With the Tampa Bay Lightning trading Adam Erne to the Detroit Red Wings, the team has opened up another one of the 13 roster spots for forwards to competition in training camp. Erne was a second round pick of the Lightning in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. His projection was that of a top six complimentary power winger with size. He’s not overly tall at 6’1”, but he had a wide frame that promised plenty of weight to allow him to be physical.
Erne produced well as a junior player in the QMJHL. When he made it to the AHL, he played well, but didn’t dominate offensively as you’d expect from a player that could turn into a top six forward. His projections eventually slipped and it took him until his waiver exempt status expired after 2017-18 for him to make the NHL full time last season.
With Alex Killorn, Anthony Cirelli, and Mathieu Joseph well situated on the third line, Erne rarely got an opportunity to play anywhere other than the fourth line. He still put up a good season for a fourth liner though, with seven goal and 20 points in 65 games. But the reality was that he was unlikely to get much of an opportunity outside of the fourth line with the Lightning. The Red Wings need some depth and new general manager Steve Yzerman obviously knows what kind of player Erne is. This will be a good opportunity for him to move up the lineup and show what he can be, though the likelihood of him reaching that second line power forward projection now is still low.
Besides giving the Lightning a little bit more salary cap space for finishing up Brayden Point’s contract, the trade has also opened up a roster spot for one of the many forward prospects that are pushing for NHL time.
First, let’s take a look at where the Lightning’s forwards stand at the moment, and then we can look at the candidates for filling in the open slots.
The top six right now looks like it will consist of Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Yanni Gourde. How those two lines will be constructed is up for debate, whether Jon Cooper will keep Johnson-Point-Kucherov together or will mix-and-match around to find some other combinations. There’s also still an outside chance that Gourde could slide down to the third line with someone else taking up the spot in the top six, but I think out of camp he’ll be given an opportunity to produce with the second line.
The third line looks to be Alex Killorn, Anthony Cirelli, and Mathieu Joseph. That trio performed well throughout the season, providing solid defensive play and better-than-average third line offensive production. Keeping them together is important for providing good depth.
The fourth line right now just consists of Cedric Paquette, who will most likely center the line. He could technically move to the left wing side for another center, but you should expect him to still be taking faceoffs even if he’s not technically the center of the line as he showed marked improvement in the faceoff dot last season.
With those 10 forwards set, that leaves us with three spots open for competition: two players on the fourth line and an extra forward.
I think it’s important to separate players here into two categories. The first is the waiver eligible players: the players that will require waivers to go to the minors after training camp. For some players, this isn’t much of an issue. Those are typically older veteran players that are well known and there isn’t much of a risk of another team claiming them unless they are desperate.
In most cases, these older players are replaceable, so whether they will get claimed or not shouldn’t be much of a consideration in making the team. However, sometimes you get a player that had a breakthrough in the minors but hasn’t had to go through waivers since. There is more risk in them being taken, and if they get claimed the team will not receive any compensation for the player, so they’re more likely to stay up. For instance, this is exactly what the Lightning did with Danick Martel last season....which brings us to our first player.
The Case For: Martel spent all of last season on the NHL roster after the Lightning claimed him during training camp from the Philadelphia Flyers. The Lightning were way down the waiver order, so that meant a lot of teams passed on Martel before the Lightning took him. They obviously thought well of him and his potential to make the commitment to carrying him all season.
While he only played in nine games for the Lightning and recorded two assists, he played well whenever he got into the lineup. He’s a natural left winger and showed plenty of scoring potential in the minors. He’s got speed and is tenacious on and off the puck.
The Case Against: The biggest case against is that he doesn’t have much NHL experience with just 14 games total. He also hasn’t scored a goal since the 2017-18 AHL playoffs with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. He played in just 14 games last season, with four games in the AHL, but failed to score a goal in any of them. There’s also a possibility that he would easily pass through waivers, especially after having played so sparingly last season.
My Prediction: I think Martel makes the team. He might end up being the fourth line left winger, but could just as easily serve as the 13th forward once again this season. He’s on a cheap deal paying him the league minimum of $700,000. He’s on a two-way contract, though, and would make only $200,000 in the minors with a $250,000 guarantee for the season. I think it will take more than just one of the other bubble players making a huge case for themselves in training camp for Martel to not make the team.
