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3 questions to open Lightning rookie camp

Bryan Burns gets you set for the start of rookie camp

by Bryan Burns /

With Hurricane Irma bearing down on the Florida peninsula, the schedule for Tampa Bay's rookie camp has been thrown somewhat in flux. Camp still opens Thursday, however practices will be moved to the closed-to-the-public AMALIE Arena. The Lightning prospects were schedule to take part in a four-team tournament hosted by Washington at Estero's Germain Arena this weekend, but the Capitals cancelled the event with the threat of severe weather in South Florida.

The Bolts might still participate in a rookie competition of sorts. Details are still being hammered out, however.

Meanwhile, as many questions as the Lightning are facing off the ice this week because of the weather, there are even more questions on it. With the rookies set to begin camp on Thursday, we're taking a look at the most pressing storylines to watch throughout the week. 

1. Who, if anybody, is ready to make the Brayden Point-like leap?

At last season's rookie tournament in Sunrise, Brayden Point dazzled. In three games versus the Capitals, Predators and Panthers, he was easily the best player on the ice in each. Point carried over his spectacular rookie camp performance into training camp and earned a spot on the Lightning's Opening Night roster, beating out a couple of veterans in Erik Condra and Cory Conacher.

Is there anybody among the current crop of Bolts' prospects ready to make a similar move?

A couple of players appear on the verge.

Tampa Bay's 2016 first round draft pick Brett Howden could be the most ready. At Moose Jaw last season, Howden, a center, put up 38 goals - second-most on the Warriors - and 81 points in 58 games. After the conclusion of the WHL season, Howden joined the Syracuse Crunch and scored three goals over the final five regular season games and even saw time in the playoffs, starting three of the Crunch's first four playoffs games against St. John's, contributing two assists.  

Anthony Cirelli is another player quickly climbing the prospect ladder. The 6-foot-1 center certainly has a championship pedigree. In 2015, he scored the game-winning overtime goal for Oshawa to capture the Memorial Cup. Last season, he was traded to Erie midseason and helped the Otters win the OHL's Robertson Cup by scoring the game-winning overtime goal in the league championship. Cirelli joined Syracuse during the Crunch's Calder Cup run and was inserted into the starting lineup for his first AHL playoff game in Game 1 of the Calder Cup Final at Grand Rapids. Cirelli played in all six games of the Cup Final and came oh-so-close to scoring multiple times. The confidence he gained from that experience should serve him well as he enters rookie camp.

Additionally, keep an eye on forwards Mathieu Joseph, Taylor Raddysh and Mitchell Stephens as well as defensemen Erik Cernak and Libor Hayek. Although each appears to be at least a year away from contributing at the NHL level, it's not out of the question one or more could make an impact this season for the Lightning.


2. Is Mikhail Sergachev ready for primetime?

You could certainly include Sergachev in the first storyline, but the elite Russian defenseman prospect deserves his own.

By all accounts, Sergachev will be given every opportunity to make the Lightning out of training camp. He's a puck-moving, two-way defenseman with a skill set similar to the Bolts' Norris Trophy finalist Victor Hedman. Sergachev could be a boon to the Bolts power play with his dangerous slap shot from the point and penchant for distributing the puck to the right player in the right spots. If Sergachev doesn't make the Lightning roster, the 19 year old will have to play another year of juniors, and, really, there's nothing left for Sergachev to prove at the junior level.

A roster spot for Sergachev is no guarantee either, however. Currently, there's a logjam in defense for the Bolts. Hedman, Anton Stralman, Braydon Coburn and Andrej Sustr all return, along with Jake Dotchin and Slater Koekkoek, who each signed a one-way extension during the offseason. Add in offseason free agent acquisition Dan Girardi, and there aren't exactly a lot of openings on the Bolts' blue line. Plus, if Sergachev plays less than 40 NHL games this season, the Lightning will get Montreal's second-round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft in exchange for a sixth-round pick, a condition of the offseason trade that brought Sergachev to the Lightning for talented forward Jonathan Drouin.

For his part, Sergachev realizes how important this camp is for his prospects of playing in the NHL in 2017-18, and his work to justify a roster spot begins at the week-long rookie camp.

"Even if you practice or you're playing in the rookie tournament or a preseason game, it's just a great chance to show yourself and show what you can do on the ice," Sergachev said Wednesday following an informal workout at the Ice Sports Forum. "I've just got to be mature on the ice, make right decisions at the right times, play good defense and create some offense."

Even with seven defensemen under contract for 2017-18, the thought is the Lightning will make room for Sergachev provided he earns his spot in camp.

The work to prove himself worthy begins Thursday.


3. Can Connor Ingram be the heir apparent in goal?

Coming into last season's rookie camp, Adam Wilcox's stock in the organization seemed to be rising while little was known about 2016 third-round draft pick Connor Ingram other than his gaudy record playing for Kamloops of the WHL.

Wilcox had a strong showing at the rookie tournament and parlayed that success into a great start to his second pro season in the AHL with Syracuse. But somewhat surprisingly, he was dealt to the Florida Panthers at the trade deadline to bring in veteran netminder Mike McKenna for the Crunch's playoff run.

Wilcox's exit, along with the trade of Kristers Gudlevskis to the New York Islanders in the offseason, opens the door for Ingram, who suddenly finds himself the only young goalie in the Lightning's pipeline. Ingram set career highs in 2016-17 with Kamloops for goals-against average (2.44) and shutouts (5) while recording a 26-14-2 mark.

The only other goalie at rookie camp is invitee Joseph Raaymakers, which means Ingram will get the majority of the work over the next week and plenty of opportunities to cement his status within the organization.

"When it comes down to it, I really haven't played many games in this organization," Ingram said following his first day of informal workouts on Wednesday. "I think one-and-a-half rookie tournaments is the only real action I've ever seen here. It's easy to play at home during the year, but it'll be good to do it here too."

Ingram is expected to join free agent acquisition Michael Leighton in Syracuse this season. The Lightning would like to groom Ingram to eventually take over the backup role in Tampa Bay once Peter Budaj's contract expires.

Is Ingram ready for the next step in his career?

His performance during rookie camp should be a good indication.

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