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by Mark Pukalo / Tampa Bay Lightning

It is an important summer for many veteran Lightning players. Coaches and management have made it clear that jobs were on the line in March and April and will be even more so when training camp begins. How much you played last season won’t matter.

Ryan Craig welcomes that challenge. He wants to be part of the solution, helping the Lightning back into playoff contention.

“My goal is to come back, make an impression and take advantage of opportunities that are given,’ Craig said. “I’m looking forward to being a piece. I don’t think we’re far away from turning this thing around. I think we have some of the big pieces that teams are looking for. We just have to fill in the cracks.”

A healthy Craig would be a big boost for the Lightning.

Craig, 27, scored 29 goals his first 120 games in the NHL, but knee surgery limited his 2007-08 season to seven games. Although he battled and earned playing time in 54 games this season, he had just two goals and six points.

Lightning interim coach Rick Tocchet said it often takes a player a year or two to get back to where he wants to be after an injury such as Craig’s. You can play. You just aren’t at your highest level.

Craig won’t make excuses. 

“I just look forward to September. I’m looking forward to being healthy going into the summer, so I can train and not have to rehab. For me, that’s an important step. It’s only going to help me.”

Tocchet calls Craig one of his favorite guys on the team, in the way he goes about his work. Craig said he had a productive talk with Tocchet in his exit interview Monday.

Craig said he knows he must improve his skating and quickness in the summer. That is the priority.

“He’ll do whatever it takes the next four months,” Tocchet said. “He’s a low maintenance guy. He does every drill properly and anything asked of him. When he’s done playing, he’ll probably be a coach. He is a student of the game.”

Sitting out most of 2007-08 was difficult for Craig. He was isolated, with a seemingly never-ending road to recovery.

Craig came into this season’s camp having to win a job back. Nothing was given to him. It wasn’t going to be easy. Slowly, he earned an every-day spot in the lineup, mostly in a checking role. He did what he had to do and stuck up for teammates. He had one memorable scrap with Toronto’s Jamal Mayers, who got the jump on him before Craig came back to get in the last few heavy shots.

His versatility will help him, but Craig wants to get back to the form in which he scored 15 goals in 48 games in 2005-06. That season, and in 06-07, Craig was a valuable guy on the power play often working his w ay to the front of the net and either screening the goalie or deflecting shots past him.

“I had my moments where I felt great this year and I had moments when my knee didn’t react how I wanted it to,’ Craig said. “That was throughout the whole season.

“But that’s behind me now. I’m looking to bounce back as a team and as an individual.”

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