The preseason is practice; it's assessing the players you have and determining who is going to be carried over to the roster to start the regular season. It's practice, the games don't count in the record books, though they do count in making management impressed by your effort and game day readiness.
And, yes, this evening's game with the Florida Panthers is the start of a three-game series, spanning the last two preseason games and then ending with the season opener at the Amalie on October 9th. Player assessments continue, yes, and that gives these games the potential to get dicey as bubble players do what they can to prevent demotions to the AHL and the Syracuse Crunch of San Antonio Rampage (the affiliates for the Lightning and Florida Panthers respectively).
There are four clear players in Lightning camp who are on the bubble, prospects Jonathan Marchessault, Vladislav Namestnikov, Cedric Paquette and Luke Witkowski. The three forwards are usually grouped together, so the idea they're competing with each other seems a bit odd. Head coach Jon Cooper stated the other day that spots are open, so it's not just these four competing for roles, it is assumed NHL players who are also competing to stick around. The question is, who?
Let me invoke Nikita Kucherov here. Anyone upset that he's been mentioned with the preseason he's had needs to relax a bit; the only reason he is listed as all is because he's the roster-player from last season that still is waiver-exempt, meaning he can be demoted to Syracuse without the need to pass through waivers (where he'd likely be claimed). It puts Kucherov in direct competition with the bubble players already mentioned. The fact he's played in all four preseason games up to this point is a sign that assessment is going on. And seeing he has 4 points (3 goals, 1 assist, plus-6) is a sign he's doing what he can to prove the NHL is where he should start the season.
It's an assumption on my part that games-played is a sin of being on the fringe of playing for the team or not. By that logic, Brett Connolly, Richard Panik, Mark Barberio and Andrej Sustr are all on that fringe with Marchessault, Namestnkiov, Paquette and Witkowski. They've all played 3 preseason games with mixed results. Nothing outright negative, just nothing that outright says "he has to be here."
Namestnikov leads the team in scoring this preseason, and an argument can be made that he really does have a chance to make the club - especially with Jon Cooper's statement yesterday about the versatility of Brian Boyle; it denotes a possible opening at center.
The Florida Panthers have trimmed down their roster to 31 players. You can see the stats and results of their preseason so far over at Litter Box Cats., though with the team's performance last season, I would think there are more fringe players on the club roster. Seeing there is also supposed to be a rivalry element between the two clubs, things getting chippy seems almost certain.
We'll try to keep you updated today on the game day story stream with lineup notes and the like.
Other Game Coverage:
- Tampa Bay Lightning official team preview
- Full coverage on SB Nation
- Live stream of Tampa Bay Lightning coverage on Twitter