One day before Opening Night and the Tampa Bay Lightning finally have their full complement of players available.
Well, almost everybody.
Ryan Callahan remains out while recovering from offseason hip surgery. He's training - in a non-contact red jersey - but isn't expected to play until November.
"We're hoping November, but I'm hoping November 1 instead of November 30," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said following today's practice at the Brandon Ice Sports Forum, the Bolts' final practice before Opening Night. "We've got that long road trip; we've got a six-gamer we finish off in New York. I think when we get to that time, hopefully, we're getting really close then."
Nikita Kucherov, fresh off of signing his new three-year contract that will pay him an annual average of $4.76 million per year, skated with his Lightning teammates for the first time on Wednesday. Kucherov took Brayden Point's spot at right wing on the second line along with Alex Killorn on the left wing and Tyler Johnson at center, an amended Triplets line with Ondrej Palat continuing to skate with Steven Stamkos and Jonathan Drouin on the top line.
After practice, Kucherov reiterated how happy he is to be back in Tampa.
"It's tough to sit at home and see the guys going through training camp and you're not there," he said.
Kucherov remained steadfast in his belief he would remain with the Lightning throughout the entire contract negotiation process.
"I always wanted to play in Tampa," he said. "I never thought I would play any place else."
The Russian winger said he left the negotiations to his agent and focused instead on getting ready for the season.
"I trained hard and I skated with my coach in Russia and tried not thinking about it and stay positive," he said.
Cooper said Kucherov would be available to play in the Bolts' opener on Thursday when they host the Detroit Red Wings at AMALIE Arena. The Lightning have knocked the Red Wings out of the playoffs in the First Round each of the last two years. Last postseason, the Bolts bounced the Wings in five games.
"(Kucherov's) been ribbed a little bit [by his teammates] about missing training camp. You know how guys feel about training camp," Cooper said. "But, he's a big part of our team, let's make no mistake about that. To see him zipping around out there, it's gratifying because you want to put you best foot forward, especially early in the season. You just can't let games slip. We can't guarantee we're going to win all our games, but we want to put our best foot forward, and he's a big part of that."
Despite only getting one day of practice in with his teammates before the season opener, Kucherov should be able to slot right into the lineup without any issues, in large part because of his participation in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey last month. Kucherov skated four games for Team Russia and tied for the team lead for scoring with four points (1 goal, 3 assists).
"I never had that kind of tournament before the season starts," Kucherov said. "I think it's going to give me a little push at the beginning."
With Kucherov back, Point moved down to the third line right wing alongside Vladislav Namestnikov (left wing) and Valtteri Filppula (center). Point said he found out on Tuesday he made the Opening Night roster after receiving a phone call from Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman.
"I'm obviously real excited and looking forward to tomorrow," Point said. "I called my mom and dad and let them know. They booked a flight, and they're coming down to see me."
The 20-year-old Point impressed Lightning management with his work ethic and hockey sense.
"It's an exciting time for Brayden, but we're not handing out roster spots for free," Cooper said. "The guys earned them. Brayden Point was really close to earning one last year, and he most definitely earned one this year."
Cooper cautioned against expecting Point to come in right away and put up the kind of numbers he did for Moose Jaw of the WHL. Last season, Point averaged nearly two points a game for the Warriors, scoring 35 goals and adding 53 assists in 48 games.
"There's going to be some bumps in the road," Cooper said. "It's not easy. Just look at (Kucherov) now and where he was a couple years ago. It takes some time, but to get that, you've got to get some reps. And we're going to give him a chance."
Point said he's a little nervous about playing his first NHL game on Thursday but is just going to try to have fun with the experience.
"I thought coming in (to camp) I was just trying to stay as long as I could and work hard every day and try to be happy with how I played," he said. "It's got me this far, but it's another step up to the regular season so just going to try to work that much harder."