The Tampa Bay Lightning have assigned three players to the Syracuse Crunch in the AHL: forwards Mitchell Stephens and Alexander Volkov and defenseman Erik Cernak. Going into training camp, all three players were considered candidates to make the Lightning’s roster, though it was considered a long shot. Mathieu Joseph was another such rookie candidate, but it seems with these cuts that he has made it for Opening Night.
Erik Cernak was probably the longest shot because of the number of NHL caliber (or calibre if you’re Canadian) defensemen the Lightning had under contract. Even with the release of Jake Dotchin at the start of training camp, the Lightning were still sitting with seven defenders. Joe Smith of The Athletic reported yesterday that the Lightning were open to moving Slater Koekkoek or Braydon Coburn and had started to make calls.
Hearing #tblightning is open to moving Koekkoek or Coburn. They’ve been calling other teams. One week until season opener, so should be interesting. The fact Cernak opened some eyes in camp gives TB another option.— Joe Smith (@JoeSmithTB) September 30, 2018
It’s hard to know what’s happening behind the scenes but it’s possible the Lightning decided the offers were not enticing enough for either of the veteran defensemen. I also wrote about Cernak last week and my opinion in that article was that the Lightning should send him back to Syracuse and maintain the depth that they have on the blue line.
For now, Cernak will head back to Syracuse and continue his development as one of their top defensemen. He has shown during the preseason that he is ready to play in the NHL in a third pairing role. There just isn’t the space for him to do it right now and he may need to wait until an injury creates an opening.
Mitchell Stephens was in play for a fourth line winger spot as well as competition for Cedric Paquette for the center spot on the fourth line. Paquette has looked fairly good in the preseason and his line with Danick Martel and Cory Conacher was the Lightning’s best line all night in the final pre-season game against the Florida Panthers. Stephens did not play in that game. Like Cernak, he’ll go back to Syracuse to continue developing and will be available later if the need arises due to injury.
Volkov likewise was still a long shot to make the team. His skill set is better suited to a top-nine forward spot. Tyler Johnson was ruled out for the last few pre-season games due to an upper-body injury suffered in a practice session. The team was hopeful that he would be ready for opening night and the decisions today suggest that he will be healthy enough to play by next Saturday. Unlike Stephens and some of the other call-up options from the minors, Volkov is the most likely to be able to step into a scoring role to replace an injured player.
These three moves leave the Lightning with 15 forwards, seven defensemen, and two goaltenders on the roster. Ryan Callahan will start the season on injured reserve, so there are functionally 14 forwards on the roster. It also looks like Mathieu Joseph is making the team to start and will have a spot on the fourth line. That leaves Martel, Conacher, and Adam Erne still competing in practice for the last fourth line spot.
Martel was claimed on waivers from the Philadelphia Flyers almost a week ago. He has looked alright in his pre-season games with the Lightning. The downside to him though is that if the Lightning put him on waivers, the Flyers can re-claim him and send him straight to the AHL if no other NHL team claims him. He is a younger prospect and has some Yanni Gourde similarities. The Lightning could be hoping to hang on to him through the season and see what they have. Or they could work out a trade with the Flyers if they like him enough, but need to send him to the AHL.
Cory Conacher is in the last year of his two-year contract. This season, he is on a two-way deal that pays him league minimum in the NHL ($650,000) and $200,000 in the minors with a minimum guarantee of $300,000 according to CapFriendly.com. He could make it through waivers, though the Lightning seemed to think during last season that he would be claimed after he was called up a month into the season and thus stuck with the team for the duration of the season.
Adam Erne had the end of last season derailed with a lower body injury. He was just starting to get things going with the Lightning and showed some of the promise he had as a second-round pick in 2013. He would also require waivers and is young enough and has enough skill that he likely would be claimed on waivers.
The Lightning could still choose to put one of these three players on waivers tomorrow ahead of the Tuesday deadline for opening rosters to be set. There are pros and cons for each player. There is also the question of who will go when Ryan Callahan returns from injury sometime in November. As they showed last year carrying eight defensemen, the Lightning are not afraid of carrying extra players that will be spending most of their time in the press box. But someone will have to be moved when Callahan returns.
The easiest solution would be to send Joseph back to the Syracuse Crunch as he will not require waivers. However, there is a high likelihood that he will have proven himself well enough that the team can’t send him down. So while the decisions seem to have been made for now, there is still a decision to come in another month or two... unless another injury to a forward solves that decision for the Lightning.