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Ask Burnsie: Looking ahead to 2019-20

Beat writer Bryan Burns answers your Twitter questions on prospects likely to make an impact, the Bolts' projected lineup and an improved Atlantic Division

by Bryan Burns / beat writer Bryan Burns will answer readers' most intriguing questions in a regular mailbag feature. Be sure to tweet questions to @bburnsnhl and include the hashtag #AskBurnsie to have your question answered in a future mailbag. If your question wasn't answered today, resubmit it and we'll attempt to get it in for another edition. Have fun with your questions too; the more off-beat the query the better.

Do you think one of the Foote brothers will make the opening night roster? (@LynYucuis)
Nolan Foote has already stated he plans to return for his fourth season with Kelowna of the Western Hockey League, where he will continue to be coached by his father Adam, a two-time Stanley Cup-winning defenseman with the Colorado Avalanche and current head coach of the Rockets.

Kelowna will host the 2020 Memorial Cup, and the left-shooting power forward Nolan will play a pivotal role in the team's quest to hoist the Cup as the Rockets' reigning goalscoring leader (he netted 36 goals for Kelowna in 2018-19).

As for older brother Cal Foote, Tampa Bay's first round draft pick (14th overall) at the 2017 NHL Draft, he's close. The 20-year-old defenseman would probably do well to gain another year of seasoning at the American Hockey League level in Syracuse and the added responsibilities that would come in his second full season with the Crunch. But he'll certainly get a long look in training camp as the Lightning don't appear, at least right now, to be completely set on the blue line, and he's the Bolts' top defenseman prospect. 

I could also see a situation similar to Erik Cernak where Foote is called up midseason due to injuries on the Bolts back end and plays well enough to remain in Tampa Bay and become a regular in the lineup. To me, that's the likeliest scenario for Cal Foote to make his National Hockey League debut.

Video: Mic'd Up | Nolan Foote

With the top 4 looking like 77-98 and 27-81, do you like the pairs we used last year at the end of the season, or would it make more sense to pair 27-98 to have a stay at home/shutdown Dman on each pair with a puck moving offensive Dman beside them? (@ItsGoodwithGary)
That's a tough one, but barring other defenseman acquisitions before opening night, I think you go with Victor Hedman and Mikhail Sergachev at top pair and partner Ryan McDonagh with Erik Cernak to keep last season's best defensive shutdown pairing together. Sergachev is entering his third season with the Lightning and appears ready to take on the responsibilities of a top pairing role. He was impressive at the World Championships for Team Russia in May where he ranked tied for second among all defensemen in the tournament for assists (6) and appears poised to take the next step in his career. At the start of the season, at least, I think you see how that transitions into a strong partnership with Hedman. If you don't get the desired results, then maybe you go to the stay at home/shutdown D-man paired with an offensively-minded, puck-moving D-man combination you've seen the Lightning use frequently in the past.

And since we're already here discussing the blueline, I think re-signed veteran Braydon Coburn is the constant on the third pair and it will be a training camp battle between Jan Rutta, Luke Schenn, Luke Witkowski and potentially the prospects like Cal Foote or Dominik Masin to determine who he partners with.

Video: Hedman Mic'd Up on the Red Carpet

Who do you see as the Lightning's toughest challenge in the Atlantic Division now after we've seen some big moves with teams like the Leafs and Florida? (@Burns91Liam)
Both of those teams you mentioned have gotten better, at least on paper, this offseason.

Toronto addressed its biggest weakness, the blueline, by trading for right-shot defensemen Tyson Barrie from Colorado and Cody Ceci from Ottawa.

Florida went all in on two-time Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, signing the veteran to a massive seven-year, $70-million deal while also supplementing their roster with forwards Noel Acciari and Brett Connolly and former Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman. Plus, the Cats will have a new bench boss in three-time Stanley Cup champion Joel Quenneville.

Still, based on their performance last season in reaching the Stanley Cup Final and their track record as being one of the best teams in the League over the last few seasons, I think the Boston Bruins remain Tampa Bay's toughest challenge in its effort to capture a third-straight Atlantic Division title. The Bruins will have the majority of their team back and will be hungry to return to the SCF after falling one game short of the ultimate goal.

