Ryan Callahan should be the Lightning’s 12th forward for the playoffs

Despite his inconsistent role in the Lightning lineup lately, Ryan Callahan would be the better fit in the Tampa Bay fourth line going forward.

The Bolts are approaching the end of this historic regular-season run and that means the puck will soon be dropping for the First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. What it also means is that we will see who head coach Jon Cooper feels is the best fit for that fourth-line winger role. Will it be No. 73 or No. 24?

Assuming the Bolts will have a healthy lineup by the start of the postseason, at least amongst the forwards, the decision will come down to Adam Erne and Ryan Callahan. One player is in his first full season with the Bolts, playing more than 26 games at the NHL level, while the other is in year 13 in the NHL.

Callahan was deemed the “odd man out” after the NHL All-Star break in late January when the Lightning coaching staff said they wanted to give their younger forwards – like Mathieu Joseph and Erne – more opportunities to prove themselves. While Erne has certainly shown his abilities in the physicality department – something that has been highly prioritized by the team since being outmuscled out of the playoffs last year – it has not proven his worth over the veteran-presence of Callahan.

Callahan received his first start in the lineup, after nearly two weeks out, on his 34th birthday on March 21. In that game, he netted the game-winning goal and tied his season-high single-game hits total at seven. But the way Cally scored his birthday goal is what should catch the attention here. He was quoted in a postgame interview saying that he and Victor Hedman “made a little bit of eye contact” so he knew the puck was coming and was able to “tap it in” with his stick down on the ice.

It is that type of “hockey sense” that makes Callahan such a good presence to have on the ice. He has some of the most playoff experience on this Bolts team, with 119 postseason games logged in his career, and his physical play is nothing to shake your head at.

In his more limited number of game appearances this season (49 games), Callahan has registered 85 hits which places him just outside the Top-10 among his fellow teammates in that stat.

While Erne has 142 hits in 60 games played, both he and Callahan have nearly identical offensive numbers; both have seven goals and a plus-7 rating. Erne has just two more assists for 12 on the season to Callahan’s 10.

With Cedric Paquette already doubling his heavy hit numbers from last season with 253 and rookie big-man Erik Cernak making his presence known along the blueline, the minor difference in physicality between Callahan and Erne is negligible. Whether or not Callahan gets the nod, this is a great reminder of how deep this Lightning team is and how reliable they can continue to be even if they are struck by the injury bug down the line.

But as a player that has experience leading an NHL roster as team captain, and as one that has shown the maturity and commitment to his team despite being squeezed out of a consistent starting role, Ryan Callahan is the right fit for the Bolts’ fourth line in their run for the Stanley Cup this year.