With training camp and the preseason well underway, the Lightning find themselves faced with a number a very good problems. Chief among them: too many standouts, too few roster spaces.
The Bolts have made several cuts to their training camp roster, including a total of 22 players sent to Syracuse or elsewhere over the weekend.
The camp roster now sits at 36, but Brian Lee (injured), Dylan Blujus (injured), Kristers Gludlevskis (just getting in reps), and Mattias Ohlund (injured, and, let’s face it, just doesn’t count) account for four of those spaces.
That means we’re effectively down to 32, and the Lightning have another nine players to shave off in order to get themselves down to a fresh, clean, 23-man roster.
And given the performances we’ve seen during training camp, combined with the performances we’ve seen in Syracuse over the past several years, combined with sheer talent evaluations, let me tell you, that’s easier said than done.
At the time of the Lightning’s developmental camp this summer, it looked like management was keeping a roster spot reserved for their 3rd overall pick, and possible future superstar, Jonathan Drouin. Now? Well, things are a little more murky – not because of anything Drouin has done wrong, but because of what the older, more experienced would-be rookies have done right.
Listen to Jon Cooper talk on the subject, and you’ll hear his tone become cautionary.
“He’s 18,” Cooper told the media after the Lightning’s most recent game, a win over the Panthers in which Drouin scored the shootout winner. “So for an 18 year-old kid, because he’s still a kid, to come in here and do what he’s doing is— you’ve got to be a really good hockey player to keep up with what’s going on here.
“Are there holes in his game? There are. There’s a hole in everybody’s game. There’s holes in my coaching. So every game, you learn from it, move on, get better. And he made mistakes tonight, he did some good things tonight, but you can see he’s put himself in the mix.”
While Cooper’s words are intentionally aloof, diplomatic you might say, his tone is clear. What he’s really saying is: Maybe you should temper your hopes a bit. There’s no guarantee Drouin will make this team. At least, there’s no guarantee anymore.
“It’s a fast pace,” Cooper said when asked what the holes in Drouin’s game are. “You just can’t jump in, so he’s got to learn to play the pace of the game. And it’s going to take time. It takes time to play the pace. I don’t care who you are. And slowly but surely he’s getting better at it. You know, sometimes he gets caught playing the game standing still a little bit. He got popped once on a clean hit. Head was down, but again, it’s the pace of the game. You won’t see that too often happen to him. But again, it happened early in his career and, but again, [he] bounced right back, didn’t miss a shift, and played hard, so it was good.”
Perhaps more telling of Cooper’s mindset were his comments prior to the game when he compared Drouin to fellow hopeful J.T. Brown.
“They’re kind of in different circumstances,” Cooper said. “Drouin’s 18, and this is his first pro hockey experience. I hate when the guys come in with tags, well this was a first rounder or second rounder. To me, it’s you’re drafted into this organization and we’re going to look after you and we’re going to develop you. What’s best for you. We’re not in a position here to rush guys, ruin guys’ careers. We have major investment in Brown and Drouin, so we want to make sure they’re put into a spot where they’re ready and they can excel. But at some point too they have to seize that opportunity. Brownie’s a little different, he’s a little older, so he’s probably sniffing it a little closer and he’s competing with a lot of guys he’s played with before. So, kind of a little different situations, but that’s why we play these exhibition games.”
Brown, with three points in two preseason games, is just one of several players making a strong bid to win one of the remaining Lightning roster spots. Perhaps the camp’s biggest standout has been Brett Connolly, who’s scored three goals in two games, and is coming off a stellar season in Syracuse. Ondrej Palat has scored in both games he’s appeared in. Pierre Cedric Labrie showed up at camp with improved skating, and has a physical style that fits well into Cooper’s scheme. Tyler Johnson was last season’s MVP in the AHL. Richard Panik played well with both the Lightning and the Crunch last season. The list goes on and on.
And yet not all of them can start the year with the Lightning.
There are currently nineteen forwards on the Lightning training camp roster. By my count, nine of those players are assured spots with the team: B.J. Crombeen, Valtteri Filppula, Alex Killorn, Ryan Malone, Teddy Purcell, Tom Pyatt, Martin St. Louis, Steven Stamkos, and Nate Thompson.
On opening night, the Lightning will carry thirteen or possibly fourteen forwards on the roster. That leaves either four or five spots up for grabs. Which means two things. 1. The Lightning will have one of the most inexperienced teams in the league this season, and, 2. Some very good players are going back to Syracuse and junior.
The remaining candidates for forward spots are: Mike Angelidis, J.T. Brown, Brett Connolly, Jonathan Drouin, Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, Pierre Cedric Labrie, Ondrej Palat, Richard Panik, and Dana Tyrell.
At least five of them aren’t making the team. Figuring out which five is tricky business. (Mike Angelidis, it should be noted, is the captain of the Syracuse Crunch and the Lightning very much value him in that role, so it’s easy to believe he’ll soon be returned to it. However, there’s also an argument to be made that Cooper wants his old AHL captain around in the NHL.)
Connolly is the closest thing to a slam-dunk on that list. Panik, Palat, and Johnson have all more than paid their dues in the AHL. There are a lot of factors that add up against Drouin making this team.
There is, however, one very important factor that speaks highly in Drouin’s favor: he’s ineligible for AHL duty. That means, should the Lightning demote him, Drouin will be returned to the Halifax Mooseheads of the QMJHL.
For many 18 year-olds, like Adam Erne, there’s still plenty of development yet to be done against other 18 year-olds, but that’s not the case for Drouin – Drouin dominated the QMJHL last season, and would only dominate more as an 18/19 year-old. The most important experience for him to obtain now is playing against full-grown men with full-grown bad intentions for him. The perfect place to get that? The AHL. But oh that’s right, he’s ineligible…
So whether or not to keep Drouin this season is a trickier issue than you might first realize. What’s best for the team this year might not be what’s best for Drouin, and what’s best for Drouin might be best for the team in the long run.
It’s also important to consider that the Lightning have asked Drouin to play center during the preseason, a position he hadn’t played during his developmental explosion with the Mooseheads. Cooper is now moving Drouin back to his more natural position at wing to take a look at him there, which means we could see him line up alongside Steven Stamkos as early as Tuesday night.
In hockey, as in life, there are good problems and bad problems. The Tampa Bay Lightning, as we all know, have plenty of bad problems. Jon Cooper is currently trying to solve those. But it’s nice to know that, thanks to newfound organizational depth, there are some good problems in Tampa Bay too. And hopefully this is just the beginning.