When the Tampa Bay Lightning traded for Keith Aulie at the 2012 trade deadline, sending prospect Carter Ashton to the Toronto Maple Leafs in return, it seemed like a solid hockey trade. The Leafs needed young scorers. The Bolts needed defense. A season and a half later, the Tampa Bay Lightning must be pretty happy with the deal.
Let’s be clear: Bobby Orr, Keith Aulie is not. He’s probably never going to win, nor be nominated for, a Norris trophy. Nor is he ever likely to be a top-pairing defenseman. What Keith Aulie has emerged as is a dependable lower-depth chart defenseman who can provide solid relief minutes for the team’s top-end D-men.
The Lightning rewarded Aulie at season’s end with a one year, one-way, contract worth $975,000. There are several ways you might interpret this contract. First and foremost, it’s a one-way deal, meaning Aulie has shaken his “fringe” big leaguer status and is already penciled into the Lightning lineup for the 2013/2014 season. But beyond that, the single year in term is intriguing, since it means one of two things: either the Lightning aren’t yet ready to commit to Aulie as a long-term piece of the team’s core, or this is one of the newly popular “bridge” contracts under which a player auditions for a much larger sum of money (for the macro version of such a deal, see P.K. Subban’s contract). While Aulie’s probably never going to break Tampa Bay’s bank account, a good performance in the coming season could put him in line for a substantial raise.
It’s important to remember that because of Aulie’s size (6’6, 225ish), and age (24), he could be as much as half a decade away from his prime. Defensemen, and big defensemen in particular, take a while to develop. Aulie’s key attribute will always be his size, and the more he uses it to his advantage, the better he’ll be.
Aulie’s role with the Lightning, for the time being, is providing relief minutes for players like Victor Hedman and Matt Carle. Basically, he holds down the fort for 12-15 minutes per game, and if he does his job well, nothing bad happens in those minutes. He took a significant step forward in 2013, playing bigger minutes as the year wore on, but there’s plenty of indication there are more steps coming.
With a few more steps forward, Aulie might yet develop into a top-four, punishing defensemen that’s simply nasty to play against. Don’t be surprised if someday you see him averaging 18-20 minutes per game. And don’t underestimate how valuable a player like that is, particularly to a team that struggles in its own end.
While the deal that brought Aulie to Tampa Bay was considered an even trade (don’t get me wrong – there were plenty of fans screaming bloody murder on either side), the early returns clearly seem to favor the Lightning. Carter Ashton has skated in just 15 games for the Maple Leafs, has yet to post an NHL point, and he’s not exactly setting the AHL on fire either. The jury’s still out – Ashton’s just 22 after all. But meanwhile, Keith Aulie has appeared in 64 Lightning games, posted a handful of points, helped the AHL affiliate Norfolk Admirals to a Calder Cup in 2012, and carved out a cozy bit of job security for himself.
At worst, he’s become an asset that has some value. At best, who knows?