The Tampa Bay Lightning entered training camp with some questions to answer in the bottom portion of their forward line-up. While there has been minimal turnover, there are still some spots left to figure out. The injury to Ryan Callahan offers room for a player to start the season with the team even if they end up headed down to the Syracuse Crunch before Thanksgiving. We’ll be previewing the top six forwards next week, so make sure to check back for that article.
Returning for this year to the bottom six of the Lightning are centers Anthony Cirelli and Cedric Paquette along with wingers Adam Erne, Alex Killorn, Yanni Gourde, Ryan Callahan, and Cory Conacher. The Lightning added Andy Andreoff from the Los Angeles Kings in a trade for Peter Budaj. The team has some up-and-coming prospects to consider in Mathieu Joseph, Alexander Volkov, and Mitchell Stephens, along with veteran Gabriel Dumont.
Chris Kunitz is the only departure from the bottom six this season. Matthew Peca, who has been a candidate for a third line spot the past couple of seasons, has also departed the organization going to the Montreal Canadiens. Veteran Michael Bournival has been in the running in the past, but is currently recovering from a torn ACL and will not be available to start the season.
The Third Line
The third line appears to be set with little competition going into camp.
Alex Killorn is a veteran winger that has consistently scored at the half point-per-game mark throughout his career. He set career highs in assists and points with 32 and 47 respectively last season. He added five goals and seven points in 17 games in the playoffs. Killorn has size at 6’1” and 196 pounds and while he has a propensity for falling down, has good hands and battles hard along the boards. Killorn provides depth on the left wing side as he can move up into the top two lines when needed.
Yanni Gourde burst onto the scene at the end of the 2016-17 campaign scoring six goals and eight points in 20 games for the Lightning. After that quarter season of play, my biggest critique of him was his lack of assists in his short stint. I wanted to see more playmaking from him. I was fairly conservative in my estimates for the 2017-18 season expecting something like a 20 goal, 40 point season. He blew that away with 25 goals and 64 points over 82 games. He has the point production to play in the top six, but with the Lightning’s forward depth, they have the luxury of playing him on the third line.
Since being drafted in the third round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, Anthony Cirelli has been a fast riser. Almost right away that next season, prospect watchers were raving about him. The Lightning took a shot on him after he had a good showing as a lower line player for a very strong Oshawa Generals team that won the Memorial Cup. That next season, he moved up the line-up and assume the Captain’s C for the Generals en route to a 21 goal, 59 point season. The past two years, Cirelli continued to excel and elevate his play putting up 37 points in 51 games in Syracuse before being called up to Tampa. Cirelli had a goal and an assist in his debut game and hit the ground running in his 18 game stint. He put up five goals and 11 points and followed with two goals and three points in 17 playoff games.
Cirelli played every game down the stretch and through the playoffs. While not an offensive dynamo, it’s hard for him to not put up points next to Killorn and Gourde on the third line. He’s a strong defensive center with speed that can keep up with Gourde. A 40 point campaign between those two is not out of the question and he’ll be a key penalty killer, which adds to his value to the team.
The Fourth Line
Here’s where the big question marks arise. The first one is Ryan Callahan. When he’s healthy, he’ll be in the line-up on the right wing. He had successful shoulder surgery in the offseason and is expected to be ready to play sometime in November. He’s not the same player he was four years ago, but was a productive fourth-line player through the 2017-18 campaign with 18 points in 67 games played. He’s also an important penalty killer. And when evaluating him, we should remember that he played most of the last half of the season with his shoulder injury that kept him from being able to shoot the puck effectively.
Cedric Paquette is penciled in to be the fourth-line center. While he is the most likely to play there, his position isn’t engraved in stone. None of his most recent three seasons has lived up to his impressive rookie campaign where he scored 19 points. His points have gone from that 19 points in 2014-15 to 11, 10, and 9. He also has played 56, 58, and 56 games mostly due to injuries and sometimes due to being a healthy scratch. He is a good penalty killer though and if he can stay healthy and be productive, he’s an experienced center for the fourth line.
Paquette’s main competition for that spot comes from Mitchell Stephens. When Stephens was drafted in the second round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, Scouting Director Al Murray described him as Ryan Callahan Lite. At 6’0” and 196 pounds, he has NHL size. His offense was never spectacular in the OHL, sitting around the point per game mark in two seasons following his draft year. But what he brings to the line-up is two-way skill and responsible play. With 19 goals and 22 assists for 41 points in 70 games for Syracuse, he put up a respectable rookie campaign as a professional. He was also named to the AHL All-Star Team.
