The Tampa Bay Lightning will take to the ice tonight against the St. Louis Blues for the first time since their 2013 season ended in April. However, if you’re looking for your old favorites, tonight’s game might not be for you – the Bolts are dressing a squad filled mostly with, shall we say, long-term projects, and just enough regular NHLers to stay competitive.
Here are the forwards penciled in for tonight’s game:
Brown, 23, played 5 games for the Lightning shortly after being signed in 2012, and then spent the 2013 season in Syracuse where injuries interrupted his development. Unfortunately for Brown, it’s probably not a good year to be a smallish forward trying to make the Lightning roster, since the Lightning are undersized already and it would appear another smallish forward, Jonathan Drouin, has all but locked up a spot.
That goes doubly so for Dana Tyrell, who’s listed at 5’10 but probably isn’t. But Tyrell has one thing going for him that Brown doesn’t – NHL experience. Tyrell, 24, has played a total of 125 NHL games, including nearly a full season’s worth in 2010/2011. That said, this might be the most competitive training camp in the history of the Tampa Bay Lightning organization, so Tyrell will need to make an impact in the preseason (probably defensively) if he hopes to stick with this year’s team.
If you’re a hockey nut like I am, the long-term project players are probably more interesting to you. These are players who probably don’t have a chance to make this year’s Lightning team, regardless of their performance, but are looking to make a lasting impression and move out of “long-term” status and into “short-term” status.
A good example of such a player is Adam Erne. The Lightning believed they’d found a gem when Erne slipped all the way to their 33rd pick in the 2013 Draft, and so far in camp, reports would lead one to believe Erne has done nothing but prove them right.
He had a good showing at both the developmental camp and the rookie camp, played exceptionally well in the rookie tournament, and tonight he’ll dip his toe into NHL action for the first time.
While Erne’s physical, no nonsense style of play is exactly what the Lightning need right now, there are simply too many players ahead of him in the pecking order for him to make this year’s team. He will play this year in junior, and in the future may have to put some AHL time in to get accustomed to imposing his will on full grown men. But if he continues to turn heads and raise eyebrows the way he has over this summer, he might manage to skip a lot of developmental time. I’d say next year is the earliest we see him in regular season action, and even that is something of a long shot – but it’s getting shorter.
Cedric Paquette responded well to being drafted by the Lightning in the fourth round of the 2012 Draft. Paquette’s offensive output in the QJMHL nearly doubled the following season, going from 48 points in 2011/2012 to 83 in 2012/2013. (Note: Pacquette’s production was boosted by a massive increase in assists, going from just 17 to 56, while actually seeing a slight reduction in goals, 31 to 27.) Paquette looked great in this year’s developmental camp, but where he fits in the Lightning’s future is still up in the air. (Paquette is currently listed #22 of the Bolts top 30 prospects at www.boltsprospects.com)
Perhaps the most intriguing player on that list is the little-known Henri Iknonen. The Bolts have had more success than your average bear in the late rounds of the NHL Draft, and Iknonen might yet be more proof. Iknonen has been one of the early stars of training camp, striking up on-ice chemistry with another camp standout, Nikita Kucherov. Iknonen was drafted in the 6th round of this year’s Draft, but he’s been leaving the Lightning with good impressions ever since. Still, Iknonen is several years away from playing in the NHL, but he’s a player that’s forced his way onto the Lightning radar.
Tonight’s defense looks like this:
If there’s one player you should check up on tonight, it’s Mark Barberio. Not only is he on the bubble right now for an NHL roster spot, he’s also a player that could change the look of the Lightning for years to come if he pans out in the NHL. Why? Barberio, 23, is a puck-moving defenseman that can quarterback a powerplay – just what the doctor ordered for the Lightning. …Or at least that’s what Barberio is in the AHL. The jury is still out on whether or not Barberio can handle the physicality of the NHL game, and that’s what the Lightning need him to prove in this preseason.
Beyond Barberio, one has to assume Radko Gudas won his spot on the roster last season, when at times he was the Lightning’s best defenseman. Gudas is playing tonight to keep the Lightning competitive, not for any reasons of evaluation.
But one player who will be evaluated tonight, heavily, is Slater Koekkoek.
Koekkoek was the Lightning’s top pick in the 2012 draft (10th overall), but injuries have stalled his development over the past two seasons.
He won’t be making this year’s team, but management will still be giving him a long, hard look to see just where he’s at on his road to becoming an NHLer.
Koekkoek has a competitive fire unlike many players, which will make him eager to prove that he can play in the NHL right now and will be ready whenever the Lightning need him.
And the goalies:
Cedrick Desjardins is in penciled in as the starter for the Syracuse Crunch, but he’s an adequate third option at the NHL level should injuries occur. In the meantime, Desjardins will continue to grind it out in the minors, where he put up good numbers after being acquired last season, and hopefully lead the Crunch to a second championship in three years. With Andrei Vasilevski tentatively scheduled to make the move to the AHL in 2014/2015, Desjardins might be showcasing himself for a new team, where maybe there will be an NHL back-up job available.
The Lightning are beginning to believe they’ve found a gem in Kristers Gudlevskis. Drafted in the 5th round of this year’s draft, Gudlevskis has impressed enough during camp to believe he might challenge for the back-up role with the Syracuse Crunch, and he might have a good NHL future ahead of him.
Tonight’s game takes place in Orlando, and gets underway at 7:00 p.m. EST.