Three Syracuse Crunch defensemen are in camp in Estero with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Four if you count Keith Aulie (who was able to play in the AHL through a loophole after signing an AHL contract). For all intents and purposes, Mark Barberio, Radko Gudas and Matt Taormina are participating in this 2013 Lightning training camp as a present for a job well done in Syracuse.
The experience is the biggest gift, though, because the idea of winning a roster spot by any of the three (with focus on Gudas and Barberio specifically) is negligible to non-existent.
Reactions to that might range from a shrug to disappointment, to frustration to anger (if you're angry about the notion either player being demoted - please try the decaf and remember this is only a game). Seeing the bigger picture on Lightning defense and player development is the key to understanding why neither player has a shot in Tampa - for the moment.
Eight defensemen. Eight guys already signed to one-way contracts... Nine if you include the long-term injured reserve bound Mattias Ohlund. The Bolts have their top four set, they have three guys working for the last pairing on defense, and Marc-Andre Bergeron locked in as the swingman 7th defenseman (only to be used when the lineup is depleted by injuries or when Guy Boucher opts to dress 7 defensemen and 11 forwards in a game).
Indeed, Matt Carle, Eric Brewer, Victor Hedman, Sami Salo, Brian Lee, Brendan Mikkelson, Aulie and Bergeron are locked in. The latter four are going to be in competition for playing time unless someone gets hurt or a transaction takes place that drops the active D to seven.
Barberio, offensively inclined and steady, has the potential to be a much better D than Bergeron (who fans might compare Barberio to directly because of their offensive talents), why is Marc-Andre favored over Barberio? And Radko Gudas game could be argued better than any or all of the four defensemen that are in the bottom tier in Tampa. Isn't that enough for either player to actually make the team?
In normal circumstances, in a normal training camp, in a standard preseason and standard training camp, you'd see everyone fight for a roster spot. You'd see an active competition... And Barberio and Gudas might just crack the top-six in that arrangement. But this isn't a normal season. This isn't normal in the least bit.
Gudas and Barberio should be playing consistent minutes, and aren't going to come into the NHL to play musical-chairs defense. That's what would await them if they simply pushed out Mikkelson or Bergeron: both those defensemen are not going to be eating many minutes on a game-to-game basis unless circumstances dictate it (or, in Mikkelson's case, he beats out Lee and Aulie for playing time). For development purposes, Barberio and Gudas are best served continuing the roles they've been playing in Syracuse.
Comparing either Barberio or Gudas to Bergeron is actually an unfair comparison to those two players: they're not 7th defensemen. They're better contributors to a hockey team than on the limited, tactical basis that Bergeron is fulfilling at the tail end of his career.
Unless Lightning players are moved (and it's possible, though improbable, because of how weak some teams are with defense), Gudas and Barberio will head back to Syracuse. That's not a penalty, that's a continuation of their gestation period.
How much longer will either defenseman have to wait before they get a chance in Tampa? It will be only as long as it takes for them to get a shot at the top-six, where they belong. Right now is not that time. After the season, though, Mikkelson is a restricted free agent, Bergeron is an unrestricted free agent, and Lee and Salo enter contract years and making them easier to move if need be. Unless the Bolts add someone via free agency, the 2013-14 training camp will likely be the opportune time for Barberio or Gudas to step in.
In the meantime, after this season begins and when a hole pops up due to injury; expect Matt Taormina or Evan Oberg to be recalled from the Crunch. The Lightning had no problems recalling Oberg last season for insurance reasons and sitting him in the press box. That's not doubting if Oberg has the ability to play in the NHL, but more of a thought how the situation will play out. Oberg, who has already passed through waivers, is not a top prospect with the club like Barberio or Gudas are. He's stable and fills a need though, and that will work until circumstances prove otherwise.
(photograph provided by and used with permission from Scott Thomas of Scott Thomas Photography)