The preseason has concluded for the Tampa Bay Lightning. It’s time for the real hockey to start on Thursday. But before we get the season really rolling, it’s a good time to look back and share some thoughts. About prospects. About the roster battles. About injuries. About expectations. So let’s dive right into it.
As is typical, the first few games were filled with prospects with some veterans sprinkled in. While it’s not the greatest test of prospects, because of the mixed nature of not only your team’s roster but also the opponents, it still gives us some things to look at for these youngsters that we could see in the NHL sometime in the next three to five years. Because of what I just mentioned, we do need to take the results with a grain of salt. Besides the mixed talent levels, the younger prospects are not as well versed in the NHL team’s systems and aren’t going to be playing the game with as much structure. This at least in part contributed to the ineptitude of the team in the first couple of games.
But here’s some thoughts on some individual prospects from the pre-season.
- Gabriel Fortier - Fortier played in the first game of the season when the Lightning could not possess the puck with any frequency. He stood out though among the junior level prospects. He’s a tenacious puck hound that seems to always be around the puck. He played on the penalty kill and looked good there playing in a similar manner to Anthony Cirelli. He’s back with Baie-Comeau in the QMJHL and is serving as their Captain. He has the look of being a useful bottom six utility player that brings a lot of energy. He’s also expected to play for Team Canada in the World Junior Championship, which will be a good showcase of his skill with and against some of the elite players of his age group.
- Nolan Foote - Foote sure looked good in his two games. He didn’t look out of place and his hockey IQ was on display almost every shift. Jon Cooper was very complimentary of him after those games as well. He only needs another season in the WHL before he’ll be AHL eligible. Depending on how the roster potentially turns over next summer, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he was making some noise to make the team out of training camp and follow in Brayden Point’s footsteps making the jump straight to the NHL.
- Jimmy Huntington - I actually found myself surprised at how much I liked Huntington on the ice. He got into two games and looked pretty decent. He was obviously not ready for the NHL, but I felt like he showed some signs that he could be a serious contributor for the Syracuse Crunch this season.
- Taylor Raddysh - Raddysh is a prospect I’ve been pretty high on. I like how he plays the game and the offensive skill he brings combined with good hockey IQ. He was rather inconsistent from shift to shift in his two games and that was a criticism of him last year in the AHL. He needs to find that consistency game in and game out to fulfill his potential and that should be a goal for him this year with the Crunch.
- Boris Katchouk - Katchouk is another prospect that’s right there with Raddysh in terms of skill and hockey IQ. He plays a different brand of hockey though as more of a power forward type. Those type of players seem to take a little longer to develop in the pro game and I’d like to see him take a step forward in his production this year in the AHL.
- Alex Barre-Boulet - Barre-Boulet played in three pre-season games after tying for the AHL lead in goal scoring last season as a rookie. I know that a lot of fans were very excited about him and thought he should have a great chance to make the roster. Unfortunately, he did not impress at all. He seemed a bit lost out there and got caved in defensively shift after shift. He needs to work more on playing a complete game to get himself into the NHL conversation. As Cooper said about Jonathan Drouin, “There’s two nets out there.”
- Otto Somppi - Somppi is another player that impressed me more than I thought he would. He looked fast in his two preseason games and managed to not be too bad in the puck possession category. He split last season between the ECHL and AHL and is showing some good signs in the Crunch camp that he might be more ready to keep a full time AHL roster spot this season. I still view him as a long shot to make the NHL though.
- Alexander Volkov - I really enjoyed watching Volkov once again this preseason. He played in five games and looked good in almost all of them. He showed off his shot a few times with a very sneaky release on his wrister. Unfortunately, he was hurt on a dirty play by Mike Hoffman in the sixth preseason game. With Point slated to miss at least a handful of games to start the season, I thought Volkov might get an opportunity to play in the top six and see if he could stick there. Now, with him being injured and presumably not ready for opening night, he might end up getting the short stick and end up back in the AHL without getting a shot to stay on the roster. For now. I would bet he’ll be up in the NHL at some point this season when an injury strikes a skilled forward.
- Cal Foote - Foote was somewhat inconsistent in his three pre-season games. There were times when he looked good, but times where he looked lost. He came a long way during his rookie AHL season but I think it’s clear he needs some more development time. There was some fan hope he could be ready for this year, but the signings of Luke Schenn and Kevin Shattenkirk, as well as bringing back Jan Rutta, made it very unlikely that he was going to make the team. It probably also signaled that the team suspected he was not ready for the NHL yet. The Lightning’s depth does afford them the ability to continue to develop him though instead of rushing him to the NHL as some previous regimes might have done.
With the news of Point still recovering from offseason hip surgery, it opened up the competition a little bit more. He’ll miss at least a few games to start the season and that will give the coaching staff time to extend some of the tryouts further into the season for the forward group. Cedric Paquette’s injury in the last preseason game also sounds like it will keep him out of at least opening night and would open up another roster spot for one of the forwards that has been fighting for a spot.
- Luke Witkowski - Speaking of fighting, Witkowski has made the transition to forward. Jon Cooper had experimented with him on the wing a few years ago, but Witkowski left for the Detroit Red Wings after that season in free agency. Witkowski was a good, but not great skater coming up through the Lightning’s system. But the new and improved Witkowski looks leaner, faster, and just an all around better skater than when he left for Detroit. He’s still got the weight on his frame to play a heavy game, and playing at forward might give him more of an opportunity to use his size to impact the game. While nothing has been confirmed yet, he seems like the coaching staff is pretty happy with him on the fourth line as he brings some additional muscle to the line up and a willingness to fight.