The Case For: He’s small. He’s feisty. He’s got NHL experience. He only played one game in the NHL last season for the Lightning at the beginning of the year, but has posted 74 points in 189 games. He can play the left or right side. He can contribute on the penalty kill. While not a high end skill player in the NHL, he’s still the type that can be vocal and a leader even in a lesser role.
The Case Against: He’s probably just not good enough. Even when the Lightning really needed forward bodies in 2016-17, he only got to play in 11 games. He did play 36 games in 2017-18 for the Lightning and recorded 12 points (which is still plenty good for a bottom six forward). He’s also 29 years old and has passed through waivers multiple times over the past few years without being claimed.
My Prediction: Conacher is 50/50 to make it. If some of the “kids” don’t cut it in training camp, then he’s a safe choice for the 12th or 13th forward. If the kids can beat him out, then he should make it through waivers and continue to be a top contributor and leader for the Syracuse Crunch.
The Case For: He had a phenomenal year in the AHL last year, his fourth professional season. He recorded 34 goals and 82 point in 76 games, and won the AHL’s point title. He shared the title of the AHL’s leading goal scorer with Alex Barré-Boulet. Verhaeghe made it through waivers easily last year as his best AHL season was the year before with just 17 goals and 48 points in 58 games. If the Lightning hadn’t been as stacked at forward, or as healthy as they were, he certainly should have gotten a shot in the NHL later in the year.
He’s also a center so he provides flexibility on the fourth line next to Paquette, and can replace him if Paquette is injured. Verhaeghe’s got good enough size at 6’1” and 181 pounds. He should do fine physically in the NHL.
The Case Against: Verhaeghe is the definition of a late bloomer. There’s every possibility that he just really isn’t cut out for the NHL. His offense was boosted a lot by power play production, though his even strength production was good. In the NHL, he’s not going to have that benefit of playing on the power play to give him some easier offensive opportunities.
He just turned 24, and by the time players get to this age, we usually know what they are. There are, of course, exceptions that really blossom after a long drudge through the minors like Jonathan Marchessault and Yanni Gourde, but there’s plenty of players that didn’t work out that certainly make those players the rare exception.
My Prediction: I think he makes the team out of training camp. His offensive production is too hard to ignore and the team needs to give him an opportunity to show if he can stick in the NHL. If by early December he’s not cutting it, it would be easy enough for the Lightning to waive him and bring up a younger prospect and give them a chance in the lineup to see if they have more to give than Verhaeghe. I hope he’s the next Gourde, but we need to see it happen before putting too much faith in him as an NHLer.
Waiver Exempt Players
The Lightning have a number of young prospects with only a couple of professional seasons under their belts. The benefit to them is that the Lightning won’t risk losing them by sending them to the minors since they do not require waivers. They’re also generally cheap players that help the cap situation.
The Case For: Stephens was originally drafted in the second round in 2015. When he was drafted, he was billed as Ryan Callahan Lite. He’s a right shot forward, and while many thought that he was going to end up as a winger in the professional ranks, he’s managed to stick as a center for the Syracuse Crunch. He was an All-Star in the AHL as a rookie in 2017-18 when he put up 19 goals and 41 points in 70 games.
There was also every indication that the team was taking a long, hard look at him coming out of training camp last year. Ultimately, he didn’t make the team and there was never much of a need for any forward recalls throughout the season to give him another opportunity. He’s a good two-way forward and would provide another responsible presence on the fourth line that can help drive some depth offense. He’d also be a potential asset on the penalty kill and he doesn’t take very many penalties with just 30 PIMs in 107 career AHL games.
The Case Against: Stephens dealt with multiple injuries last season that limited him to just 32 games. Is he fully healthy? Is he ready to rumble? Can he jump past a couple of players with higher offensive ceilings than him during training camp?
