A couple of days ago, Kyle Alexander wrote a piece talking about the Tampa Bay Lightning's strength of depth and how it also is a complication for the organization when it comes to promoting a talent like Jonathan Drouin from the junior ranks to the NHL. It is a "good" complication in the fact that it breeds competition within the organization as players try to beat out one another to make the team.
This competition gets most interesting when you look at where the Lightning are weakest on their depth chart.
Of all the positions at the top level of the organization, it's right wing that has the most opportunity for players. Ryan Callahan is the only player at that position who's a dead lock to make the club (new, lucrative, long-term contracts will do that for you). J.T. Brown, who signed a two-year deal earlier this summer, also seems like he has great odds to start the season at the NHL level, especially with the fact his contract is one-way.
That leaves two spots open for right wing's in the organization, and Tampa Bay isn't exactly thick there: Nikita Kucherov (who plays either wing and has been on the left side most of the time last season), Richard Panik and Brett Connolly are the highest on the organization depth chart (Mike Blunden, Jerome Samson and Joel Vermin round out the organization depth at RW). Kucherov is in the most versatile and yet precarious position - being able to play both sides and yet also not needing waivers to be promoted or demoted to the AHL.
It's Panik and Connolly who have my attention here, and not in a "they'll both fill those roster slots and everyone goes home happy" kind of way. Earlier in July, both players re-signed with the Lightning with one year deals. The interesting aspect of that is their contracts are two-way (paying out a smaller sum if they are in the AHL), indicating both are bubble players.
In a way, Richard Panik was a key reason that Connolly did not make the Lightning out of training camp last season. While Connolly's 2013 training camp stood out to many, Panik made the team with thanks to his "Top Gun line" teammates Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson; the trio were a cohesive unit that had been effective together in the past and Jon Cooper opted to keep them together as they began their first full NHL seasons. Unlike Palat and Johnson, Panik didn't exactly lock himself into the team's plans with his performance, scoring 3 goals and 10 assists in 50 games, being a healthy scratch at times as well as seeing a pre-Olympics demotion to the Syracuse Crunch.
Brett Connolly did see NHL ice time during 2013-14; playing 11 games with the Bolts and notching a solitary goal in that time. He played out of position - either in a defensive role or at center - during his stint. He had also initially struggled in Syracuse before turning his season around, ending the AHL campaign with 57 points (21 goals, 36 assists) in 66 games which lead the team.
It looks like make-or-break seasons for both wings - find a niche with the big club or move on after the season. Panik seems more apt to find a slot on the lower lines where he played most of last season in a utility role, while more pressure is on Connolly and his status as a former first round draft pick. Brett has been investing his time to train this off-season, participating in Gary Roberts off-season workout program that Steven Stamkos participates in.
While it's possible both players make the club in a nice-and-neat scenario, it's not going to be that neat and easy and simple. If Jonathan Drouin secures a roster spot, he'll see time likely at center and left wing. A displacement of a center - we'll assume Tyler Johnson - will result in that center-man moving to right wing (where Johnson and Steven Stamkos both saw playing time last season). That erases one of those open roles on the right side. In that case, it pits Connolly and Panik against each other in a fight to make the club for the lone remaining right slot.
With almost two months until training camp, anything can still happen with roster moves (a trade, a signing), and writing off the potential for new-to-the-organization Blunden and Samson may be a mistake in the end. The fact is there are only so many opportunities to be had with the 2014-15 Tampa Bay Lightning, and the general opportunities for Richard Panik and Brett Connolly to achieve a lasting place with the club may be wearing down to a precious few.