- Mitchell Stephens - I have been a proponent for Stephens making the team the past two camps. However, he didn’t make it to the final round of cuts this time. Injuries derailed him last year, but he produced points in the AHL when he was healthy. He’s a solid two-way player and a superior penalty killer. When he was drafted, the thought was that he would have to move to the wing as a professional, but he’s proven himself quite capable as a center. I think he’s ultimately Paquette’s replacement in the lineup eventually and I was disappointed to see him not in the running to the end as I thought he was having a good preseason.
- Gemel Smith - Smith seems to have caught the coaching staff’s eye. He’s a fast skater and is aggressive on the penalty kill. Like I mentioned with Fortier, he plays similarly to Cirelli, playing an aggressive attacking style on the PK that often leads to him playing in the offensive zone and killing time there. I don’t think he’s very good defensively, but he does provide some flexibility as a center and wing on the fourth line. I think it’s leaning towards him making the roster, at least for opening night.
- Danick Martel - Martel looked fast and tenacious in his three preseason games. The Lightning believed in him enough to hold on to him as the 14th forward through the entirety of last season after claiming him during training camp. But he didn’t play in the last couple of preseason games and was placed on waivers yesterday. We’ll find out at noon today if another team has claimed him or if he’ll be headed to Syracuse.
- Carter Verhaeghe - Verhaeghe did not look very good in his first couple preseason games. He seemed to get his feet under him though and has looked much better in the last few as he’s played six of the Lightning seven games. He showed off his puck handling skills and his vision once he got more comfortable later in camp. It looks like he’ll make the team and I’m interested to see how he’ll be utilized.
On the blue line, it always seemed like it would be Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, Mikhail Sergachev, Erik Cernak, Braydon Coburn, and Kevin Shattenkirk making up the Lightning’s top six. The biggest question was who would Sergachev and Shattenkirk end up being paired with. Rutta also seemed like the most obvious candidate for the seventh defenseman. Schenn was brought in to bring some more weight on the blue line, but the signing of Shattenkirk made him expendable and he only played in three preseason games.
- Brayden Point - Point had hip surgery after the season to fix an injury. He’s been practicing in a no-contact jersey and was originally expected to be ready around the end of October. Jon Cooper’s comments have made it sound like he might actually only miss a few games and return earlier than expected. In the few video clips of him in practice, he looks fast and doesn’t look like he’s far off. I don’t expect a lack of preseason games to impact him too much once he gets into the lineup and he should re-acclimate pretty quickly.
- Cedric Paquette - The hit and reaction of Paquette after he was blindsided in Saturday night’s game did not look very good as he seemed to be favoring his arm/shoulder. He finally had a healthy year last year and that helped him play better than he has since his rookie season. Cooper’s postgame press conference comments didn’t sound like it was a minor injury. Hopefully, Paquette won’t be out long and it won’t effect him long term through the season.
- Tyler Johnson - Johnson was also dinged up in the last game, but Cooper said he was taken out for precautionary reasons. Hopefully it is very minor and he’ll be ready for the opener.
- Alexander Volkov - Volkov took a dirty, message sending hit in a chippy preseason game against the Panthers. While he seemed fine at the time, he has not been practicing and was injured on the hit. That was really unfortunate since Point’s injury provided an opportunity to let him play the start of the season higher up in the lineup to see what he’s got.
- Ondrej Palat - Palat has suffered numerous injuries the past few seasons. Most of them have been ankle related that have really impacted his ability to skate. I’m still a believer in Palat and firmly believe that it was the cumulative effects of all those injuries that brought his performance down. This preseason, he has looked fast and healthy. He is probably the player that most benefited from the long summer letting him rest and heal up. He played a game alongside Johnson and Kucherov, reuniting the Triplets, and they looked like the Triplets of Old. It’d be amazing to see Palat recapture his old glory next to Steven Stamkos and rack up some points setting Stamkos up for goals this year.
Expectations for the team haven’t really changed much. They are still the most talented roster in the NHL and are expected to be a Stanley Cup contender. But that doesn’t mean the team doesn’t have areas to improve in. Jon Cooper has stressed during training camp that the team needs to cut down on dangerous scoring chances and on penalties.
According to Evolving-Hockey.com the Lightning were 8th in Expected Goals Against Per 60, but 15th in Goals Against Per 60. However, we also know that NHL teams with serious analytics departments like the Lightning are tracking far more data points than what is publicly available from the NHL. It seems that they are probably seeing something else in the data that the public data isn’t showing us. One place you could speculate on that is that the Lightning might not be very good at preventing preshot passes which would heighten the shot danger as compared to public information driven expected goals models.
On the penalty side of the things, the Lightning were shorthanded the third most times in the NHL last season. The team was buoyed by having the best penalty kill in the league. But with having that many times shorthanded, a lot was expected of a handful of players and the goaltenders to cover up for the penalties committed by players. Some of the Lightning’s worst offenders were Paquette, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, and Alex Killorn. 16 players in total took at least 10 minor penalties through the season.
If there’s one player that everyone on the team should look to emulate it’s Anthony Cirelli. Cirelli played in all 82 games, was called for seven minor penalties, but drew an amazing 23 penalties through the whole season. His penalty differential alone was worth two thirds of a win above replacement. Another player that did well in the penalty realm was Brayden Point. Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak were also the best performers on the blue line for the Lightning.