Tampa Bay Lightning fans had a bit of a surprise Thursday night against the Florida Panthers when Steven Stamkos was scratched and declared day-to-day with a lower body injury. Then in the third period, Anthony Cirelli was injured after hitting the glass with his shoulder during a puck battle. Speculation is out there on what that injury might be and the potential recovery time. It could be a few days or weeks or could be months if the injury requires surgery to fix something in his shoulder which he appeared to be favoring while skating off of the ice.
The Lightning have a lot of depth at center, but with Stamkos and Cirelli potentially out of the lineup, at least for the next game or two, that depth is sure to be tested. Their top six depth is also being tested further than it was already was with Nikita Kucherov ruled out for the regular season after having surgery on his hip.
Head coach Jon Cooper started off the Panthers game with Tyler Johnson taking Stamkos’ spot on the right wing side of the first line. Mathieu Joseph also moved up from the fourth line to play on the second line with Cirelli and Alex Killorn as he did for the opening game of the season when Johnson was not available due to salary cap reasons. The whole team struggled in the first period and Cooper decided to change things up by swapping Johnson and Cirelli.
Now with Stamkos and Cirelli out, Cooper is going to have to do some tinkering to figure out the best possible lineup. It definitely means bringing someone up from the taxi squad or the Syracuse Crunch to fill in at least one forward spot. It could also mean breaking up the productive and effective Yanni Gourde line. Let’s take a look at a couple of potential line ups the Lightning could run with while they wait for Stamkos and Cirelli to return.
How many forwards?
With Stamkos ruled out, the Lightning went with eleven forwards. It was the easiest solution since it didn’t require any shuffling with the taxi squad and allowed the Lightning to dress a lineup of players that had been playing throughout the season. It also allowed Cooper to keep the chemistry as close as possible to what has already been built. I think that Cooper will continue to go with eleven forwards and seven defensemen. That also serves to continue easing Cal Foote into the NHL and get him the experience he needs to step up into a bigger role down the line.
Who joins the line up?
Gemel Smith is the easiest option to add to the roster. He is already on the taxi squad and would not need any quarantine time. At a minimum, I think it’s quite possible we see him make his seasons debut on Saturday. Smith is a capable fourth-liner and a natural center. He is unlikely to be placed higher than that when he is inserted into the lineup.
Any call-up from the Syracuse Crunch would potentially have to quarantine before joining the team, but that is being handled on a case-by-case basis by the NHL. The most likely options for call-ups are Alex Barre-Boulet, Ross Colton, Taylor Raddysh, and Boris Katchouk. They are the most advanced of the prospects that the Lightning have in the AHL. Gabriel Fortier is also a young prospect that could fill in on the bottom six and is off to a good start for the Crunch. Cristoval “Boo” Nieves is also an option as a player that has NHL experience. Which player is called up is very much dependent on where the team wants to move other players around.
Who gets the right wing spots in the top six?
Because of Cirelli’s injury, it’s most likely that Johnson will remain on the second line with Alex Killorn. Yanni Gourde is the only other center on the roster that’s really capable of anchoring the second line, but I get the feeling that Cooper really wants to keep his line together because of their chemistry and how effective they are playing together.
Mathieu Joseph has to be considered one of the top options to join Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat on the top line. While Cooper decided to put Cirelli up on the first line after the first period, Joseph is definitely a possibility here. He has played well to start the season and is showing the traits that made him effective as a rookie. He’s got a decent enough shot, though it’s far from being high end. He’s also got the speed that can let him race down the ice with Point. He’s a hot hand with four goals while averaging only 10:40 of ice time so far this season. If he’s not on the first line, then he’ll probably take the second line spot next to Johnson and Killorn.
In the long term, I do not see Joseph as a first line player, but I do think next year he can be a complementary second line winger or high end third liner. Playing with a couple of highly talented players could also help to further boost his confidence and let him play at his peak level.
