When the Lightning acquired Keith Aulie from Toronto at the trade deadline last season, Tampa Bay hoped the 6-foot-6 defenseman would bring some size to the its backline and develop into a shutdown defender.

Aulie has the tools to do that and more.

Though he continues to be a work in progress — the team would like to see Aulie be more physical and use his size to his advantage more often along the boards and in front of his own net — Aulie has improved in the past calendar year.

“Keith is very underrated for his offensive instincts for the game,'' Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “I've really watched him grow. I think he gets labeled sometimes as this big, huge, hulking defensive defenseman. But there is a lot more to his game than that, which I have really been impressed with, especially being able to jump into holes in the offensive end and really create some offensive opportunities. It's something we want to encourage with him a little bit more.''

Part of Aulie's development was aided by being a part of a championship run with Norfolk in the American Hockey League last season after he was acquired from the Maple Leafs for forward Carter Ashton. After initially trying to feel his way into the Admirals' blue line, Aulie became a big part of the team's 15-3 run to a Calder Cup championship.

Then, when the NHL was shut down this season due to the lockout, Aulie signed to play with Tampa Bay's new AHL affiliate in Syracuse, appearing in 20 games with the Crunch.

For any young defenseman, the more games the better to gain experience reading the rush and understanding the position better as the play comes at them in their own end.

“That was invaluable,'' Aulie said of his time with Syracuse. “If you talk to any good stay-at-home defenseman in this league, they all tell you that it took a while to find their stride and find their confidence. It's just a constant learning curve.

“We are a different breed than those young 18-year-old scorers are, and it just takes a while to learn the game.''