Tyler Johnson’s injury is an opportunity for Alex Volkov

With word out that Johnson will miss the rest of the pre-season, Volkov could get an audition.

The Tampa Bay Lightning previously indicated that Tyler Johnson was day-to-day after suffering an injury during a practice over the weekend. Yesterday, Bryan Burns, beat writer for TampaBayLightning.com reported that Jon Cooper updated Johnson’s status to being out for the rest of the pre-season with the hope he’d return for opening night.

The opening night roster is already taking shape with the cuts made on Sunday in preparation for the start of Syracuse Crunch training camp on Tuesday. The big names still competing for roster spots are Cory Conacher, Adam Erne, Mathieu Joseph, Danick Martel, Cedric Paquette, Mitchell Stephens, and Alexander Volkov. Erik Cernak is the lone defender outside of the known top seven remaining in camp.

Ryan Callahan is still recovering from surgery and is expected back in mid-November which temporarily opens a roster spot at the bottom of the lineup. Cernak is unlikely to make the team as a 7th defenseman over Slater Koekkoek but he has an outside chance to convince the coaches to carry eight players on the blue line. His presence this late in camp is a sign of how close he is to the NHL. If a right-handed defenseman is injured, or if there are multiple defense injuries, it seems that Cernak is slated as the first call-up to fill in.

While Paquette seems to be safe in his fourth line center position, that could change if Mitchell Stephens has a stellar last three exhibition games to finish out the pre-season. In my eyes, Stephens is the main competitor for his spot on the roster.

Assuming the teams keeps seven defenders, that leaves the two fourth line wing spots and the 13th forward as the open spots. Erne has a leg up due to his experience and the fact that he would require waivers to go back to the AHL. The team likely won’t risk losing him for nothing before he’s had a chance to show what he can do in a full-time role.

Joseph has been one of the most impressive prospects in training camp so far. He’s shown excellent speed and the hands to go with it. He’s been effective on the penalty kill. Being able to take penalty kill time that might otherwise have gone to some of the Lightning’s big offensive threats allows those offensive players to save their energy for even strength play. In my opinion, he has the edge for that right wing spot on the fourth line.

The last spot seems to be up to Martel and Conacher. Conacher is a 50/50 bet on making it through waivers. Martel would almost certainly be re-claimed by the Philadelphia Flyers who could send him straight to the AHL if no other team claims him. If the Lightning want to hang on to Martel, he could serve as the 13th forward and get some spot starts. He is also in play for the fourth line right wing spot if the team decides to send Joseph back to Syracuse instead of playing him.

But the big name in this conversation is Volkov. He’s looked strong in the pre-season and was one of the Crunch’s offensive leaders last season. The problem I’ve had with a lot of the speculation of him making the team is that his style of play just doesn’t seem like the best fit on the fourth line. I’d much prefer to see him put in a spot where he can succeed and use his offensive gifts to help the team. That means being in the top nine.

Tyler Johnson’s injury could create a scenario where a top nine spot opens. If Johnson is not ready for opening night, Volkov could slide into his spot on the right wing of one of the top two lines or on the third line with Cirelli and presumably Alex Killorn. If he was to play on the third line, Yanni Gourde would be the most likely candidate to move up to the second line with Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat.

That would give Volkov a few games while Johnson recovers and get him some experience in the NHL. With the way he’s played and been treated by the team, it seems like he’s the forward prospect they think is the closest to contributing in an offensive role for the team.

If he excels in an audition to start the year though, it will bring up some big questions for the Lightning to answer. What do you do with him once Johnson is ready to return? Since a trade of one of the top nine is unlikely, he’d have to go somewhere. And if he doesn’t, someone else would have to be moved around.

The Lightning could just send him back to Syracuse and wait for the next injury that would get him back in the lineup. But the coaching staff could also do a bit of juggling in the bottom six. Johnson could slide into the third center spot, with Cirelli going down to the fourth line. That could mean an early return to Syracuse for Joseph if Cirelli or Paquette took the right wing spot.

Or it could mean someone like Erne going to the press box. Or maybe even Paquette. Of course, Paquette is also prone to injury with his style of play and reckless abandon with regard to blocking shots. An injury anywhere up front could make the situation solve itself fairly simply until the injured player returns.

Any which way this goes, the Lightning have a ton of depth and a lot of options in their forward group. With the attention and opportunity that the team is giving to Joseph, Volkov, and Stephens in pre-season, the signals are there for how close the team views how close these three second year prospects are to contributing in the NHL. The first month of the season will be very telling for whatever young players get an opportunity to play.