Alexander Volkov is another option, though I think it’s a longer shot option. He hasn’t looked incredible to start the season, but he also hasn’t been given the same opportunities as Joseph to play with the top talents on the team. Maybe giving him a few games with Point and Palat will let him get into a groove? Putting him with Johnson and Killorn on the second line does not fill me with confidence. I don’t think either player is a great complement to his skill set and it could just prevent him from reaching his full potential.
From the Syracuse call-ups list, throwing Alex Barre-Boulet into the fire in the top six could certainly be a recipe for success. He has great vision and good hands, but his skating still holds some question marks, as well as his size and ability to win puck battles. At some point, the Lightning need to see what they really have in him at the NHL level. He’ll be waiver eligible next season, so he needs to make it to the NHL sooner rather than later if he’s going to have a future with the organization.
What about the Gourde Line?
The more I go through this exercise, the more I like the idea of keeping the Gourde line together, but increasing their ice time. As it stands right now, the top nine has been getting pretty equal playing time at even strength. Point leads the forwards with 14:36 EV TOI. It drops to 13:58 for Stamkos and then 13:34 for Gourde. Goodrow brings up the rear of the top nine with 12:47 EV TOI making it less than a one minute per game difference with Gourde, Palat, Cirelli, Killorn, Coleman, Johnson, and Goodrow (listed in order of EV TOI). That minute difference means a difference of about one shift per game.
If Cooper isn’t feeling confident in Johnson and Killorn and whoever goes next to them, then he could certainly elevate Gourde, Coleman, and Goodrow to a higher ice time and drop Johnson and Killorn down a minute or two a game. Lowering the Johnson lines ice time also makes it more realistic to bring in Colton, Raddysh, Katchouk, or Fortier to fill in with them. That spot, as discussed earlier, could also still go to Volkov in that situation.
Colton in particular could help make that line a decent defensive line. He is a responsible defensive player and a natural center. He would also complement Johnson in the faceoff dot as a left-handed shot. Katchouk is good along the boards and wins pucks. Fortier is a high-energy, pesky winger that can also contribute on the penalty kill, though he probably wouldn’t at this point in time. Raddysh has a bit more offensive pop to his game, but has had some inconsistencies and is not as good defensively as Katchouk and Colton.
If Cooper did decide to break up the Gourde line though, you’d like see Gourde or Coleman go into the top six taking the two right wing spots. The third line would then likely consist of Goodrow, Joseph, and either a call-up or Volkov. Colton would be a nice center option to put between Goodrow and Joseph. I like their chances of creating mayhem the way that the Gourde line currently does with speed and tenacity.
The Veteran Call-Ups
The last name I haven’t really talked about is Nieves. Nieves and Smith are the only players with NHL experience. In 76 NHL games, Nieves has scored five goals and 19 points compared to 12 goals and 21 points in 83 games for Smith. Nieves is a bigger player, but both can play a similar role in the NHL. They have scored at similar rates in the NHL and AHL so there’s likely not much difference in the offense of both, though Smith’s point production is driven more by his goal scoring than by assists.
They are safe options. However, bringing them up also means moving Volkov up the lineup. So that decision very much depends on how the coaching staff feels about giving Volkov a bigger opportunity when he hasn’t really shone that brightly to start the season.
If the Lightning staff end up deciding that they want twelve forwards, then that means bringing up two players to fill in the holes in the lineup. I would think in that scenario it would be a combination of Smith and a prospect with some upside that can fill in on the top six. Volkov could still move up the line up with the two call-ups forming a new fourth line with Pat Maroon (who I also haven’t mentioned much here and could move up, but I have a harder time seeing that as a smart move). Or Volkov could remain on the fourth line with Smith and Maroon while a prospect gets a shot higher in the lineup.
The Lightning’s center depth is really being tested here. The good news is that they have a lot of depth at that position. They still have Point, Johnson, Gourde, and Coleman that can play in the middle. Joseph can also fill in lower in the lineup. Smith and Colton also options. It’s one spot the Bolts have players to spare and they’re extremely lucky to have that kind of depth which will help them absorb the loss (for however long) of two of their top three centers.