It’s hard to believe it’s been four months since the Lightning closed out their shortened 2013 season with a loss to the Florida Panthers. And it’s been nearly two months since the team announced the compliance buyout of Vincent Lecavalier‘s contract, drafted potential star Jonathan Drouin, and signed/overpaid (but that’s the “in” thing to do these days) Valtteri Filppula. For better or worse, things have changed.
We now find ourselves just about a month from the opening of training camp, which will see the Bolts play seven exhibition games split between the St. Louis Blues, the Nashville Predators, and the Florida Panthers.
And that’s where we’ll finally get some answers to the questions we’ve been asking throughout the offseason. Will Jonathan Drouin make the Lightning roster? We’ll find out at training camp. Who will start the season as the Lightning’s #1 netminder? We’ll find out at training camp. Will Brett Connolly return after a successful year in Syracuse? How about Tyler Johnson? Ondrej Palat? We’ll find out at training camp.
Coming into the 2013/2014 campaign, the Lightning have an abundance of young talent whose immediate futures are in limbo between Syracuse and Tampa Bay. The Crunch have been the most successful NHL affiliate over the past two seasons, and team success has gone hand-in-hand with individual success. The Crunch roster is full of players who’ve earned a real look at the NHL level.
Unfortunately, there are only so many NHL roster spaces available. And if Jonathan Drouin does indeed jump to the head of the prospect line, as expected, that’s just one less space for guys like Richard Panik and J.T. Brown to fight over.
Several players, like the aforementioned Panik, have a leg up on the competition. Panik and Alex Killorn saw extended time with the Lightning last season and didn’t disappoint. Killorn was particularly strong and seems all but a lock for a 2013/2014 roster spot. Panik’s future is less certain.
Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Brett Connolly dipped their toes into NHL waters last season and the results were more/less positive, but their NHL bids will be based mostly on the damage they did last season at the AHL level. Johnson walked away with league-MVP honors, Palat was an absolute beast in the AHL post-season, and Connolly was an offensive threat wire-to-wire while improving both his physical and defensive play as the season progressed.
Longer shots to make this year’s team are players like J.T. Brown, Vladislav Namestnikov, and Nikita Kucherov. While each of them might be able to make a case for themself as NHL-ready, they’ve yet to pay the kind of dues the previously mentioned players have paid at the AHL level. Brown’s first full AHL season was injury plagued and the results were mixed. Namestnikov looks like a high-end NHL-talent, but he needs to prove he has the strength and toughness required to play against full grown men. Kucherov is something of an X-factor for the Lightning. He’s shown superstar-level talent in junior, and he dazzled management and fans alike at this year’s Lightning development camp. But the Bolts are likely to be patient bringing him along. He’s undersized, lacks strength, and might not be ready to be thrown to the wolves. We know he’s good, but no one’s sure just how good he can be yet, and rushing young players into the NHL can be disastrous.
With all that said, these players are still in the mix for a roster spot. But they’re basically going to have to force their way onto the team during training camp. All three of them would unquestionably benefit from a full season in Syracuse, so in order to make the team they’ll need to prove the Lightning can’t afford to go ahead without them.
Further on down the line are younger players, or not-so-young players nonetheless in need of seasoning. Players like Adam Erne (training camp is made for players like Erne to showcase themselves), Matthew Peca, Brian Hart, Tanner Richard, and Cedric Pacquette, and others. The list is long. But regardless of how great some of these players might look at training camp, their respective chances of making the Lightning squad is just a shade higher than zero. For now. They’ll each be sent to their respective developmental teams where they’ll continue, or start, paying their dues.
Concerning defense, allow me to cross one name off your might-be Lightning roster right now. Slater Koekkoek is not going to make this year’s team. Unfortunately, Koekkoek’s development has been delayed by injuries, and the Bolts are going to need more time to assess him at lower levels. Koekkoek will fight for a spot on Team Canada for the coming World Junior Championships, an experience that could be invaluable to his progress should he make the cut. He remains a very good prospect, and will almost undoubtedly skate for the Lightning someday soon. But it won’t be this year.
