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Ask Burnsie: Prospects ready to contribute & a look at the defense corps

As the offseason rolls on, Lightning beat writer Bryan Burns answers your pressing Twitter questions

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 in the future 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.

Which prospect has the best shot to make the opening night roster out of training camp and preseason play? (via @drached1)
Lot of questions about prospects in this mailbag. I'm guessing the recently-completed development camp has everyone pondering the future of the Lightning organization.

I think a forward prospect has a better shot to make the Opening Night Tampa Bay roster than a defenseman. The Lightning are pretty set on D with virtually the same group from last season returning sans Andrej Sustr, who left via free agency and signed a one-year contract with Anaheim. The Lightning went into last season with eight defensemen on the Opening Night roster, added Ryan McDonagh at the trade deadline to bring that number to nine and are now back at eight again with Sustr gone and Slater Koekkeok re-signed for another season. I don't see much wiggle room there for a prospect to break through.

Same thing with the goaltenders. The Lightning are set in net with Andrei Vasilevskiy and Louis Domingue. Connor Ingram and Eddie Pasquale appear again to be the duo in Syracuse.

Video: Mic'd Up | Connor Ingram

There is, however, the opportunity for a forward prospect to make an impression in training camp and earn a roster spot, especially with Ryan Callahan sidelined due to injury for the first month of the season. Mathieu Joseph shined in his first pro season with Syracuse in 2016-17, recording 15 goals, 38 assists and 53 points, leading the Crunch in both scoring and assists. Alex Volkov was drafted by the Lightning in the Second Round of the 2017 Draft and was a stud in his first North American action, leading the Crunch for goals (23) and ranking fourth for scoring (45). If his development keeps rising at that trajectory, he could be in Tampa Bay sooner rather than later.

Mitchell Stephens is another prospect who should garner a long look in training camp. He plays a good two-way game and could provide intangibles necessary to thrive in a third or fourth line role for the Bolts.

Another wild card? Carter Verhaeghe

The Lightning acquired Verhaeghe from the Islanders for G Kristers Gudlevskis last offseason. After spending the previous two seasons bouncing between the AHL and the ECHL, Verhaeghe took the next step in his development, playing the entire 2017-18 season with Syracuse and contributing 17 goals and 48 points to rank near the Crunch lead in both categories.

I wouldn't be surprised if any of these four were able to crack the Opening Night roster.

What are the Lightning missing in your opinion to finally bring back Lord Stanley to Tampa? (via @zwuibbel)
I omitted the first part of your question because, quite frankly, it's not the role of the reporter for the Lightning's official website to speculate on players outside the organization.

Believe me, you weren't the only one to inquire about some guy named Karl and his son.

What do the Lightning need to win a Stanley Cup? Remember, they were pretty dang close last season, coming within one more win of advancing to the Cup Final after holding a 3-2 lead over Washington through five games of the Eastern Conference Final. Watching the Capitals role through expansion Vegas in five games to hoist the Cup was no doubt painful for Lightning fans in the sense one could reasonably assume the Lightning would have fared well against the Golden Knights too given how they pushed the Caps to the brink of elimination.

I write that to remind everyone grandiose signings or wholesale changes aren't really needed for a team that was oh-so-close to its ultimate goal.

Would a top-end defenseman help the Lightning cause? Probably, but is it really necessary to win the Cup?

Look at the D corps of the last three Cup winners. Washington's back end was led by a career season from John Carlson and rounded out by Matt Niskanen, Michal Kempny, Dmitry Orlov, Brooks Orpik and Christian Djoos, a solid but not spectacular group. Would you trade those six for Tampa Bay's top six?

I wouldn't.

A season earlier, Pittsburgh won the Cup with its best defenseman, Kris Letang, injured. The Penguins' starting defensemen in the Cup clincher over Nashville? Justin Schultz, Brian Dumoulin, Olli Maatta, Trevor Daley, Ian Cole and Ron Hainsey. I don't think anybody's taking that group over what the Lightning have on the back end.

