on average. Keith Aulie's arrival in Tampa was delayed with visa issues, so the back-to-back games against the Rangers and Hurricanes this weekend were his first minutes with the Lightning. He played 10:39 and 8:54 in those respective games, and is a plus-1.
While the moves - Commodore picked up for a conditional draft pick, Lee acquired for Matt Gilroy, and Aulie acquired for prospect Carter Ashton - add depth, size, stability to the Lightning blue line for the short-term and long-term, the Aulie deal invoked nostalgia and makes me wonder about the future.
Back in October of 1999, the Tampa Bay Lightning was retooling in year one of what amounted to a five year rebuilding effort. The day before the 1999-2000 season opener against the New York Islanders, GM Rick Dudley decided to deal one of the few assets he had on a weak Lightning roster for an inconsistent Swedish forward with the Toronto Maple Leafs....
Reading the article on the Lightning's trade of defenseman Cory Cross (and a 7th round pick in the 2001 NHL Draft) for Fredrik Modin, it seems almost laughable now to think Dudley touted Tampa Bay's "depth" on defense as what made Cross expendable (Ian Herbers, anyone?). The truth is that, at this time, the Lightning had little quality at any level of the organization to use as trade bait. That made Cross - a bottom pair defenseman playing top-pair minutes in Tampa - expendable.
Cross went on to play three seasons in Toronto, contributing on three playoff teams there before moving on. His sixteen year NHL career would continue with stints on the New York Rangers, Edmonton Oilers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings.
But the focus of this trade should be Modin. Freddie became an integral part of the Tampa Bay Lightning roster from the get-go. The 2001 All-Star and his booming slap shot would be a core member of the Lightning until his trade before the 2006-07 season. Modin getting away from the harsh spotlight of hockey-mad Toronto could easily be cited as a reason why Modin was able to come into his own offensively in the lower-pressure environment of Tampa Bay.
This brings me back to Keith Aulie and Carter Ashton.
The trade is a much bigger gamble compared to Cross/Modin (which was pulled off for immediate results in Toronto and long-term results in Tampa) because both players are young and have short professional resumes. Aulie, who is 23 years old and was a fourth round draft pick in 2007 by the Calgary Flames, had played 57 career NHL games before his trade to the Lightning. He made his professional debut with the Abbotsford Heat in 2009-10, but got traded to Toronto as part of the Dion Phaneuf deal. He's since bounced between the Toronto Marlies and the Maple Leafs, playing bottom line minutes for the Leafs.
Ashton, the 20-year-old first round pick in 2009, is in the middle of his first full professional season in the American Hockey League, with 37 points to his name when you combine his stats from his days with the Norfolk Admirals and Toronto Marlies (20 goals, 17 assists). Ashton has long been desired by the Maple Leafs, who tried to obtain the young wing at the 2010 trade deadline from former GM Brian Lawton (Ashton and the first round draft choice - that turned into Brett Connolly - would have been sent to Toronto for Tomas Kaberle).
Aulie's and Ashton's purpose with their new teams is long-term contributions. Results coming from Aulie's play on the Tampa Bay blue line will be felt more immediately, while Carter has yet to make his NHL debut, let alone crack the Leafs lineup.
Yet, it'll be much easier for Ashton to be considered a success in Toronto when he does arrive, as the contributions of a projected second-line wing will be much easier to see than those of a defenseman. After all, scoring goals and assists are sooner going to draw the attention from fans and media than clearing passes, hard hits, blocking shots.
With potential comes raised expectations, though. Will Ashton rise to the challenge of playing in the center of the hockey universe? Will Keith Aulie find his niche now that he's free from it?
It may be years before we know if there was a true winner in this trade, but the immediate reaction for both clubs should be optimism about what they've obtained and the promise for the future that they bring.