The biggest question mark for this year’s team is Mark Barberio. Barberio’s proven his consistency at the AHL, where in 2011/2012 he was named the league’s top defenseman and in 2012/2013 he showed marked improvement in his defensive play. Barberio would fill a lot of blue line needs for the Lightning – he’s quick, he moves the puck well, and he might be able to quarterback an NHL powerplay. However, his two game stint with the Bolts in 2013, small sample size aside, was less than stellar. He’s probably going to need to prove he belongs in the NHL during training camp.
But Barberio finds himself in an awkward position – there’s nothing left for him to prove at the AHL level. Therefore, should he not make the Tampa Bay roster this season, it won’t be for his own good, but rather because the team is simply better off without him for now. And that’s a bitter pill to swallow for a player closing in on his prime years.
If you have any questions about Radkos Gudas making the team, I have this to say to you: Drugs are bad. You need to get off them. Gudas is a rare breed of player that is better suited to the NHL than the AHL. Of his 20 games last season, there were several where he was undeniably the team’s best defenseman, and even at his worst he looked like a solid NHLer. My guess? We never see him in a Syracuse Crunch uniform again.
Aside from the prospect scene, where the Bolts have an abundance of riches (their developmental system was recently ranked best in the league by hockeyprospectus.com), the major questions are in net. The team has two potential starting goaltenders when there’s only room for one. Anders Lindback has elite athleticism, but the fly in his ointment is his mental game. Unfortunately for him (and us), a goaltender’s top asset, even above his physical tools, is his mental toughness. There’s a clear difference in a confident Lindback and a mentally-shaken Lindback, and all too often last season the shaken Lindback showed up.
Ben Bishop, on the other hand, has very good physical tools, but I would judge his quickness and reflexes to be a notch below Lindback’s. Bishop’s main strength is mental game. At times last season, Bishop was visibly upset after goals, particularly goals on which his own teammates had provided a screen for the opposition. But Bishop routinely used such moments to fuel his competitive fire, whereas Lindback would often let one bad moment create a domino effect.
As of this moment, I think the Lightning crease is Bishop’s to lose. But we probably won’t get a definitive answer on who is the Lightning’s starting goalie until well after training camp. Lindback will remain a possibility until he proves otherwise. Best case scenario? The competition in net brings the best out of both goalies. If Bishop and Lindback are constantly outshining each other to the point that the Lightning haven’t made a decision come season’s end? Well, that’s a good problem to have.
And the Lightning are full of good problems. Having three or four roster spaces available for seven or eight NHL-ready talents is a good problem.
Unfortunately, the Lightning also have their share of bad problems. The team needs a major attitude adjustment concerning their defensive end, and that has to start with players like Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis. The team’s goaltending, while full of potential, is still unproven, and Andrei Vasilevski, the man who should solve that problem, is still at least two years away from the NHL. And the fact that the Lightning have so many AHL and junior players vying for NHL time this season means they will very likely dress more rookies than any other NHL team. Inexperience is a problem.
But such is the drama that makes the NHL so intriguing – and fun. We’re watching a team grow before our eyes, and we’re hoping the team is being built into a contender. Slowly. The early signs are good. But they’re very early signs.
This season will be a major transition year – a shift between the old and new. Between the team the Lightning were and the team the Lightning will be. We can only hope that the shift will bring a new mentality to the team, one that not only values but understands the defensive end of the game. We can only hope that either Ben Bishop or Anders Lindback, or hopefully both, prove to be solid NHL goaltenders that give the Bolts a chance to win every night.
Our first clues on how it’s all going to shake out will come on September 18 when the Lightning hit the ice against the St. Louis Blues in their first preseason game. From that point on, anything can happen. The 2013/2014 Lightning season is a big bundle of question marks at this point. We might be about to watch a Cinderella story, or we might be about to watch an epic disaster unfold before our eyes. Either way, if you’re anything like me, you can’t wait either.