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Questions that need answers as Lightning return to training camp

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The next few weeks are about staying healthy and getting up to game speed.

2019 NHL Global Series Sweden Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images

After all of the talks, negotiations, compromises, bargains, and electronic votes; full scale hockey returned to many of the cities around the NHL, including Tampa. Phase III (full training camp) began on Monday and franchises across the league now are tasked with preparing their players to compete for a Stanley Cup while also making sure they adhere to all of the rules and regulations that are part and parcel in the Age of Covid.

For the Tampa Bay Lightning and head coach Jon Cooper, that means getting his players motivated and ready to play hockey in a time when they are normally recovering from a grueling season by resting at a lake cottage somewhere. The Lightning are the betting line favorites to win the most unique Stanley Cup playoffs in the history of the sport, but they’re not going to breeze through the competition. After going four months without organized practice or routine skating, Cooper and his staff have two weeks to get the team back into the rhythm that makes them one of the best teams in the league.

The good news is that everyone, well almost everyone, is healthy. What fun would a summer training camp be without the captain of the team nursing a lower-body injury that he sustained at some point following core surgery? That’s not concerning at all, right? For now, we’ll take the organization at their word that the injury is minor and that Steven Stamkos should be back and ready for competition as the team heads into Phase IV.

If Stamkos is indeed healthy, Coach Cooper indicated he’d miss “a practice or two”, when the games start to count again that leaves the Lightning with a line-up that matches up against any team in the league. Unlike last season they’ve tasted a little adversity and with the loss to Columbus in last season’s playoffs still somewhat fresh in their mind they should have a bit of a chip on their shoulders as well.

The timing of Stamkos’ return isn’t the only question the Lightning have to answer over the next thirteen days. While their roster is in better shape than some other teams, they still have to figure out some things before they head to Toronto and jump into the bubble at HotelX.

Can they get into game shape in just two weeks?

This is an issue that all of the NHL teams are going to be facing in the immediate future. Most of their players have been off of their skates for the better part of four months. While Phase II did allow them back onto the ice, there is still a lot of rust to knock off for a lot of folks who probably haven’t gone four months without lacing them up since they were toddlers.

For the Lightning, not only does it mean getting back into shape conditioning-wise, but also finding the flow and precision that make their offense one of the tops in the league. It will be interesting to see how quickly they sync back up on the ice when the games get under way in August. As a team that relies on speed and passing through the neutral zone it might take them a little longer than a team that relies on a simpler dump-and-chase style of hockey.

Luckily, it’s not the end of the world for the team if they do struggle a little out of the gate. Having a lower seed heading into the first round (or second depending on your perspective) isn’t great, but it’s better than going home.

What line combinations/defensive pairings will Coach Cooper go with?

There was a lot of shuffling going on over the last couple of games for the Bolts, mostly due to a couple of the players being banged up. With everyone on the blue line reportedly healthy and ready to go it will be interesting to see how he pairs them up. There has been some speculation that it will look something like:

Victor Hedman / Jan Rutta

Ryan McDonagh / Erik Cernak

Mikhail Sergachev / Kevin Shattenkirk

When your third pair of defensemen have combined for 68 points, you’re living a pretty good life. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Cernak and Rutta swap positions depending on how they’re playing, but even if that happens, the pairings are pretty well balanced. With Luke Schenn, a rested Braydon Coburn, and Zach Bogasian waiting in the wings the team has a little depth should one of the projected starters find themselves quarantined or injured some time over the next few months.

Up front, the roster is pretty much set as well, but the Stamkos injury does throw a little wrinkle into the plans. While he was hurt, the top line of Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov, and Ondrej Palat played pretty well together and it would be expected that the team would roll with that if Stamkos’ return was delayed for some reason.

Should he come back it would be interesting to see if Coach Cooper broke up the Anthony Cirelli, Alex Killorn, Blake Coleman line that was really, really good over the final few games of the regular season. Cirelli and Killorn really clicked as a pairing while Coleman seemed to be finding his role the more he played. Would Palat bounce down to a line with Tyler Johnson and Yanni Gourde? That would be fun to watch and a nightmare for other teams to match-up against.

The Lightning do have several scrimmages mixed in with their regular practices over the next two week and it’s there that we’ll likely get some idea of how Coach Cooper plans to mix-and-match his players when it matters.

It’s unlikely that any of the taxi squad players will force their way into the line-up even with a strong training camp. In fact, if everyone is healthy it won’t be easy for Mitchell Stephens or Carter Verhaeghe to find ice time. Much like with the defenders, it’s a good problem to have and provides the team with some solid depth options to help alleviate any potential loss due to injury or illness.

How will players and coaches adapt to the new normal?

Hockey players, like most professional athletes, are creatures of routine. For the most part they like to know when and where they need to be at almost all times. While some (like Brayden Point) may have the occasional issue showing up on time, the majority of the time they are where they need to be when they need to be.

Regimented days help the players make sure they are sure to go at game time. Now, everything they’ve done in the past has been flipped around and new routines have to be adapted to ensure the chances of an outbreak are kept to a minimum. Of course, once they do adapt to the training camp atmosphere, they’ll have to figure out a whole different routine once they’re in Toronto. Not only are they going to have to figure out how to be comfortable in a secure bubble world, they will also have to adjust to playing games at somewhat odd hours.

The coaching staff has to put together a program that allows for all of that while also having to adjust practices based on the possibility that players are going to test positive for the Covid virus. If the MLB, MLS, and NBA returns are any indication, there will be more than a handful of players testing positive during this phase. The Canadians and the Penguins are already dealing with positive tests, and they aren’t going to be the last teams.

Making sure the players and staff are safe may require shutting down practice for a day or two to sterilize the facilities. Coach Cooper and his assistants will have to be prepared to adjust a cramped practice schedule to accommodate those types of interruptions.

Relative to other teams, the Lightning don’t have too many questions to answer over the next few weeks. It’s more a matter of getting everyone up to speed and fine tuning some minor aspects as camp opens. Hopefully, it stays that way and new questions don’t pop up along the way.