It was a good start to the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 2019-20 campaign as they opened the season with a 5-2 win against the Florida Panthers. While the team is largely unchanged from last year, their opening night lineup looked a little different for a few reasons, one of the largest being the injury to center Brayden Point.
Point re-signed with the Lightning for three more years, but will be out until late October after having hip surgery. Because of that, Jon Cooper and the rest of the coaching staff have had to make some adjustments. Players who were originally on the third and fourth lines have moved up, and the fourth line is a completely different look than last season. Things will change once Point gets back, but in the meantime, here’s how his injury affects the Lightning.
The Second Line
While Point was a lock to be the Lightning’s second-line center, his absence has affected all four lines. On the top trio, captain Steven Stamkos, who is normally a center, is now on the left wing. He’s centered by Tyler Johnson and Hart Trophy-winner Nikita Kucherov is on the right wing. Toward the end of last season, Point was on the top line at times with Johnson on the second line. Now, the second line is made up of Ondrej Palat on the left side, Anthony Cirelli at center and Alex Killorn on the right.
Cirelli was one of the league’s top two-way centers last season, and he should fit nicely on the second line until Point returns. Palat and Killorn can bounce up and down the lineup as needed, but having two veterans on a line with a younger Cirelli is a smart decision by the coaching staff. It’s also a good sign that Palat was noticeably quicker on the puck and the forecheck against the Panthers on Oct. 3, and he netted the game-winning goal in the third period.
The Third Line
With Cirelli moving up to the second line, the Lightning made Yanni Gourde the third-line center. He has played all three forward positions at times over his career, but he should be able to provide consistent bottom-six scoring. On his left side is newcomer Carter Verhaeghe who made the team out of training camp, and Mathieu Joseph is on the right side. Joseph enjoyed a nice rookie year with 26 points in 70 games last season, but it’s Verhaeghe who’s the wild card for this line.
Verhaeghe led the American Hockey League (AHL) last year with 82 points and likely would have gotten time with the Lightning earlier if they hadn’t been as healthy as they were early in the 2018-19 season. He gained more experience with the Syracuse Crunch, and if he performs well, he will likely stay in the NHL this season.
However, if he doesn’t, he could be the odd man out with Gourde shifting over to left wing. But, the Lightning have a history of developing talent young talent well — Kucherov, Point and Cirelli, for example — and they hope Verhaeghe can develop into a full-time NHL player as well.
The Fourth Line
The Lightning have a new look when it comes to their fourth line, and they want to make a statement. At left wing is Stanley Cup champion Pat Maroon, centering the line is Gemel Smith and on the right side is Luke Witkowski. It’s not the most glamorous line, by any means, but that’s the point — the team lacked physicality last year, and these kinds of players have exactly that.
Because of the fourth line’s physicality, Verhaeghe could still be the odd man out if he isn’t scoring or producing. In game one this season, Maroon scored his first goal as a member of the Lightning, Witkowski had two shots and two hits, and Smith won three of the four faceoffs he took. For as little as they might play, all three players add an extra element to a team full of skill that says, “We’re not going to be pushed around.” It should also be noted that center Cedric Paquette — who recently signed a two-year contract with the Lightning — is injured. He plays a similar style to the guys on the fourth line, but he also scored 13 goals last season. Those four will likely make up the fourth line for most of the season, even when Point is back.
When Point Returns
It will be interesting to see how much Cooper decides to change when Point comes back, but at the very least, he will slot into the second-line center role and Cirelli will move down to the third line. That will displace Gourde, who will likely move to one of the wings, and if that’s the case, Verhaeghe might go back to Syracuse for the time being. However, if Cooper and the team aren’t happy with the fourth line’s play, they could blow that up and move Verhaeghe down there to provide bottom-six scoring.
It should also be noted that Point’s return will make the Lightning power play even more deadly. He should slot right into the first-unit center position alongside Stamkos and Maroon, and Johnson will move to the second unit. His 35 power play points will be missed while he’s away, but when he comes back, the team — power play or not — will be firing on all cylinders.