I still like the Lightning as the favorite in the Atlantic, however.

Tweet from @TBLightning: We have re-signed Carter Verhaeghe to a one-year, two-way contract.

Which Crunch forward from last season is your best bet to make the Bolts roster out of camp? (@JP_FL_77)
There are a few who could make a pretty good case with a strong training camp.

Alex Barre-Boulet is the fastest riser, seeing his stock rise significantly after scoring 34 goals, tied with teammate Carter Verhaeghe, in his first pro season with Syracuse last season (he scored 53 the year before in the QMJHL with Blainville-Boisbriand). Signed by the Lightning as a free agent on Feb. 28, 2018, Barre-Boulet could follow in the path of Tyler Johnson and Yanni Gourde as undrafted players to rapidly rise through the ranks and make their way onto the Lightning roster.

Verhaeghe will get a long look as well. Re-signed to a one-year, two-way contract on July 5, the 23 year old played in every game last season for the Crunch and was the AHL's leading scorer with 82 points. That career season seems to have elevated him near the top of the Lightning's prospects list. Also, he would have to clear waivers if he were to be sent down, and I'm not sure Lightning management would want to risk losing him.

Mitchell Stephens was one of the last cuts in training camp last season but suffered through an injury-plagued season in Syracuse in which he played only 32 games. A second round draft pick (33rd overall) of the Bolts in 2015, Stephens is at the point in his development where it might be time to see what he can do at the NHL level, provided his progression wasn't stunted too severely because of the injuries.

Alex Volkov wowed the Lightning in the preseason last year and nearly made the team out of camp but, like Stephens, was one of the final cuts. He put up good numbers for the Crunch - 23 goals and 48 points - in 2018-19 but perhaps plateaued a bit compared to his scintillating rookie year when he produced nearly identical stats (23 goals and 45 points). He'll get another long look in camp this season.

Cory Conacher spent most of the 2018-19 season in Syracuse, finishing third on the Crunch for scoring with 64 points, but is a reliable winger who has proven he can play effectively in the NHL.

Taylor Raddysh and Boris Katchouk are getting there but, in my opinion, need more time to develop in Syracuse.

Out of the aforementioned group, I would give the nod to Conacher making the Lightning out of training camp. He's on a one-year, one-way contract and would have to clear waivers to go back to Syracuse. He knows this is likely his last chance to make it with the Lightning and will work tirelessly during the offseason to make it count.

Of the youngsters, I think Volkov is the pick. Maybe he was disillusioned after coming oh-so close to making the Lightning roster out of camp and being sent back to Syracuse and it affected his play somewhat in his sophomore season with the Crunch (this isn't to suggest he had a down year last year, just after he stormed through the AHL in his rookie pro season, a lot of people expected even greater numbers his second year). But I think he'll put together another strong camp and, unlike last season, there are roster spots available for him to grab this go round. Next up for me would be Verhaeghe, who was kind of an afterthought when he was acquired from the New York Islanders in exchange for goaltender Kristers Gudlevskis on July 1, 2017 but has positioned himself on the cusp of reaching the NHL after a phenomenal year for the Crunch.

Video: TBL@TOR: Cirelli beats Andersen on deflection

If push comes to shove next season, who could be the odd man out between Sergachev, Cirelli, Joseph and Cernak? (@justcallmejagr)

They're all extremely talented young players who will be a major part of the Tampa Bay Lightning organization for the foreseeable future. As much as a salary cap crunch as the Lightning faced this offseason, next year's will be even more daunting with all four of the players you just mentioned becoming restricted free agents along with Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. They're all going to get pay raises, and deservedly so.

I wouldn't want to be the one figuring out how to get all of them under the salary cap, but luckily, the Lightning have a cap wizard named Julien BriseBois handling those details. I can't speak for the general manager, but I don't think the Lightning want to let any of the aforementioned players get away from them and will do everything they can to keep them in the organization.

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