In the summer of 2012, the Tampa Bay Lightning made two free-agent signings that addressed their blueline for the immediate future. The move fans may remember more might be inking Matt Carle to a six-year contract worth $33 million. He played four seasons with the club before being bought out of his deal following the 2015-16 season. The Lightning’s other transaction on defense through free agency was signing Sami Salo to a two-year contract.
Salo will always be most associated for his time with the Vancouver Canucks franchise. He played in nine campaigns for them and was a teammate to some of the best players the club ever had, like Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Markus Naslund, Trevor Linden, and Roberto Luongo, to name a few. He was a solid two-way defender who could rack up his share of points while also doing his job well, protecting the net from the opposition. Before further discussing his time in Vancouver and his eventual journey to Tampa, his hockey history must start at the beginning with the Ottawa Senators.
Salo’s Time in Canada’s Capital
The Senators drafted Salo with their last pick in the 1996 NHL Draft. In fact, only two other players were selected after him before the draft itself was over. He was picked in the ninth round (239th overall). He spent time playing the game overseas for teams like TPS and Jokerit in the Finnish Elite League (Liiga) before making his NHL debut with Ottawa during the 1998-99 season. He suited up for seven goals and 12 assists for 19 points in 61 games.
One benefit right off the bat was that he came into a Senators locker room who had a lot of talent in it. Alexei Yashin was the leading scorer that year with 94 points (44 goals and 50 assists). Some other names there at the time who went on to have prolific careers or continued to do well included future Hockey Hall of Famer Daniel Alfredsson, 2020 Hall of Famer Marian Hossa, Vinny Prospal, Wade Redden, and Shawn McEachern.
Salo spent four campaigns in Ottawa total. During that time, the team made the playoffs every year. He posted the following regular-season stats during his tenure there:
- 1998-99: seven goals and 12 assists for 19 points in 61 games
- 1999-00: six goals and eight assists for 14 points in 37 games
- 2000-01: two goals and 16 assists for 18 points in 31 games
- 2001-02: four goals and 14 assists for 18 points in 66 games
Additionally, Salo played in 26 games for the Senators in the postseason, posting three goals and two assists for five points. After the 2001-02 season, he signed a qualifying offer with Ottawa. However, before the 2002-03 campaign, he was traded to Vancouver with forward Peter Schaefer heading the other way. The change of scenery ended up being huge for his career, with some of his best seasons coming from his time as a Canuck.
Salo’s Successes in Vancouver
Salo spent nine seasons in Vancouver, and he became a household name for the club to an extent. Other names like the Sedin Twins, Todd Bertuzzi, and Naslund gained more attention as the offensive juggernauts and faces of the team that they were, but Salo fit in well with the other blueliners on the roster. His defensive teammates in his first campaign there were 1994 first overall pick Ed Jovanovski, Mattias Ohlund, Brent Sopel, and Bryan Allen, to name a few. Ohlund can be considered one of the best defensemen ever in Canucks franchise history, especially as someone with whom Salo spent many campaigns. In total, they were together in Vancouver six seasons (2002-03 to 2008-09).
Salo had a few of his best statistical seasons offensively in the first few seasons he joined the Canucks. In 2002-03, he hit a career-high in goals at the time (nine), assists (21), and as a result, overall points in a single campaign (30). His career highs prior to that were seven for goals, 16 for assists, and 19 for points. He had three seasons where he reached the 30 point mark; and came close five other occasions with seasons of 28, 26, and three years of 25. Eventually, his career highs became 14 in goals, 23 for assists, and 37 for points.
He posted the following numbers throughout his time with the Canucks:
- 2002-03: nine goals and 21 assists for 30 points in 79 games
- 2003-04: seven goals and 19 assists for 26 points in 74 games
- 2005-06: 10 goals and 23 assists for 33 points in 59 games
- 2006-07: 14 goals and 23 assists for 37 points in 67 games
- 2007-08: eight goals and 17 assists for 25 points in 63 games
- 2008-09: five goals and 20 assists for 25 points in 60 games
- 2009-10: nine goals and 19 assists for 28 points in 68 games
- 2010-11: three goals and four assists for 7 points in 27 games
- 2011-12: nine goals and 16 assists for 25 points in 69 games
Looking at the postseason, Vancouver had a lot of team success making it while Salo was there. Out of the nine seasons he played for them, they made the playoffs seven times. Two of the bigger runs he and the Canucks went on were in 2007 and 2010. Salo posted an assist in 10 games on their 2007 run, while he racked up six points in 12 games for 2010 (one goal and five assists). The biggest playoff year Salo and the club had occurred in 2011.
