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Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning's Eric Brewer is total package

The Tampa Tribune
Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2013 at 10:00 PM
TAMPA -

When the Tampa Bay Lightning hoisted the Stanley Cup trophy in 2004, there were fingerprints all over it from Darryl Sydor, a veteran defenseman acquired halfway through the season who became a huge part of the postseason push.

Now comes Eric Brewer, the veteran defenseman the Lightning traded for on Feb. 18. Brewer, as Sydor did seven years ago, made the whole defense better by taking a key role and leading by example.

The 6-foot-3, 220-pound native of Vernon, British Columbia, has been nothing short of a beast in the playoffs, leading the NHL in blocked shots with 43 and his team in average ice time at 26:09, while playing with a twice surgically repaired back.

The comparisons to Sydor were inevitable if Brewer kept playing well. Now that the Lightning are about to start the Eastern Conference finals at Boston on Saturday night, they're no longer premature.

"Brewer, since he's come here, has really solidified things back there, especially with the injuries," said former Lightning forward and current-Sun Sports analyst Chris Dingman, who was Sydor's roommate in 2004. "For me, he's a guy that's always trying to make a play, but he's doing it the right way. He's making plays without sacrificing defensively.

"His puck poise is unbelievable. It reminds me of (former lightning defenseman) Dan Boyle, where he never panics. He can carry the puck up ice and jump into the play, and if he jumps into the play, he's able to get back. So, yeah, I think that would definitely be a fair comparison (with Sydor)."

Lightning captain Vinny Lecavalier, one of three holdovers from the championship team, is having flashbacks of his own.

"Yeah, they both brought leadership," he said. "They're puck-moving defensemen. Brew is physical — he's kind of the whole package. He's as good offensively as he is defensively, so he definitely brings a lot to this team."

Sydor had won a championship with Dallas when then-Tampa Bay general manager Jay Feaster got him from Columbus for center Alex Svitov and a swap of draft picks in January 2004.

The 31-year-old veteran of three Stanley Cup finals helped Tampa Bay go 22-6-2-3 after his arrival. He raised his play in the postseason, averaging nearly 22 minutes of ice time while pairing with Pavel Kubina against opponents' top lines most nights.

Brewer, 32, didn't bring Stanley Cup finals experience — he hadn't even been in the playoffs since 2001 — but he is a 12-year pro, former All-Star and Olympic gold-medal winner who was the captain in St. Louis.

He had his first major impact on his new team against none other than the Bruins on March 3, when he scored his career-high ninth goal and fought Milan Lucic after he whacked Dominic Moore in the back of the head.

In this postseason, Brewer has been part of a penalty kill unit that has allowed only three goals in 54 short-handed situations. He also has played on the power play, had three points in Tampa Bay's breakthrough Game 2 win against Pittsburgh in the first round and had an excellent series against Washington in the second round.

"I remember the first time he played, he constantly talked on the ice, and loud ," Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. "We have a really quiet group, and we've tried to get them to talk and communicate more, but we finally have one guy out there that's a model and a standard for us coaches to show other players.

"I thought that was great coming in, and he's kept on doing that in all kinds of phases of the game and areas off ice, too."

Brewer played in the Western Conference for the past nine years after being the fifth overall pick of the Islanders in 1997. Though he was known to some Lightning players through international competition, he wasn't familiar to local fans.

But he was known to Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman. The two were teammates on gold-medal-winning Team Canada at the 2002 Olympics, and Yzerman selected Brewer for the 2007 world championship team he oversaw.

Yzerman worked a deal for Brewer with friend Doug Armstrong, the Blues general manager, and gave up defense prospect Brock Beukeboom and a third-round pick.

"When I got to know him, he was a very poised, confident young guy, but mostly a big, mobile guy that could skate," Yzerman recalled. "I got to know him even better at the world championships in Russia, when he was a part of that team on a very good defense, and played really well. He was a little older at that time, really one of the leaders on that team.

"He's battled injuries the last couple of years, (but) I know the person and the character, and he's back healthy this year and playing well."

Brewer wasn't always a fan favorite in St. Louis because the team gave up defenseman Chris Pronger, a former winner of the Hart and Norris trophies, to get him from Edmonton. Also, Brewer's time in St. Louis was marred by injuries. But he was having his best season with the Blues, having totaled eight goals and 14 points and a plus-1 rating.

"When I got to St. Louis last year, I didn't realize how banged up he was," said Darren Pang, the Blues' color analyst and a former Blackhawks goalie. "Back surgery, knee surgery ... and he tried playing and was really a shell of himself.

"Watching him this year, he was a complete defenseman. He went up against the other team's best players, played a little on the power play, could play the left or right side, and he could carry a lot of minutes."

Brewer was expendable in St. Louis because the team was going nowhere and he is in the final year of a contract paying $4.5 million this year. He waived his no-trade clause in part because of Yzerman, he said, and would "entertain dialogue" about returning.

Dingman, thinking back to Sydor, recalled how the defenseman played hurt and willingly took hits to make a play.

Brewer, Dingman said, reminds him a lot of Sydor.

"I think if you're healthy at this point of the season, you're not playing the game the right way," Dingman said. "Obviously, with the stuff he's had in the past, he's dealing with it and managing it. ... This time of year, that's what it's about. It's not about practice; it's about playing."

afabrizio@tampatrib.com

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