TAMPA, Fla. — Lightning rookie defenseman Jake Dotchin was back at his home outside of Toronto a couple weeks ago, hanging with his buds and watching the NHL All-Star game when it suddenly sunk in.
“Before the break came I was here in Tampa just trying to kind of settle in and take things day by day, take things in stride,’’ Dotchin said. “But watching that All-Star game, that’s when it hit me.
“I mean, I grew up watching Team Canada and Team USA and guys like (Jonathan) Toews and (Patrick) Kane and Ryan Getzlaf and (watching that All-Star game) I realized, that’s my competition now.’’
Dotchin isn’t exaggerating about the competition. Since his recall from the American Hockey League three weeks ago he has literally been matched up on a nightly basis against the likes of Toews, Kane and Getzlaf.
Despite his limited experience Dotchin has been assigned to play alongside one of the Lightning’s own All-Stars, Victor Hedman, on the team’s top defense pair. And he hasn’t looked out of place.
Through his first five games, a span in which he’s averaged more than 17 minutes of ice time per game, Dotchin has built up a solid plus-three rating and recorded his first NHL point, an assist.
Even that assist shows how much the Lightning trust the burly 22-year-old. It came on a goal scored by fellow rookie Brayden Point in the waning minutes of a 4-3 loss to the Bruins that the Lightning had to have.
“Look, we run a meritocracy here and he’s earned the right to be here,’’ Lightning coach Jon Cooper said of Dotchin. “But if you bring a guy like that up you’ve got to give him a fair look, and I feel like we’ve done that.
“He’s earned the right to be here and he’s not playing with fear or like he’s afraid to make a mistake and that’s big. That’s what you like and if he keeps doing this he’s going to keep playing as much (as he has) or maybe more.’’
That Dotchin is playing with the Lightning at all is a bit of a surprise, even to Dotchin. A sixth-round pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, he ranked well down the organizational depth chart when the season began.
The 6’3″, 210-pound native of Cambridge, Ontario was behind Nikita Nesterov, Luke Witkowski and Slater Koekkoek at the time, but that may have been the least of his problems.
Knowing he needed to work on all aspects of his game, his skating in particular, Dotchin admits he lacked a bit of confidence coming into the season, one he expected to play solely at the minor-league level.
Dotchin has since proved, though, that the time he’s spent in recent summers working with former Canadian Olympic pairs skater Barbara Underhill has paid some dividends. So, too has the time he’s spent working with Syracuse Crunch coach Benoit Groulx, who Dotchin credits for refining his ability to not only defend his own net but start a charge up the ice toward the other one.
“He’s really been on me in a good way to just keep moving my feet more, and once I started to get the hang of that it’s like things really started happening for me,’’ Dotchin said.
The happening that led to Dotchin’s recall was the Jan. 26 trade of Nesterov to the Canadiens, a move Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman was prepping for when he brought Dotchin up two days earlier.
That Koekkoek, who had already played 29 games in Tampa, wasn’t the one recalled to replace Nesterov came as a bit of a surprise but it makes sense when you consider what the Lightning were planning. For starters, they wanted — and needed — another right-handed shooting defenseman, and Dotchin fits the bill whereas Koekkoek does not. And then there was the plan to place Dotchin with Hedman.
The Lightning’s hope was that by splitting up Hedman and his season-long defense partner Anton Strallman, they would create a little more offensive firepower throughout their defense pairs.
That hasn’t happened just yet. The Lightning, who have struggled to score all season, have scored two regulation goals or less in three of the five games they’ve played since Dotchin’s arrival. The Lightning are confident that will change, though, in part because Dotchin gives them more flexibility but also because Dotchin has displayed some sound offensive skills of his own.
“He moves the puck well and he gets his shot through,’’ said associate coach Rick Bowness, who manages the Lightning defense. “And he’s been very reliable defensively.
“Right now, he’s doing the job we need him to do, and yeah, I have been (surprised) by that a bit because we really didn’t get a whole lot of looks at him in training camps (the last couple years). But we did get great reports on him (at Syracuse) and then he gets here and you continue to see what you hear he was doing there and that’s why he’s been playing these minutes.
“So we’ll probably start getting him into some penalty-killing situations here soon and see how he handles that and just kind of keep growing him a little bit and see what we’ve got here.’’
What they’ve got is a kid who can hardly believe he’s been handed the responsibility he’s been given but appears to have a good game plan for continuing to prove he’s capable of handling it.
“I just want to keep things simple and play my game,’’ Dotchin said. “And that means making a good first pass out of my zone and being a pain in the arse to play against. I want guys to know I’m on the ice.
“So I want to be a physical presence out there. I want to finish my checks, give ‘em the lumber a little bit, and stick up for my guys and just help the team anyway I can.’’