Matt Carle injury latest to test Tampa Bay Lightning depth

Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Matt Carle is expected to be out six to eight weeks from surgery to repair adductor muscles in his lower abdomen.

Geoff Burke/Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

TAMPA, Fla. — With Matt Carle’s surgery to repair adductor muscles in his lower abdomen Tuesday, the Tampa Bay Lightning must improvise once more with help from youth.

Defenseman Luke Witkowski is expected to make his NHL debut Tuesday night, when the Lightning host the Vancouver Canucks at Amalie Arena. The wait has been long for the native of Holland, Michigan, a sixth-round pick in the 2008 draft, but he doesn’t anticipate that nerves will bother him if he receives his first playing time in the NHL.

"They’re happy nerves," Witkowski said Tuesday morning. "I get nerves before every game. But once you step on the ice, it all goes away.

"I’m a stay-at-home defenseman. I pride myself on keeping the puck out of the back of the net and helping out goalies as much as possible. So hopefully, I can do that tonight."

The Lightning will need strong play from Witkowski, who should receive a long look with Carle, also a defenseman, expected to be out six to eight weeks. Carle’s absence comes after defenseman Radko Gudas underwent surgery on his right knee on Jan. 6. Gudas is expected to be out four months.

Witkowski, 24, has five assists with six points and 75 penalty minutes in 36 games with the American Hockey League’s Syracuse Crunch this season. He was recalled from Syracuse last Friday, after making a strong initial impression during training camp with Tampa Bay before the current campaign.

Still, Carle’s absence forces the Lightning to shuffle defensemen again, an all-too-familiar practice this winter after earlier injuries to Gudas and Victor Hedman, who has returned from a broken finger on his right hand and a lower-body injury this season.

Gudas has three assists and five points with 34 penalty minutes in 31 games this season. Carle, meanwhile, has 10 assists and 14 points with 24 penalty minutes in 46 games this campaign.

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Lightning associate coach Rick Bowness said Carle’s steady production, in particular, will be missed.

"He plays 20 minutes a night, and you know exactly what he’s going to do," Bowness said. "Very reliable. Every defenseman in this league makes mistakes. Matty’s are few. He moves the puck well at his position. His play is strong. He’s out there every night. You look down and you need to kill a penalty, he’s on the ice. He has been on the power play, so he’s a very consistent player for this team."

Still, players like defenseman Jason Garrison are confident the Lightning will continue to succeed despite the health obstacles placed before them. He said a deep, well-rounded makeup is a main reason for the faith.

"I think we have a lot of depth with our team, and I think guys have been put in different positions throughout their whole careers," Garrison said. "I feel like guys are able to do it because guys have the talent and have the work ethic. It’s just a matter of making a quick learning curve and getting on the ice and doing it."

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