Tampa Bay Lightning rookie Jake Dotchin is just 12 games into his NHL career, but he’s been an important part of the team’s improved play over the past few weeks.
Since his NHL debut against the Arizona Coyotes on Jan. 21, the 22-year-old blueliner has given the Lightning a consistently steady presence on the blue line. More importantly, however, is how his addition to the lineup has allowed the team to have better balance across their defensive pairings.
The Lightning enter Thursday’s contest against the Calgary Flames with at least a point in a season-high seven straight games and their turnaround is a combination of a lot of things. They are playing with a healthier lineup, for one. The forward lines are clicking offensively and utilizing their speed and the forecheck to make life easier on their defensemen. The blue line is minimizing opponent shots — the Lightning have held opposing teams to less than 30 shots five times in their past seven contests — and the goaltending tandem of Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy is playing well.
The recent play of the Lightning is the result of a collective effort across the roster, but the importance of how Dotchin plays into this shouldn’t be overlooked.
Dotchin has been paired with Victor Hedman on the team’s top defensive unit — a move that benefits both the Lightning and Dotchin — because it creates balance across the board for their blue line.
From the team’s standpoint, Dotchin’s addition to the lineup has give the Lightning the chance to successfully split up Hedman and fellow Swede, Anton Stralman. The Lightning tried this earlier in the year — before Dotchin arrived — and had minimal success. With Dotchin’s reliability, however, it creates a completely different situation and the team is reaping the rewards.
“The addition of Jake has allowed us to move guys around and all of a sudden, the duos, the chemistry between the duos, is working,” Lightning associate coach Rick Bowness told Tampa Bay Lightning reporter Caley Chelios on Wednesday. “But the one specifically with Dotch and Victor … the chemistry is there.”
After the top pairing of Dotchin and Hedman, Stralman has been skating with Jason Garrison, while Andrej Sustr and Braydon Coburn have rounded out the defense — with Luke Witkowski figuring into the lineup depending on what the matchups are against a given opponent. The Lightning are playing an improved game defensively as a team, but the performance of their blue line is allowing them to take more chances offensively — something the club lacked earlier this season.
Dotchin’s transition to the NHL game has been rather seamless, as he’s playing a sound positional game and been a steady presence for the Lightning. He and Hedman have impressed Bowness and the positive impact has been felt throughout the team’s defensive corps.
“They are reading off each other very well and are moving for each other all the time, which is absolutely crucial for our defensive pairings,” Bowness said. “We want them moving, supporting each other every shift out there and Jake has adapted very well to Victor.”
From Dotchin’s standpoint, he’s skating alongside an eight-year NHL veteran and one of the premier players in the league — which gives the Ontario native a valuable person to learn from on and off the ice.
“We talk a lot. He talks a lot on the ice, talks to me on the bench … kind of where he wants me to be and kind of just helps me out in the best way he can,” Dotchin told Chelios. “[I] just keep open ears and listen to what he has to say and learn as much as I can.”
In a dozen games with the Lightning, Dotchin has compiled three assists and 14 penalty minutes. His plus-6 rating is second on the team, behind only Nikita Kucherov’s plus-10 in 52 contests, and he’s averaging 17:21 of ice time per game. He’s also seen the ice in special teams situations — proof that Lightning head coach Jon Cooper has a bit of faith in the young player.
Dotchin’s composure at just 22 years of age is rare for a player at the defense position in such an early stage of his career, but it’s part of what’s made him so valuable to the Lightning early on.
“A lot of kids come into this league and are intimidated and they’re a little cautious and they sit back and are nervous to make mistakes,” Bowness said. “Jake has come up here and just played his game. I like his physical play, we like his ability to move the puck — he’s got his head up and he moves the puck very well.”
At 6’3″, 210-pounds, Dotchin plays a physical style while managing to not take himself out of position — something uncommon for players who are trying to prove themselves at the next level. Before he was recalled from the American Hockey League, he lead the Syracuse Crunch in penalty minutes (77) and he’s already compiled 14 with the Lightning. He has a mean streak, but he’s playing with the sort of composure and calmness that’s allowing himself not to take costly penalties, while remaining effective at the same time.
“[He’s] not afraid to shoot the puck, but all of those things are because there’s a lot of confidence in this kid,” Bowness said of Dotchin. “Without being a cocky kid, there’s a lot of inner confidence in him and the things that he needs to do at a high level consistently, he’s doing.”
The Road Ahead
While Dotchin has been a bright spot for the Lightning on the blue line since he was called up to the club, the team’s slow start to the season has meant that every game becomes important moving forward.
The Lightning are in the midst of a four-game homestand with big games against the Flames, Ottawa Senators and Carolina Hurricanes. The Lightning have 62 points with 23 contests remaining and are four points behind the New York Islanders for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race. The Islanders are tied with the Panthers — who have won five of their past six games — and the Boston Bruins, with 66 points. This creates little margin for error for the Lightning and they cannot afford to skate away without points in most of their remaining games.
As the Lightning close out the regular season and seek to earn their fourth consecutive playoff berth, the steady play of Dotchin will be something underlying their success on the defensive side of the game.