With preseason games drawing to a close, the Tampa Bay Lightning have a few decisions to make regarding their opening night roster. Many young guys have impressed the coaching staff throughout training camp, making it hard for the team to decide who sticks around past the first wave of cuts.
There’s no guarantee any of these prospects will have an impact like Brayden Point did two years ago. In all likelihood, three of the remaining nine players left in camp will secure a spot on the Lightning roster to begin the season. One of those will be temporary, however, as fourth line winger Ryan Callahan is expected to return from offseason shoulder surgery in early November.
Other spots can open up, as we’ve seen a few teams around the league lose top players to injury during preseason games. The Anaheim Ducks will be missing the services of Corey Perry for about five months after he underwent knee surgery. Meanwhile, the Columbus Blue Jackets will be without All-Star defenseman Seth Jones as he recovers from a knee sprain suffered Tuesday night.
Even the Lightning are ailing, with Tyler Johnson missing the final three preseason games with an upper-body injury and star winger Nikita Kucherov suffering a lower-body injury that forced him to leave after one period of Tuesday night’s loss to the Florida Panthers. Neither is considered serious as of now, but if either misses more than a week more spots will open up.
Keeping that in mind, there are three players to watch as the Lightning preseason winds down. These players are on the bubble, with one game left to make a strong case that they deserve to be included on the season-opening roster.
A second-half call-up last season, Erne provided some grit to a lineup that didn’t possess the toughness needed to protect their star players. He did exactly that, racking up 11 penalty minutes to go with four points in 23 regular season games.
Unfortunately, his season was cut short thanks to a lower-body injury suffered in late March. That forced him to watch the Lightning’s deep playoff run, one that ultimately ended in heartbreak. It’s not a stretch to believe that had Erne been healthy, the Lightning may not have been so banged up by the rough and tumble Washington Capitals’ style of play.
Favored to win the spot vacated by Chris Kunitz, Erne is playing like a man on a mission so far this preseason. He leads the team with four points, three of which are goals, while playing in three of the Lightning’s five preseason games. His plus-1 rating speaks to his growth as a two-way player. That is a marginal improvement over last years minus-1, yet a major improvement over 2016-17. In 26 games that season, Erne showed there was still work to be done to become a complete player, evidenced by his minus-9 rating.
Drafted in the second round of the 2013 NHL Draft, Erne became a regular in the American Hockey League (AHL) Syracuse Crunch lineup in 2015-16. He put up a combined 84 points in three seasons at the minor league level but didn’t put up a plus rating until the 2017 Calder Cup playoffs. He parlayed that strong showing into his best pro season, with a plus-4 in 41 games as a member of the Crunch before being summoned to the big leagues in early February of 2018.
Now, he is pushing hard for the chance to finally crack the Lightning’s roster. He has an edge in experience, yet there are no guarantees. Proving yourself in the preseason is the best way to cement a spot, something Erne has been doing routinely during the past couple of weeks. Whether it’s enough is up to the coaching staff, but the gritty forward has made enough of an impression to cause everyone in the organization to sit up and take notice.
Another tough player, Joseph has yet to make his NHL debut. That could change this season, as he’s in competition with waiver wire pickup Danick Martel, Cory Conacher and Alexander Volkov for Callahan’s vacant spot. Joseph admitted last season was an eye-opener in terms of adjusting to the pro game. He now knows what to expect and it shows. His ability to play his game with energy is helping him make a strong case for inclusion on the opening night roster.
In five preseason contests, Joseph has held his own against some stiff competition. His number of games played leads all forwards, meaning, the coaches are impressed with what they’ve seen thus far. He hasn’t disappointed, leading the Lightning with seven points. His four assists also top the team. Those numbers could go up, as there is one game remaining in the preseason.
More impressively, however, is the poise the second-year pro has shown in less than ideal situations. When Kucherov exited Tuesday’s game, Joseph moved up a line to skate alongside Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat. He then started the game in Orlando on Thursday night flanking Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn.
While there is no guarantee he makes the big-league roster, Joseph is making his presence felt. He’s done enough to warrant a spot, but with Callahan due back in early November, the coaching staff might elect to have him play another full season in the AHL. Either way, there’s no doubt he’s capable of making an impact at the NHL level sooner rather than later.
Bursting onto the scene last preseason, Volkov has the speed and smarts to be an NHL regular one day. He made it to the final wave of cuts last year, a good sign for a player mere months removed from being drafted in the second round of the 2017 NHL Draft. A surprising selection, Volkov has gone from an unknown pick to a prospect capable of making an impact at the NHL level as early as this season. He has the skills and two-way game to succeed, evidenced by his three points and plus-3 rating in four games.
Hailing from Russia, he fits the Lightning’s mold for quick, deceptive and skilled players with a high hockey IQ. Kucherov is the best example, as the sneaky fast winger made a splash when he was called up to the big leagues in November of 2013, scoring on his first shot, on the first shift of his pro career.
Volkov seems to be taking a similar path, scoring early and often during his first preseason camp a year ago. This time around, he seems more comfortable. He hasn’t been eased in, as his first NHL game action in 2018 came on a line with Kucherov and captain Steven Stamkos.
The only issue facing Volkov might be whether the coaching staff feels comfortable placing him on the fourth line instead of in the top six. He’s likely earmarked for the Crunch roster, playing meaningful minutes on the top line. That’s not set in stone though, as preseason injuries to Kucherov and Johnson might force him into the mix.
Is this the year any of the above-mentioned players make the leap to the NHL? It’s still unknown but these guys are making their case for inclusion on the Lightning’s 2018-19 roster.
* All preseason statistics were found here.
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