The Tampa Bay Lightning have started training camp and are preparing for their first preseason contests, back-to-back games with the Carolina Hurricanes. In this training camp, the team’s primary task will be to figure out how some new additions and returning veterans can successfully step into new roles.
The two most significant changes, which will be a primary focus of the training camp, are the loss of Ryan McDonagh and Ondrej Palat. It’s not that the Lightning wanted to let the key players go. It was more of an issue with the salary cap remaining the same the past three seasons and going up only $1 million this year to $82.5 million, which forced the team to make these moves. This article will address that and other takeaways from Lightning’s first week of camp.
Special Note: The Lightning recently postponed the team’s preseason games on Wednesday, Sept. 28, against Carolina, and Thursday, Sept. 29, against Nashville at AMALIE Arena due to the potential effects of Hurricane Ian. We at THW would like to wish the best for all that this hurricane may impact.
Within the first moments of training camp, the players were asked about the absence of McDonagh, which hopefully will be something that does not linger on too much in the early parts of the season. “We can go on for days,” forward Pat Maroon said of McDonagh’s impact on the team. “He had a good sense of the room and the feeling in the room and what we needed and what we didn’t need. It’s unfortunate how he left. But again, it’s a business, and we’re going to need guys to step up now.” Hopefully, that latter will be true, and the team can turn the page from the painful loss of a critical contributor and look forward to how the veteran’s contributions will be replaced.
“Guys stepping up” will be one of the main storylines throughout training camp. The team knows it will fall on just one guy to fill the void left by McDonagh. In addition to being one of the team’s best shot blockers, he was also the leader of the Lightning’s penalty-kill unit. One of the players the team will count on to help fill this void will be Mikhail Sergachev, who signed a contract extension in the offseason. The 24-year-old is the favorite to assume McDonagh’s second left-handed defenseman spot and should see more minutes on the penalty kill. The former draft pick of the Montreal Canadiens has a good offensive skill set on the blue line but is capable of physical play that can help fill the void left by McDonagh.
Rookies Have a Chance to Make the Roster
In addition to the departures, a few injuries will also give some younger players the chance to make the roster for opening night. Anthony Cirelli and Zach Bogosian had surgery in the offseason and will likely be out until late November or early December. Two players that the Lightning will count on to help fill roster spots and play critical moments are Cal Foote and Ian Cole. Foote has been skating on the first line with Victor Hedman, replacing Jan Ruuta, who left via free agency. The 2017 first-round draft pick is entering his third NHL season and appears to be primed to assume this new role. Bogosian’s absence will also give rookie Nick Perbix a chance to be on the opening-night roster. The 24-year-old made excellent progress last season, impressed the team at their July development camp, and kept that momentum going into training camp.
In stepping in for Cirelli, the young player with the best shot on the roster for their opening night tilt against the New York Rangers is Cole Koepke. While many of the Lightning’s younger players struggled in the recent Prospects Showcase, the 24-year-old did play well. This improvement continues a trend last year that saw him improve a great deal while skating for Syracuse in the American Hockey League (AHL) and led him to be one of the “black aces” for the team in last year’s playoffs. He has looked good in training camp so far, scoring a goal in the team’s first scrimmage of training camp. An essential element to being a vital bottom-six player for the Lightning is the ability to excel on the forecheck, which Keopke has consistently demonstrated throughout the offseason programs and the beginning of camp.
Even if Koepke plays well in camp, the team could decide to start him in Syracuse so he can get quality minutes. This could also be the case if the team wants someone with a different skill set than Koepke, such as someone like Alex Barre-Boulet can provide. The 25-year-old gives the Lightning more scoring punch and could slot into the top-nine. It could also be one of his last chances to play meaningful games with the organization, as his previous stints with the Lightning did not produce the results that either had hoped. Grant Mishmash and Gabriel Fortier are also candidates and have had an excellent first week in camp.
Point Is Healthy
One of the issues that hampered the Lightning’s attempt to win their third straight Stanley Cup was the absence of Brayden Point. He sustained a torn quadricep in the first period of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference first round against the Toronto Maple Leafs. He attempted to return in the Stanley Cup Final, but eventually, the injury forced him to the sidelines. But now, Point is healthy and skating well in camp. “I’m feeling good,” said Point during media day. “It was a bit of a long recovery process, but feeling good coming into camp here and no pain, so it’s nice to be able to skate how I want to again.”
Skating how he wants is vital for the Lightning’s success this season and, hopefully, the postseason. Point led the playoffs with 14 goals in each team’s championship runs in 2020 and 2021. During the 2021-22 season, he played 66 games and had 28 goals and 30 assists. With Palat signing with the New Jersey Devils and Cirelli out, the Lightning will need to count on Point’s production to offset those losses more than ever. His healthy presence will positively impact Nikita Kucherov and others who may end up skating on his line.
The Lightning’s quest for a third Stanley Cup in four seasons and the fourth in franchise history has officially begun. While they may have lost some key pieces over the offseason, this team of playoff-tested veterans with some new faces remains a top competitor for the Stanley Cup this season and beyond. This year’s training camp will be significant so that the new players and the veterans with new roles can fully acclimate themselves and allow the team to be completely ready to start the season.
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Jim Bay writes about the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Nashville Predators for THW. A retired Special Education Teacher, Jim enjoys writing about hockey and all sports when he is not slashing his way around local golf courses. For interview requests or to provide content info, follow Jim on Twitter. (https://twitter.com/baysports007)