We are down to just two more tune-up games for the Tampa Bay Lightning before the Bolts take the ice for real next week against the Nashville Predators. For the most part, the roster feels like it is set heading into the 2023-24 season.
But these last two preseason games could determine the fate of which player is going to slot in as Tampa’s 12th forward heading into the season.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Three-way battle to be the 12th
At this point, 11 of the 12 forwards seem to be a lock heading into next week:
- Steven Stamkos
- Nikita Kucherov
- Brayden Point
- Brandon Hagel
- Anthony Cirelli
- Conor Sheary
- Nick Paul
- Tanner Jeannot
- Mikey Eyssimont
- Luke Glendening
- Tyler Motte
With one open slot, we here at Bolts by the Bay see that final forward slot coming down to Alex Barré-Boulet, Waltteri Merela, or Austin Watson.
Barré-Boulet was the presumed 12th forward heading into the offseason last year. Coming off a great year in Syracuse, he can provide a scoring punch from the bottom six forwards. And as we noted last week, he’s never really gotten an extended chance with the big club to showcase if he is going to sink or swim.
If the Lightning did not keep him on the main roster to start the season, he would have to clear waivers, and there is a good chance someone else would take a shot at him.
But Merela and Watson aren’t making the choice easy.
Merela joined the club from Finland and has flashed with his limited ice time so far. Against Nashville last week, he had two goals and an assist, and his underlying 5 v 5 numbers have been much better than Barré-Boulet’s.
Through three games, Merela has been on the ice for three goals and hasn’t been on the ice for any against during even-strength play. Barré-Boulet, meanwhile, has had five goals against while generating none during even-strength play. His goal and assist this preseason have come on a power play.
And while plus/minus isn’t everything, other advanced metrics indicate that Merela has been far more active and defensively responsible than Barré-Boulet.
While Merela and Barré-Boulet battle it out to be the offensive upside option for the Lightning, a third forward is trying to bludgeon his way onto the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2023-24.
Austin Watson is a nine-year NHL veteran who last played with Ottawa and is on a professional tryout with Tampa.
Against Nashville last week, he got into a fight. Against Florida in Orlando, he got into a fight. Against a 12-year-old on NHL 24, he got into a fight.
We might be making that last one up, but Watson does bring far more grit to the squad than offensive upside.
With the two games to go in the preseason, what feels most likely to happen is that Barré-Boulet and Watson will make the squad while Merela will get sent to Syracuse.
While there is an argument to be made that Merela has outplayed Barré-Boulet this preseason, the simple reason is that Merela wouldn’t have to clear waivers, and it would ensure he gets to play every night while continuing to adjust to the North American style of hockey.
Given the injury to Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa would have LTIR space to keep Watson around until Vassy comes back. And, even then, the Tampa Bay Lightning could opt to keep Watson if their plan is to let Merela still develop.