After claiming the 2010-11 Presidents’ Trophy as the team with the most regular-season points in the entire league, the Canucks took on the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference quarterfinals. Vancouver defeated them in seven games, with forward Alexandre Burrows netting the overtime winner in Game 7 to move the Canucks into the next round. The team then followed up by getting past the Nashville Predators in six contests in the semifinals and the San Jose Sharks in five in the Western Conference Final. The Canucks made the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1994 when they lost to Mark Messier and the New York Rangers. This time, they took on the Boston Bruins.
Despite the Canucks winning the first two matchups in the Cup Final thanks to a Game 1 tally in the dying seconds by Raffi Torres and an overtime winner in Game 2 by Burrows, the Bruins took Vancouver to the limit and were able to come up victorious in a seven-game series to win the Stanley Cup. Boston was led by their goalie Tim Thomas, captain Zdeno Chara, and forwards like Patrice Bergeron and Milan Lucic. Vancouver officially had lost their third Cup Final appearance.
On that 2011 run, Salo had three goals and two helpers for five points in 21 games. He had a solid team around him, especially on the backend, with other skilled defensemen in Christian Ehrhoff, Kevin Bieksa, and Dan Hamhuis helping carry the load. They ultimately were just not able to get that one last victory.
2011-12 was the last year Salo suited up as a Canuck. After getting 25 points in 69 regular-season matches and an additional five postseason games (he did not register a point), he left in the summer of 2012 and inked a two-year deal with Tampa Bay to become a member of the Lightning.
A Two-Year Bolt Stint
Salo joined the Bolts before the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign. Then-general manager Steve Yzerman was close to beginning the transition of star power from the Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis era to fully embrace the Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman one. Salo’s first season in Tampa was Lecavalier’s last, while St. Louis played his last full season with the club (he was dealt before the 2014 trade deadline to the Rangers for forward Ryan Callahan). The defense he joined once the season began included Hedman, Carle, Eric Brewer, and Keith Aulie. As a team, they started the season strong before dropping off, leading to head coach Guy Boucher being let go for Jon Cooper. The Lightning missed the playoffs as one of the worst teams in the Eastern Conference.
Individually for 2012-13, Salo was third among defenders in points. He was only behind Carle (who led with 22 points) and Hedman (20 points), with 17 of his own (two goals and 15 helpers) in 46 games.
The Lightning in 2013-14 officially made the leadership changeover. Lecavalier left in the 2013 offseason via free agency and signed with the Philadelphia Flyers. As a result, St. Louis was named captain to start the year. However, once he was dealt for Callahan, Stamkos was given the ‘C’ for the team. It is a role he still has to this day. Team-wise, they completely turned around their play from 2012-13 to 2013-14 to be second overall in the Atlantic Division, with only the President’s Trophy-victorious Bruins ahead of them. They made the postseason but did not make it out of the first round versus the Montreal Canadiens as they were swept 4-0 in the series.
In his second campaign with the Bolts, Salo tallied 17 points (four goals and 13 assists) in the regular season. For the playoffs, he only played in two games and did not register a point. Following the 2013-14 season, Salo sat out the entire 2014-15 hockey year due to a wrist injury he was dealing with. This injury eventually led to his retirement during the 2015 offseason. He hung up his skates, having produced an overall 99 goals and 240 assists for 339 points in 878 regular-season games. Additionally, in 102 postseason contests, he notched 12 goals and 19 assists for 31 points.
Looking back over the span of Salo’s career, he never had to be the top defenseman for a team. He always had other blueliners like Redden in Ottawa, Ohlund or Ehrhoff in Vancouver, and Hedman in Tampa that took on that number one spot. Salo could be comfortable in his role as a defender wherever he was and not have too much of a workload that negatively impacted his performance on the ice. He will also always be mainly recognized for his tenure with the Canucks. Many might have forgotten he was in Tampa for a couple of years, and there might even be some who forgot or never knew he was in Ottawa as well. He was a veteran presence on the Lightning as the franchise started to work toward their new identity into the club we know them to be today that has won two straight Stanley Cup championships.