Defensive-minded Aulie Eyes Another Championship

By Jeremy Houghtaling

It starts with the term "shutdown defenseman."

After that, Keith Aulie rattles off the rest of his responsibilities, memorized not in a mirror but through repetition on the ice.

"I try to go out there, play hard, finish my hits, make my first passes, be tough for their forwards to play against, kill penalties, and be consistent back there," Aulie said before taking a breath.

Likely set to at least challenge for a spot on the Tampa Bay Lightning blueline this season, Aulie has taken his talents to the Syracuse Crunch during the NHL lockout. A team that has been near the top of the Eastern Conference in points and penalty minute leaderboard all season, the Crunch welcomed the 6-6, 229-pounder’s ability to log substantial ice time.

"He's a minute-munching defenseman that is a big body and hard to get around," Syracuse head coach Jon Cooper said. "He makes the simple plays out of the zone and can kill penalties. Guys like that are hard to find, that's why he's a great fit for our team."

Between multiple championships and multiple trades, the 23-year-old may not be a seasoned veteran, but certainly has packed plenty of experience in a few short years.

After playing two years with the Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League, Aulie figured he would be taken in the 2007 NHL entry draft, but not in the first round. Wise beyond his years, the Calgary Flames' fourth-rounder knew at the time it was just the first step.

"It maybe wasn't as big of a thing for me as it was other guys, because I knew that's just the start of the journey," Aulie said. "It's cool to know what team you're going to and everything else, but from then on it's a lot of work and trying to make the NHL."

While finishing up his fourth year in Brandon – scoring a personal-best 33 points in 58 games – Aulie, a native of Roulea, Saskatchewan, won gold with Canada on home ice at the 2009 World Junior Championships.

"It's just mind-blowing how many people care about that tournament," Aulie said. "It's everybody, like grandmas sitting at home who never watch hockey but tune into the world junior tournament."

Aulie then spent half of the 2009-10 season with the American Hockey League's Abbotsford Heat before being involved in a blockbuster trade that sent former Calgary first-rounder Dion Phaneuf to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Aulie joined the AHL’s Toronto Marlies for five games before sustaining a season-ending injury, and split the next two seasons between the two Toronto teams, totaling more than 50 NHL contests.

"That was a pretty good stepping stone for me," Aulie said. "I was paired with Dion Phaneuf, who I learned a ton from – played over 20 minutes a night. That's something that's going to go a long way in my career."

At the 2011 trade deadline, the Leafs swapped prospects with the Lightning, and Aulie finished out the final 19 NHL regular season games in the Sunshine State. Popular Norfolk Admirals forward Carter Ashton was sent to the Leafs organization.

Sent down to get more playing time, Aulie joined the Norfolk for their Calder Cup playoff run, playing in the team's final 21 games. The Admirals topped the Marlies – the same team Aulie had been traded from – in the finals.

"For us to go the whole way right to the end and play against the Marlies was a pretty neat experience," Aulie said. "I saw a lot of familiar faces, that series was a lot of fun."

Without the NHL and a chance at a call-up, Aulie is setting different goals. Besides impressing the Lightning brass, he hopes to hoist the Calder Cup again.

“It's a battle every day in this league,” Aulie said. ”Everybody is fighting for jobs and everybody is trying to be on the top of their games if the NHL comes back. At the same time, we have such a great group of guys here. Obviously, we had a lot of success last year, and we're trying to keep that going."