The Tampa Bay Lightning have returned to Tampa and the 2020-21 season is officially underway. With only ten days to get ready there will be some different looks to this pre-season. There will be fewer players in camp, split practice sessions, and no games against other teams. In a way it will be more like the training camp from last summer’s restart than a regular training camp.
For teams that made a lot of roster changes that could be problematic as they try to get everyone acclimated to their specific style of play. For the Lightning that won’t be too much of a problem. The only new names on the roster (Marian Gaborik and Anders Nilsen) will never see the ice in a Tampa Bay uniform so there is no need for them to learn the playbook. What the Lightning will be working on for the next ten days is figuring who will play on what line and which young players are going to fill the spots left by those who departed.
Scanning the training schedule it looks like they have seven practices scheduled along with two scrimmage games. With six of those practices split into two groups, there isn’t a lot of time for the coaching staff to see their entire team together on the ice at the same time.
The Lightning invited 43 players to training camp, 25 forwards, 14 defensemen, and four goaltenders. Of those players they have to figure out who will be on the roster, who will be on the taxi squad, and who will be sent back to Syracuse or their junior team.
Welcome to the NHL, hope you had a fun two weeks in Tampa.
In a normal season there would be a lot more players on this list. Travel restrictions and time constraints have likely kept the Lightning from bringing in more of their prospects. While it’s always nice to have young players in camp so that they get a taste of what professional life is like, teams don’t really have time for that this year. There aren’t many players who don’t have a shot at making the team at some point this season in camp.
Jack Finlay: the top pick for the Lightning in the past draft hasn’t played a lot of hockey since being selected in late September. With the Western Hockey League shut down he hasn’t been able to suit up for the Spokane Chiefs. He was loaned to the West Kelowna Warriors, a Junior A league team, and appeared in three games, recording a goal and an assist. The camp will give the Lightning a chance to see how his size plays against upper level competition and what he needs to work on once/if the WHL fires back up.
Gage Concalves: He’s in the same boat as Finlay, but has played a little more due to the fact he was invited to Team Canada’s World Junior camp where he was one of the last cuts. He’s also waiting for the WHL season to start where he will line up for the Everett Silvertips.
Alex Green: Instead of playing at Cornell, the young defenseman is skating in Orlando after signing his entry-level contract this offseason. With one goal and one assist in five games the youngster has acquitted himself well and will probably end up in Syracuse once their season gets under way next month.
Dmitry Semykin: Another young defenseman that is getting a taste of the NHL camp life, Semykin will probably be on the Syracuse/Orlando shuttle for most of the season.
Hello, and you are?
Cristoval “Boo” Nieves: The lone non-roster invitee is a veteran forward who has spent the last few seasons in the New York Rangers system. He does have 76 games of NHL experience and 147 games in the AHL. If the Lightning sign him to a contract he will most likely be a prime candidate for the taxi squad since he has aged out of the prospect range andhas enough experience to plug into the NHL roster right away.
Speaking of taxi squads
In a meeting last week, Syracuse Crunch owner Howard Dolgan indicated that the taxi squad will consist of mostly veteran players. Julien BriseBois referred to it as an “extension of their NHL roster” and a tool to help them win more games at the NHL level, not one to develop prospects. This allows the prospects to get consistent competitive ice time once the AHL season starts. Looking at the roster as it is now (so not including Nieves because he doesn’t have a contract) the squad will probably look a little something like this:
Chris Gibson: The veteran netminder has appeared in 14 NHL games over four seasons. It’s not a wealth of experience, but more than Spencer Martin has on his resume.
Luke Witkowski: Another veteran, Witkowski has the added benefit of experience in the pros as a forward and a defenseman. That type of utility could come in handy with the way the Lightning may manipulate the cap room they have this season.
Gemel Smith: Smith started last season with the Lightning last year and was sent down when Brayden Point returned to the line-up. The 26-year-old forward had a really strong season with the Crunch and has experience in the league with Boston and Dallas. He’s another player that can jump right in if the Lightning need a forward.
Ben Thomas: Why not? [My expression right now. - Acha]
Bound for Syracuse, at least for now
A couple of players on this list could be on the taxi squad and one or two might make the team if they outplay some of the veterans. Most likely they will head for Syracuse and rack up minutes for the Crunch.
Ross Colton, Jimmy Huntington, Boris Katchouk, Ryan Lohin, Taylor Raddysh, Sean Day, Devante Stephens.
Spencer Martin: He could flip places with Chris Gibson, but since he created a mask that has the names of Syracuse Crunch season ticket holders on it, it’s likely he’s bound for the Salt City.
Alex Barre-Boulet: There is some pull for him to make the Lightning or the taxi squad. Since he is waiver-eligible it would be easier to move him back and forth, but unless he absolutely wows the organization over the next two weeks, he’ll be in Syracuse on the top line gaining more experience.
Daniel Walcott: He’s another veteran who is a candidate for the taxi squad and, like Luke Witkowski, has experience as a forward and defenseman. However, he is one of the locker room leaders in Syracuse and could be a valuable voice on a young team.
Cal Foote: There is a good chance that Foote makes the Lightning out of camp. The right side of their defense isn’t exactly bound for the hall of fame and he has the added benefit of an entry-level contract. The organization will have to decide if it’s better for his development to play 10 minutes a game in the NHL or 20+ minutes in the AHL. For now, expect the Lightning to go with experience to start the season.
The 2020-21 Tampa Bay Lightning
That leaves us with 23 players that were listed on the training camp roster. One of them, Nikita Kucherov, isn’t going to play. So 22 names to defend the Stanley Cup. Most of them are a given, but there are a few on the bubble.
Given: Andrei Vasilevskiy, Curtis McElhinney, Anthony Cirelli, Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow, Yanni Gourde, Pat Maroon, Ondrej Palat, Brayden Point, Steven Stamkos, Erik Cernak, Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, Luke Schenn, Jan Rutta, Mikhail Sergachev
Andreas Borgman: Borgman benefited directly from the Braydon Coburn trade as he now slides into the seventh defenseman role. He has experience, plays with the physical style that the team has embraced over the past few seasons and isn’t going to have his development hindered by sitting in the press box every few games.
Mitchell Stephens: Another player who benefitted from the trade. With Cedric Paquette out of the system it clears the way for Stephens as the fourth center. It’s basically his job to lose now and based on how he played last season, that’s unlikely.
Alex Volkov and Mathieu Joseph: Both are candidates for the taxi squad or Syracuse if other players step forward. Last season their play was a little bit underwhelming so they will need to be at the top of their game to keep their spots on the roster.
Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn: Many are surprised to see both of these players still on the roster, but now that they are in camp they will be important parts of the roster. Neither was on the trade block (or passed through waivers) because they couldn’t play, it was purely a financial decision. The Lightning will need them, especially Killorn, to provide some of the offense that will be missing with Kucherov out of the line-up.
So that’s my best guess as to how things will play out. Did I verify that all of the players I have listed will fit under the cap (they should) or if it’s the best way to maximize the benefits of Long Term Injury Relief - of course not. Am I excited to see how this team does in the revamped Central Division - yes. They are still the favorites by most metrics, but they’re walking a very fine line and need things to break mostly their way in regards to injuries and puck luck in order to pull off their shot at defending the title. That should make for a fun season.