Why do I bring this up?

It's not absolutely necessary to have an elite D corps to win the Cup. So, I'm not sure the Lightning need to do much there to improve their chances.

What else needs to be added at forward? The Lightning led the NHL and set a franchise record for goals with 290 during the 2017-18 regular season and are returning basically the same group again this season.

To me, it's the intangible signing that could make the difference. The Caps signed Devante Smith-Pelly to a one-year, two-way contract last offseason after he was bought out by New Jersey. Smith-Pelly rewarded the Caps with seven goals in the playoffs. Kempny was brought in at the trade deadline for a third round pick and proved to be a steal for Washington as a back end solidifier and major playoff contributor.

To me, that's where the Lightning can get over the hump: identifying under-the-radar players on other teams that can come in and play a specific, valuable role.

Who do you consider as an unsung hero for the Bolts? (via @realchattykathy)
There are a few players who could qualify.

Anton Stralman has been as steady a defenseman as any in the NHL during his four seasons in Tampa Bay yet always gets overlooked when discussing the League's best blueliners. Ryan Callahan hasn't been as productively offensively in recent years, but the way he sacrifices his body game after game is a source of inspiration for his teammates.

But when I think about Dan Girardi taking a slap shot to back of the head and returning to play a few days later, I have a hard time selecting somebody else.

You remember the play. In Detroit midway through the season, the Red Wings on the power play at Little Caesars Arena, Martin Frk sets up for a one-time blast at the top of the left circle and absolutely blisters a rising puck into the turning Girardi, who immediately went down to the ice clutching his head.

Watch: Girardi goes down

The image of players from both the Lightning and the Red Wings grabbing their training staff by the elbows to skate them over to Girardi quickly is one I'll never forget.

My gut reaction was Girardi wouldn't play again the rest of the season.

He missed two games.

Hockey players throw the word "warrior" around all the time, but for Girardi, there's not a better description.

Take this into account: How many of us would have the cajones to go back out on the ice after a freak accident like that and willingly throw your body in front of another shot?
I know I wouldn't.

Girardi, however, finished the season as the Lightning's leading shot blocker. His 155 blocked shots were 45 more than Victor Hedman, who finished second on the Bolts in that category with 110.

Again, warrior

Given the McDonagh extension, should we expect a more permanent shift to the right side for Sergachev? (via @TheRevTy)
I think Sergachev proved he can play either the left or right side during his rookie season, and he can play both sides equally well. Sergachev slotted in almost exclusively on the right in the postseason, and Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said during the team's exit interviews he felt Sergachev was playing some of his best hockey of the season in the playoffs.

Video: NJD@TBL, Gm5: Sergachev nets his first playoff goal

I would look for him to stay on the right side this season, especially considering the Lightning will have the same cast on defense. Even if Sergachev develops into a top four, it'll be difficult for him to do so on the left side with Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh signed to long-term extensions and already established there. The right side is the path of least resistance for Sergachev to earn a top four role.

Who was your favorite NHL team growing up? Do you still pull for that team when they aren't playing Tampa? (via @bryandwvu)
Growing up about 60 miles west of Washington, I was a big fan of all the D.C. teams, except baseball (the Nationals didn't exist; nearest team was Baltimore, so the Orioles were my squad).

Yes, that means I was a Caps fan. Peter Bondra was that dude. I can still hear current Caps color analyst Craig Laughlin yelling "Bonzai!" whenever Bondra scored.

Then I went to college in Miami and kind of lost touch with the Caps since I was no longer in the local market and couldn't watch any of their games.

When I moved to Tampa after graduating, the Lightning had just won the Stanley Cup, so I started following them.

Now I work for them.

I've never looked back.

And, no, I wasn't happy for the Caps when they won the Stanley Cup. I was indifferent. I watched about five minutes total of the Cup Final. Just didn't have it in me after the way the Lightning season abruptly ended. 

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