At this late stage of an accomplished NHL career, Sami Salo is in no mood for surprises.
He did his homework as a free agent last summer, when the 38-year-old Finnish defenseman generated attention from several clubs seeking to upgrade their bluelines.
The Lightning were one of the suitors and Salo became equally interested in Tampa after chatting with Lightning defenseman Mattias Ohlund.
“I talked to Mattias before I signed here and I knew they had a good team, with good management and good coaching,’’ Salo said. “I also knew the Lightning were a hungry team. Since being here, my opinion hasn’t changed at all.’’
As the Lightning skate into PNC Arena for Saturday night’s first-place showdown against Southeast Division opponent Carolina, Salo’s early impact on his new team is apparent.
Salo’s plus-11 mark through 16 games ranks among the league leaders and his new blueline partner, 22-year-old Swede Victor Hedman, is right behind at plus-10.
“We talk the game and that makes it easier,’’ said Hedman. “I’ve learned a lot.’’
Salo has essentially formed a new Nordic connection with Hedman, who was paired with Ohlund two years ago as the Lightning advanced to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.
While the Salo-Hedman tandem flourishes, Ohlund’s battered knees have not recovered from 2011 surgery and his NHL future remains in doubt.
“We’re very pleased with Sami’s play and it was really an important need for us,’’ Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said. “We needed a defenseman with a right-handed shot and we needed an experienced player who was a good leader. We feel Victor’s off to a very good start … and part of that is being comfortable with a partner.’’
With Salo and his blistering slapshot manning the right point, Tampa Bay’s power play has vaulted from 25th in the NHL to fifth. Averaging 22 minutes and 29 shifts per game, Salo has provided invaluable stability.
“We’ve got so much more of a mature group this year – and Sami’s a big part of that,’’ coach Guy Boucher said.
Before signing a two-year deal with the Lightning, Salo endured a startling number of injuries, both major and minor, with Ottawa and Vancouver.
“He’s had ‘funny’ injuries and battled through them,’’ Yzerman said. “He’s a quiet guy who does things the right way, a good professional. I played against him when he was with Ottawa and he’s always been a real good player.’’
Salo has lost count of how many injuries he has overcome since the Senators selected him in the ninth round with their last pick of the 1996 entry draft.
“You throw your body into places where some guys wouldn’t and things happen,’’ Salo said. “It’s part of the game.’’
With one-third of the lockout-shortened season in the books, Salo can’t wait to read the next chapter.
“The first part of the season has been a little bit of a roller coaster for us,’’ he said. “But that’s understandable after having such a long layoff. I’m seeing the pieces come together. It’s been fun. I take pride in playing very well defensively and we have guys who can put the puck in the net, so that fits me perfectly.’’
It hasn’t taken long for Salo’s new teammates to notice his poise under stress.
“Every shift he is out there, Sami is a calming influence,’’ said Lightning center Steven Stamkos, who has four goals in his past three games.
No matter what happens the rest of the way, Salo won’t look back with regret.
“I’m really enjoying playing with Victor,’’ Salo said. “You can see that every time he steps on the ice, he wants to make a difference.
“Last summer, I thought it was time to move on from Vancouver. There were other teams involved, but in the end, I looked at this one because I thought the Lightning had a chance to win the Cup. I still feel the same way.”