Dotchin Adjusts to NHL with Hedman’s Guidance

Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Jake Dotchin is just five games into his NHL career, but that hasn’t stopped head coach Jon Cooper from turning to the rookie in important situations and allowing him the opportunity to contribute to the team in a meaningful way, despite his youth.

The 22-year-old blueliner was called up by the Lightning on Jan. 17 when Victor Hedman was out of the lineup with an illness. Dotchin made his NHL debut against the Arizona Coyotes four days later. While Dotchin played just 11:47 that night, he’s seen his playing time increase significantly over the past four games, averaging nearly 18 minutes per contest in that span.

On Tuesday against the Boston Bruins, he was paired with Hedman and played a career-high 20:25 — third-most on the team behind Hedman and Anton Stralman. Dotchin earned his first career point — an assist on Brayden Point’s fourth goal of the season — to make it a one-goal game with just 2:04 left to play. Perhaps most telling about Dotchin's impact since he arrived in Tampa, however, was that he was one of six Lightning players on the ice when goaltender Ben Bishop was pulled for an extra attacker as the game approached the end of regulation. While ultimately the Lightning fell 4-3 and failed to make up ground in their quest for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race, Dotchin was a plus-1 and showed the sort of poise and sound positioning game that bode well for his future at the NHL level.

Playing with Hedman, one of the league’s premier blueliners and a veteran of eight NHL seasons at just 26-years-old, has helped ease Dotchin’s transition to the NHL game.

“He’s an all-star and it helps my game a lot to know that he’s back there beside me,” Dotchin said after Thursday’s game against the Ottawa Senators. “He’s helped me a lot. He’s talked to me a lot … he’s kind of showing me the ropes.

“He’s a pretty big pillar to be able to lean on. It’s something I appreciate and obviously something that’s noticed.”

Dotchin’s performance through five games has been impressive, despite the team going 1-3-1 in that span. The Lightning fell to the Senators 5-3 on Thursday, but Dotchin was a plus-1 and saw the third-most ice time of any Lightning defenseman, behind Hedman and Stralman, for the third straight game. Dotchin registered three hits and two penalty minutes, but while he is contributing on and off of the scoresheet, what matters most to him is the team's final result as they attempt to climb their way up the Eastern Conference standings — which makes Thursday’s loss to the Senators all the more frustrating for Dotchin and his teammates.

“Obviously, that’s how I want to be playing,” Dotchin said when asked about Cooper’s decision to give him increased playing time and turn to him in the final minutes against the Bruins. “It’s what I want to be doing and it’s been my dream to play here and [losing] just sucks right now. It’s tough not to be able to get the two points we need.”

The Lightning are eight points behind the Philadelphia Flyers for the final wild card spot in the East with just 30 games left in the regular season. While the team has struggled throughout 2016-17 with injuries to many key players and battles with consistency at levels unseen in the previous two seasons, it’s given the organization an opportunity to evaluate some of their American Hockey League prospects at the game’s highest level.

Before Dotchin was recalled from AHL Syracuse, the 6’3”, 210-pound rearguard had 12 points and was a plus-10 in 33 contests while pacing all Syracuse players with 77 penalty minutes. Dotchin’s simple, steady game has been a bright spot since he’s made his debut with the Lightning, even as the team has struggled — save for a convincing 5-2 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks on Jan. 24.

While the Lightning have only gotten a five-game sample size of Dotchin’s NHL career, he’s showing the character and team-first mentality that figure to make him a part of the franchise’s future on the blue line in the years ahead.