My Prediction: I’m a fan of Stephens and I would like to see him overtake Paquette for the fourth line center position. But Paquette has two years left on his contract. If Stephens makes it on the team, it will be because of the responsibility he can bring to the fourth line. His lower offensive ceiling, though, does make him more attractive to being a fourth liner as it’s less likely to stymie his development whereas some of the other options might do better with more AHL time. So, I hope he makes it, but I won’t be surprised if he’s back in Syracuse for another season before he makes the jump to the NHL.
The Case For: He plays a two hundred foot game and has good size at 6’1” and 192 pounds. He was a bit of a surprise second round selection in 2017, but immediately came to the AHL and started impressing prospect watchers. He’s put up back-to-back 23 goal seasons and been in the mid-40s in points for both of his AHL seasons. He’s left handed, but has the ability to play both wings.
The Case Against: Volkov didn’t grow as much as I’d hoped to see offensively from his rookie season to his sophomore campaign. He played one less game, but scored the same number of goals and had just three more assists. He also takes a pretty good amount of penalties. He put up 63 and 61 PIMs over the past two seasons.
The other thing against him is that he would do better getting to play further up the lineup. Those opportunities could open up more for him in 2020-21. He’s got another year until he’s waiver eligible, so the Lightning can send him back to the AHL for another year of growth and then hopefully have a third line spot open for him the following year.
My Prediction: Like Stephens, he got a strong look during training camp last season. He’s actually been one of the last cuts in the past two training camps. Part of that could be that having him around fellow Russians Nikita Kucherov, Andrei Vasilevskiy, and Mikhail Sergachev during training camp was an effort to help him transition faster.
He certainly could make it. He’s got the talent and the skill. But I think it’s probably best for him to go back to the AHL for another season and continue to develop and be an offensive leader for the Crunch.
The Case For: Did you see his numbers last season? As an AHL rookie, he put up 34 goals and 68 points in 74 games. That’s a monster season, especially for a rookie. He also doesn’t take many penalties. He only picked up 18 PIMs in those 74 games. He’s got the offensive skills and instincts, and he can really do some damage especially if he’s given the right partners on the ice, like Verhaeghe. He also shoots the puck a lot with 223 shots on goal last year, which was 6th most in the AHL and most by any rookie.
The Case Against: He’s small at 5’10” and 170 pounds. He’s still got defensive question marks and often played like a player that was just coming out of juniors. He’s also not quite the same as most rookies last year. He was a year older than most players that enter the AHL as he had spent an overage season in the QMJHL while his draft class peers were making their AHL debuts.
But the big red flag is that half of his goals came on the power play. 27 of his 68 points came on the power play overall. In the NHL, he’s not likely to be on either of the power play units, and even if he’s on the second unit, they don’t get much ice time with all of the fire power the Lightning bring to bear on the first unit.
My Prediction: I don’t think he makes the team. I would really like to see him repeat his performance in the AHL and improve his even strength points production, show that he can score in both phases of the game, and further work on his defensive game. I know that this has been a bit of a hot button debate on Twitter, but I think going back to Syracuse for another season is the best thing for him, the team, and his development going forward.
My Overall Predictions
I think the last three slots will be filled out by Verhaeghe, Stephens, and Martel. I think Martel makes a fine 13th forward that can slot in when needed. Verhaeghe has earned the chance to show what he can do, and if he can’t do it, he could be replaced by Martel, or by one of Volkov or Barré-Boulet if they’re tearing up the AHL to start the year. Stephens has the defensive IQ to solidify that fourth line.
With Verhaeghe and Stephens alongside Paquette, you’d have three players that have center experience and can handle faceoffs. You have a playmaker in Verhaeghe that can also shoot, and a couple of diggers in Paquette and Stephens with Stephens having a little better finishing skill than Paquette. While Paquette could drag the line down a little bit, I think Verhaeghe and Stephens would have the opportunity to make it into a good line while Paquette provides the veteran experience for the line.
All of this could change by the time we get to the end of training camp, though. Injuries could propel a player into the lineup and make the Lightning bring a player like Volkov up and give him that bigger role exposure. Performance through training camp and the preseason games will also matter significantly. All six of these players have an opportunity to earn a role on the team, but there’s just three spots to give. They should all come into camp hungry and ready to work hard to show what they’ve got to wear the jersey of the Tampa Bay Lightning for the whole season.