Last preseason, Erik Cernak got a chance to pair with veteran defenseman Ryan McDonagh during training camp drills and during games, the two building a comfortable partnership almost immediately.
The combination was beneficial for Cernak in two ways. Skating with an experienced partner to his left allowed him to relax and play loose during the preseason. Lightning head coach Jon Cooper has said multiple times it's not the 23 players you break camp with that make up your team, it's the 30 or so guys the team uses throughout the season that ultimately determines your level of success. Cernak established himself as one of those 30 during that preseason playing with McDonagh and was one of the final cuts for the Opening Night roster.
The second benefit came once Cernak was recalled from Syracuse in November when injuries hit the Lightning blue line hard. Once up with the Bolts, Cernak was inserted into the lineup next to McDonagh again, and the partnership provided immediate dividends, the two seamlessly combining together to become the Bolts' shutdown pair by the conclusion of the season.
Video: Foote on expectations for tonight
When the Lightning open their preseason slate tonight against the Carolina Hurricanes at AMALIE Arena (7 p.m. puck drop), McDonagh will once again find an impressionable rookie to his right. Cal Foote is another player on the short list of prospects with a chance of cracking the Opening Night roster, and he's hoping to replicate the success Cernak had with McDonagh a season ago and parlay that into a spot on the Lightning.
"It's awesome," Foote said about pairing with McDonagh for the preseason opener. "He's been around for a long time. It's going to be pretty fun to play with him, and I'm very excited."
Foote said he'll use the opportunity to pick McDonagh's brain in game, much like he does throughout training camp with all of the Lightning defensemen.
"You try to take away from everyone's game here," Foote said. "There are a lot of great players that have been in the NHL a long time. But for (McDonagh), he plays a simple game, makes great outlet passes and adds to the offense, plays great defense. He's an all-around player that everyone tries to learn from."
Foote will also get an opportunity to quarterback Tampa Bay's top power play. During the team's morning skate at the Ice Sports Forum in preparation for the Carolina game, Foote went out with the first unit with Steven Stamkos, Anthony Cirelli, Alex Killorn and fellow prospect Ross Colton.
The chance to impress isn't lost on the 6-foot-4, 220-pound defenseman.
"It's unbelievable," Foote said. "It's another great opportunity. Try to go out there and just try to play well and feed (Stamkos) and let him do his thing."
Foote improved with each outing during his first professional season with the Crunch last season. Among rookie defensemen in the AHL, he ranked fifth for goals (10) and tied for ninth for scoring (31 points). He finished the campaign as the Crunch's second-leading blueline scorer.
Early in the season, Foote struggled to keep up with the pace of the American Hockey League, but as he acclimated, his game picked up too. By the end of the season, he was one of the Crunch's top players.
Video: Cirelli on Bolts prospects
"I'm not really sure what it was, just good timing," Foote said about what clicked for him during the season. "I started to play better and play faster and not worry about things I can't control."
Foote will be expected to take on more of a leadership role for the Crunch blueline this season. Making the Lightning out of training camp will be a difficult proposition with eight veterans already penciled in on the roster and Luke Witkowski available to fill in on the blueline or at forward.
But like Cernak did a season before, Foote has an opportunity to get his name in the conversation and make it tough on the coaching staff to cut him, starting with tonight's contest against the Canes.
"It's very exciting," he said. "I'm ready to go."