While some expected Stephens to move to right wing as a professional, he has remained at the center position. He could still shift to the right wing and is one of the players that is in contention for that right wing spot in place of Callahan to start the season. But he’s also the only real contender for unseating Paquette at center. It’s still a long shot, but a strong training camp could put him in position to succeed if Paquette falters or has an injury.
There are six other main contenders for the two winger spots and the 13th forward. The three veteran options are Andy Andreoff, Gabriel Dumont, and Cory Conacher.
Conacher has the most NHL experience of the group with 188 career games. He didn’t make the team out of training camp last season, but was called up after just 18 games in the AHL and stayed with the team the rest of the season. In 36 games, he scored eight goals and 12 points while averaging 10:00 TOI. Of the three veterans, he is the one that is most capable of moving up the line-up for short periods and is the most offensively skilled. Conacher wasn’t on the penalty kill last season, but he did get some power play shifts on occasion and can contribute in that role. Conacher can play both wings.
Andreoff has the second most NHL experience with 159 games played with the Los Angeles Kings over the last four seasons. His career high in games played was 60 in 2015-16, but played in just 36 and 45 games the past two seasons. He puts up a lot of penalty minutes and not a lot of points, only scoring 11 points over the past two seasons. Like Conacher, he didn’t play on the penalty kill last season. While I could see the coaches potentially liking his play style for the fourth line, my inclination would be to use him as the 13th forward, or put him through waivers and send him to Syracuse. The likelihood of him being claimed is almost nil.
Dumont represents one of the more flexible options for the Lightning on the fourth line. He had a decent stretch of time during 2016-17 playing on the fourth line with Cedric Paquette, but scored just four points in 39 games. Last year, he played in seven games for the Lightning, then was claimed off waivers by the Ottawa Senators where he played 23 games before being waived again. Because of how waivers work, the Lightning were then able to re-claim him and send him to Syracuse. One benefit he has is that he can play any spot on the fourth line and can chip in on the penalty kill in small doses. He is also likely to be able to make it through waivers and would be a big offensive presence for the Crunch.
Adam Erne is an in-between player. He’s not quite a veteran, but he’s not quite a prospect either. The former second round pick has the size to play a grinding game at 6’1” and 209 pounds. He started last season in the AHL, but was called up in the later part of the season and posted four points in 23 games before suffering a lower-body injury that ended his season.
He signed a one-year, one-way contract for $800,000 this offseason. While that cap hit can be buried in the AHL without any effect on the salary cap, it is a sign that the team believes he can be and will be in the NHL this season. He is also waiver eligible and there’s probably enough upside in his game at just 23 years old that another team would take a chance in claiming him.
Erne also has some flexibility like Conacher in that he can play on either wing and could move up to the third line if needed. He’s failed to reach the potential that the team saw in him when he was drafted, but he can still be an every day player and contributor. He was just starting to gain some momentum last season when he was injured. I expect that he has the inside track on a roster spot.
The dark horses, along with Stephens up above, are prospects Mathieu Joseph and Alexander Volkov. I see Volkov as being the lesser option. He has offensive upside. He plays a 200-foot game, but is probably better suited to being on the third line with skilled players that will help his skills show rather than being down on the fourth line asked to play a grinding game. Volkov is getting a strong look in camp, but I expect that he’s a down the road call-up when a skilled player is injured and the team needs an offensive threat.
Joseph on the other hand has the kind of grinding, fourth line style that will work. His motor goes 110% and he has great work ethic. He can handle playing on the penalty kill and has enough skill to move up to the third line and bring a little offense as well. I would put Joseph as having the best chances of the three prospects to make his NHL debut with the team out of training camp.
In the end, I feel that the last four spots (five counting Callahan on injured reserve) will go to Paquette, Erne, Conacher, and Andreoff. I think Stephens needs a lot of help from Paquette to make the team right now. Conacher earned his ice time last season and I could see him doing so again right off the start. Andreoff is the perfect 13th forward, someone that is reasonable enough to play, but you’d rather have him in the press box. This also allows the three prospects to continue to develop and play prominent roles with the Syracuse Crunch along with Dumont.
Once Callahan comes off of injured reserve and is ready to play, then the option is there to either waive Conacher and try to get him down to Syracuse or waive Andreoff and almost certainly get him to Syracuse with Conacher going to the pressbox.
But all of that will also depend on any injuries that occur before Callahan comes back and how well each player is performing. If Erne or Paquette struggles, they could be in the press box, and perhaps one of the prospects could be brought up for an audition.