When the so-called NHL experts are talking about Norris Trophy candidates, it is a lineup of the usual suspects.
As the Norris represents the top defenseman in the NHL, talk centers around Duncan Keith of Chicago, P.K. Subban of Montreal and Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson. Those three have won the trophy five times in the last six seasons. Clearly, Karlsson will, and should, be a finalist again this year.
Even thinking about the next tier of the best blue liners in the NHL and names like Shea Weber, Drew Doughty, Roman Josi along with Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning are mentioned. But there is one name that you will probably never hear in any Norris Trophy talk and that is Anton Stralman of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Stralman may never be given the consideration for the Norris but that doesn’t mean that he isn’t one of the best at his craft. All of the aforementioned defensemen play for the team that drafted them. Not only that, they all were drafted in either the first or second round. This distinction is not true of Stralman.
The main critiques of Stralman prior to his draft year were his size or lack thereof. At 5 feet, 11 inches tall and 185 pounds, he is not the prototypical bruising defender that most NHL GM’s love to have on their rosters. While he handles the puck well and is a plus in the offensive zone, the question had always been: How does Stralman hold up physically in the long, brutal NHL campaign?
The Road Less Traveled
For Stralman, the road to being an NHL top 2 defender has been about as circuitous as possible. Drafted in the seventh and final round of the 2005 NHL draft by the Toronto Maple Leafs, the odds were already stacked against Stralman. Seventh rounders are not usually a lock to make it in the NHL but the hard working Swede persisted.
After seeing action in 88 games for the Leafs over two seasons, Toronto traded Stralman to the Calgary Flames along with Colin Stuart for Wayne Primeau. Stralman was not part of the deal that the Flames had coveted because within 60 days he was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets for a future third round pick.
Stralman played for Columbus for two seasons without much fanfare. He did score six goals and 28 assists in his first year with the Blue Jackets during the 2009-10 season in 73 games but he did regress a bit the following season. Stralman missed over 40 games due to a long bout with recurring bronchitis. Naturally, his performance suffered as a result of the on again, off again time on the ice.
Playing on his last year of his contract didn’t help matters as Stralman headed into the free agency period after this injury plagued season, it wasn’t surprising to him that he found no takers. New Jersey had agreed to a try out prior to the 2011-12 season but Stralman did not make the final roster.
Like a man without a country, Stralman was an NHL player without a team as the 2011-12 season began. It didn’t take long for his phone to ring. About a month into the season, the New York Rangers signed Stralman to a one year deal.
Playing healthy and on a team that wanted his services, Stralman began to work his way onto the Rangers top 4. Earning the nickname “Mr. Casual” for the calm and collected way he went about his job especially in the defensive zone. After that first season with New York, Stralman and the Rangers agreed to a two year deal keeping him in the Big Apple as the team eyed a run at the Stanley Cup.
After signing his two year contract, Stralman played in every regular season game except one. So much for not having the size of an NHL D-man. During his last season in New York, Stralman began seeing time against the top offensive players on the opposing side. Now past the mystical 300 game mark which many NHL analysts believe a defenseman must play to begin to learn the position, Stralman was no exception to that adage.
While the Rangers lost to the Los Angeles Kings in the 2014 Stanley Cup, Stralman is best remembered for his goal saving technique on a Kings power play. See the video here:
The thing about Stralman is that he is about as technically sound as a defenseman can be in all situations. So few players nowadays even attempt a good old fashioned hip check but Stralman can deliver one as textbook as they come. Even when giving up four inches and 40 pounds to a freight train named Alex Ovechkin, Stralman can stop that runaway engine dead in his tracks. Then have the wherewithal to get in front of an Ovechkin bullet without blinking an eye.
After three seasons with New York, Stralman was a free agent again. Unlike his first foray, this time he had suitors lined up. Taking a call from his old Ranger captain, Ryan Callahan, Stralman didn’t take long to sign a five year deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
All Stralman did in his first season with Tampa was set career marks with 9 goals and 30 assists. Oh, and he played in all 82 regular season and 29 post-season games for the Lightning.
This season, Stralman has been been one of the best players for the Lightning regardless of position. He has already tied his career mark of 9 goals and is 5 assists short of the 30 helpers he tallied last season. He continues to be in the right place and the right time defensively and has continued to develop his offensive touch.
As evidence of his worth and value to the Lightning, Stralman, along with his main defensive partner and fellow Swede, Hedman lead the team in time on ice with 22 and 23 minutes respectively. As Stralman continues to improve his craft, I find myself going back to a quote attributed to coach Jon Cooper during last season’s playoff run about his Swedish defender when Stralman was in New York.
“He is definitely one of those guys you do not appreciate until you have him on your team. His preparation, his calm, his hockey sense, everything, it’s phenomenal. He is the total package, and he can play in every situation. He may not win the Norris Trophy, but his partner will, that’s how good he can make you look.”
If one were to question New York Ranger fans what they think of Stralman now, the overwhelming opinion seems to be one of regret.
Every time I hear Dan Boyles name, I get mad and think about Anton Stralman.
— NYR Breakdown (@NYRBreakdown) March 17, 2016
Keith Yandle is going to get P-A-I-D this summer. And it’s going to hurt the Rangers nearly as much as letting Anton Stralman walk.
— Seth Rothman (@SethDRothman) March 17, 2016
So while Norris Trophy candidates are discussed, Stralman will most likely never get even a hint of a mention. It matters not one bit to him. His play, his work ethic and his ever improving skill bodes well for his team. If Cooper is correct with his assessment, it also bodes well for Hedman. Stralman may never get the recognition beyond Tampa that he deserves but knowing he is locked up as a Lightning for the next three seasons gives fans in Bolts Nation a whole lot of comfort.