One trade this past season that I never quite understood was the deal that sent young Leaf rearguard Keith Aulie to the Tampa Bay Lightning in return for promising forward (and former first-round draft pick) Carter Ashton.
As I’ve stated here many times, I’m always loathe to trade away young defensemen at the best of times, but certainly those with size and even a modicum of skill are, in my (hockey) world, quite precious.
Nonetheless, once the former Tampa prospect arrived in Toronto, Burke and company shot young Ashton up the food chain and onto the Leaf roster soon after his arrival—though I’m not sure precisely what he did to “earn” (if the Leaf parlance of “every game is a try-out” is supposed to be a legitimate guideline) the right to jump the queue. The only thing I’ve been able to figure out is that giving Ashton time with the big club gave Burke something to refer to as a "positive" after an otherwise un-inspiring trade deadline for the Leafs.
In any event, the Leafs presumably are of the view that Aulie had no future here, though he was actually (at the age of 21) a generally dependable defender last season who played alongside Dion Phaneuf a fair bit—and at times, was the more proficient of the two. Somehow his stock dropped over the summer and at training camp, to the point where others by-passed him on the depth chart. He was ultimately traded away.
Now about to turn 23 (this month), Aulie played for the Lightning a bit down the stretch this past season, averaging a little more than 11 minutes a night as a kind of 6th defensemen on the big club’s roster. Where he fits there in future, I have no idea.
But he has played a lot with the AHL Admirals in the playoffs, and he is now one of the young players that Norfolk will rely on as they go head to head with the Marlies in the just underway AHL Calder Cup finals.
I recognize that many Marlie observers felt Aulie under-performed badly in his time with the Leaf farm team this past season. I tend to chalk that up, at least in part, to his disappointment at being shuttled back to the minors after “making” the big club part-way through the 2010-’11 NHL season—and looking pretty good most nights. Whether he took things for granted or not (which seems to be the suggestion), that’s a big letdown for a young player. Not everyone handles that type of disappointment perfectly, at least not right away.
In any event, I’ll be watching him as closely as possible in the Calder Cup finals, to see how he is progressing as a young defensemen. He’s a tall guy, and those kinds of players often take a while to find their game, consistently, at the highest levels.
As the series against the Marlies continues, we’ll get a chance to better see where Aulie and Ashton (just back from injury) both are in their ongoing development. (Game 1 saw Ashton score the Marlies' only goal in a 3-1 loss.) But I’m even more interested in seeing where they will both be in two or three years—and whether the Ashton deal will have been a good one for the Leafs in the long run, or not.