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Competition abounds during Bolts first on-ice session

Lightning open training camp with 63 players at Ice Sports Forum

by Bryan Burns / TampaBayLightning.com

Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said players were "uncomfortable" on the first day of on-ice sessions at Bolts training camp.

And that's exactly what he was hoping for.

On Thursday, Cooper speculated this year's camp could be the most competitive of his tenure. If nothing else, the depth throughout the organization, he said, was the best it's ever been in his seven seasons.

Friday's practice at the Ice Sports Forum reflected Cooper's statement. The pace was fast, competition fierce and, often, following the completion of a drill, players were bent over at the waist, trying to catch their breath.

All 63 players, it seems, feel they have a legitimate chance to make the team and are going to do everything they can to force management and the coaching staff into some difficult decisions.

"It wasn't easy today," Cooper said. "One of the things we talked about in camp, especially when we really didn't have a training camp together last year was, from day one, it's game on, and I thought that's how the guys approached it today, that's the way the coaching staff approached it, the players, it was good. It was a good first day."

Steven Stamkos, who said he felt "great" as he continues to recover from the lateral meniscus tear in his right knee that kept him out of 65 games last season, thought Friday's practice was one of the "fastest-paced first skates of camp" he can remember in a long time.

Video: Stamkos on Day 1 of training camp

"I think we needed that," the Lightning captain said. "We were kind of joking with the guys, that's what you get when you don't make the playoffs. Coop wanted a fast pace. He wanted the guys coming in in shape. I think we proved that with how we were able to keep pace with that skate, especially the first session. Guys looked good and excited and hungry."

Free agent signing Dan Girardi is participating in his first Lightning training camp after spending the first 11 seasons of his NHL career with the New York Rangers. The veteran defenseman was impressed by the serious tone to Friday's practice.

"Obviously, they weren't happy with the result they had last year and it was good to have that first skate, get into it, get some bodies on each other and battle a little bit," Girardi said. "You can still have fun while doing it, you still work hard and have fun, so I thought that was a really good job by the coaching staff."

Video: Bolts are hungry to begin training camp

 

LINE 'EM UP: Speculating about line combinations on the first day of training camp can be an exercise in futility, but Friday saw an interesting development with Stamkos partnering on a line with Nikita Kucherov to his right and Vladislav Namestnikov on the left wing.

That combo proved lethal for the Lightning early last season before Stamkos suffered a season-ending knee injury. It's too early to know if those three will stick together, but Stamkos, for one, is a fan.

"I'd love to get a chance to play with those two guys again," he said. "We had great chemistry before the injury, and those guys are great players in this league. Still a lot of time, but we started together today. It was nice to get some touches with those guys on the ice and try to regain that chemistry."

Cooper said he wanted Stamkos to feel comfortable on the first day of camp as he continues to build toward full strength and put him with linemates he's had success with previously. All three players are fast and skilled and have developed a natural feel for where each will be on the ice at all times.

"In my opinion, Kuch is as good a passer as he is a shooter," Stamkos said. "When he needs to be the guy to take the shot, he can take the shot. If he needs to draw guys' attention to him and make a pass, he can do that. I feel like I've improved in that part of my game as well up until the injury last year, so hope to be able to continue to do that. And Vladdy's a guy that has really matured as a player in this league over the last couple of years. He's a great two-way guy. He has that edge to him. When he got some confidence last year, you saw the plays that he can make. We'll see how it goes."

 

WINGING IT: Brayden Point, entering his second year with the Lightning after a phenomenal rookie campaign that saw him score 18 goals and add 22 assists, skated on the right wing Friday with Ondrej Palat (left wing) and Tyler Johnson (center), a departure from the end of the 2016-17 season when he was used exclusively at center.

Point started his Tampa Bay career on the wing before shifting to center midway through 2016-17 and found success at both positions.

"At this point, we've got 63 players here. There's going to be guys playing out of position, in position, testing guys out in different situations," Cooper said. "So, yeah, I definitely wouldn't read too much into that right now. Pointer, if he's proven one thing with us, it's he can play anywhere. He pretty much did it all last year except for play goal. It's good to have guys like that. Pointer played at least half the year last year at wing. He's comfortable with it and you're going to see him there at practice sometimes, but not necessarily when you play in the exhibition games are you going to see Pointer on the wing."

Point said he has no preference what position he plays, just so long as he's on the ice.

"I'm just trying to make the Lightning," he said. "Wherever they put me, that's great."

Point certainly has the skill to play a top six role, but it's difficult to see him overtaking Stamkos or Johnson as the team's first and second center. A move to wing would allow him to play on the top two lines, and he would also be a pretty good replacement for Kucherov on a revamped Triplets line if Kucherov joins Stamkos on the top line.

"I think there's some speed," Point said about a potential Palat-Johnson-Point line. "They can make plays. They can find you open. It's kind of easy playing with guys like that."

Video: Yzerman on training camp and Stamkos

 

ICE CHIPS: Defenseman Anton Stralman did not participate on Friday and is day-to-day according to the team ... A veteran-laden Team St. Louis scrimmaged the mostly rookie Team Lecavalier during the second half of Friday's session, and the prospects pulled out a 1-0 victory.

During 3-on-3 action in the final session of the scrimmage, Carter Verhaeghe one-timed a shot from the slot for the only goal. Verhaeghe's tally was set up by Boris Katchouk's breakaway, which was saved, but Verhaeghe netted the winning score in the ensuing scramble ... Cooper, who coached Team Canada to a silver medal at the World Championships with Tampa Bay's Point and Alex Killorn on the squad, said both players were "exceptional" at the tournament.

"They waived the Canadian flag, and they made the Lightning proud. As the head coach of the Lightning and you bring a couple of your own players, you don't want that to look like you're showing a little favoritism and those guys more than held their own. It was great."

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