Top 25 Under 25: #25 Keith Aulie

With just 121 NHL games played, he's in a bit of a grey area with regards to being considered a "prospect" -- the Top 25 Under 25 countdown begins properly with the oft-overlooked defenseman Keith Aulie.

Revealing the nebulous nature of this Top 25 Under 25 exercise (as his ranking is quite literally all over the place), we start off with 6'6 defenseman Keith Aulie, acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs in February of 2012 in exchange for forward prospect (and former 1st round pick) Carter Ashton, who recently wound up as #19 on Pension Plan Puppets' own Top 25 Under 25.

Here's how the panel ranked Aulie:

Kyle Alexander John Fontana Clark Brooks Clare Austin Patti McDonald Mike Gallimore

As you can see from the panel's ranking, the Raw Charge staff wasn't overly impressed by Aulie, as none of us elected to include in him in our top 25. However Mike Gallimore, of Bolt Prospects and Bolt Statistics, put him at 15th on his list, which was high enough to vault him over near misses like Luke Witkowski and Kristers Gudlevskis and into the countdown itself.

Here's Gallimore on his ranking (author's note: Mike needs to reassess his personal definition of the world "blurb"):

Despite being a towering rearguard who has seen stretches of NHL action during the last four seasons, Aulie is somewhat easy to overlook. The 24-year-old signed a 1-year deal -- which appears, on the surface, to be a 'show-me' type contract -- in late June after posting a career high in games played (45) and points (7) during last season's abbreviated schedule while skating in a depth role at even-strength and seeing limited minutes as a penalty killer. Aulie was acquired from Toronto in 2012 in exchange for Carter Ashton, one of the Lightning's two 2009 1st-round selections, as part of a concerted effort by Steve Yzerman to balance the organization's depth. It was a move which gave (and still continues to provide) the club a very cost-effective option to round out the defensive corps. Considering, though, how Radko Gudas memorably burst onto the scene -- enough to warrant a multiyear contract -- while also factoring in the attention paid to the addition of defensive talent to Tampa Bay's pipeline, it's not altogether surprising that Aulie might be an afterthought for some. Still, he's an established NHL regular already and that's nothing to sneeze at.

Conversely, Raw Charge writers John Fontana and Clare Austin admitted to excluding Aulie from their lists as an accidental oversight. Here's John:

With all the talk and rhetoric about the future, the present sort of slipped my mind. While I could think about a few key players on the Lightning who are under 25, Aulie slipped my mind.

And Clare:

I'm pretty much left with "uhhh...oops." I just forgot how young he is, so it never occurred to me to rank him. Which I suppose says something important about his maturity level. I certainly wouldn't consciously leave him off the list.

I, however, did leave Aulie off my own list intentionally. This exercise has been all about weighing current ability against potential, and in the case of Aulie, I felt that while he has some usefulness in the former category, he has very little in the way of the latter. While it is true 121 games isn't quite enough of a sample size to accurately judge a hockey player, particularly a defenseman, if he were going to take some enormous leap forward in his development my feeling is we would have seen some inkling of that by now. Aulie "is what he is", so to speak, which is a fine 7th defenseman and a passable bottom pairing guy but not much more. Thus, for me at least, the potential of others slightly outweighed Aulie's own current ability, which kept him off my list.

So how has Aulie been performing in his NHL career? His basic stats don't tell us too much, because they primarily track offensive contributions and he isn't really expected to provide offense. "Offensive" is certainly not his usage or his role. He's only scored 12 total points in 121 total NHL games (barely .10 PPG) between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning so looking a little deeper will help see how effective he's been as an NHLer.

On the plus side, the "real time stats" paint quite a favorable picture for Aulie as the type of player you might expect someone his size to be. He led all regular Lightning defensemen in hits last year with 94 (though on a per-game basis, Radko Gudas far surpassed him) and also contributed with 42 blocked shots. He was also only charged with 8 giveaways in his 45 games played, which is a significantly low number (especially when compared to Eric Brewer's 30 or Victor Hedman's 42). In a sheltered, defensive role, Aulie certainly has some value as a bottom-pairing defender.

The obvious problem with using RTSS to evaluate a player, however, is twofold: first, the effect of rink bias, as "homerism" creeps in. Some scorekeepers are far more likely to record an event than others depending on the situation. Secondly, most RTSS events require that the player in question be without the puck, which is not necessarily a good thing. Aulie is at least partly able to rack up so many hits and blocks (and so few giveaways) because unlike, say, Victor Hedman, the Lightning rarely possess the puck when Aulie is on the ice.

Relatedly, the "fancy stats" aren't too kind to Aulie. During the 2013 season, in spite of relatively easy defensive assignments (51.9% zone starts, 2nd among regular Lightning blueliners, and also 2nd in Corsi QualComp) and often playing behind the strongest Lightning forward lines (1st in CorsiQOT, or quality of teammates), the Lightning were consistently (and oftentimes woefully) outshot with Aulie on the ice. Those numbers did improve a bit towards the end of the season when paired with Radko Gudas, a pairing which may start 2013-2014 together, but they still paint a pretty bleak picture of how Aulie played in 2013.

Traditional eye-test analysis backs this up as well, as Aulie is far too often seen chasing the play in his own end, failing to make a clean first pass out of the zone, or getting burned to the outside in spite of his lengthy reach.

Furthermore, Aulie doesn't test well with other, less commonly-used metrics either. Stephen Burtch of Pension Plan Puppets recently re-introduced his "Shut Down Index" (SDI), a metric he developed himself in order to better evaluate the defensive contributions of defensemen. You can read more about SDI and how it is calculated here and here. Burtch ran down the list of each team's best and worst defensemen as judged by SDI, and had this to say about the Lightning:

With a 1-year deal heading into 2013, one would guess that Aulie likely needs to show significant improvement in 2013-2014 in order to move up the Top 25 Under 25 list for next year and to stick in Tampa beyond the 1-year deal he signed in June. A full year working with head coach Jon Cooper and new associate coach Rick Bowness, who will be handling the defense, will hopefully help Aulie to work out some of the flaws in his game and help him take the proverbial "next step" in his development.

But with such a cheap contract (just a $975,000 cap hit and salary for next year), Aulie may be able to stick with the Bolts because he is a young, cheap, NHL defenseman that provides insurance against injuries and lets more highly touted prospects (which may or may not be covered later on in this series) continue their development in lower leagues at the measured pace GM Steve Yzerman prefers.