Following a 3-2 preseason-concluding victory over the Florida Panthers on Saturday, the Tampa Bay Lightning made a few final roster moves, re-assigning defenseman Erik Cernak and forwards Alexander Volkov and Mitchell Stephens to their AHL affiliate in Syracuse.
Now down to 24 players -- including the injured Ryan Callahan who will start the season on injured reserve as he continues to rehab from offseason shoulder surgery -- the Lightning would seem to have their roster set for Opening Night on October 6. That means, barring more roster shuffling, forwards Mathieu Joseph and Danick Martel will make the team.
Martel, claimed off waivers from Philadelphia midway through training camp, has already made his NHL debut on November 22 at the New York Islanders last season and skated four games total with the Flyers before being sent back to Lehigh Valley. Joseph crushed his pro debut last season for Syracuse, leading the Crunch for scoring (53 points), and, in his second pro year, has rapidly progressed in the Lightning organization.
Both players bring even more speed to an already Lightning-fast lineup.
Video: Danick Martel talks about being on the roster
"There's a lot of speed in that locker room, and we've got to take advantage of it," Cooper said about what the new guys can bring to the team. "We've got to play at a higher pace and we have to put other teams in situations where they can't make a lot of plays. And to do that, you need to have fast players. We may not be the biggest team in the league, but if we can use our speed to our advantage some of these young players have, we're going to use it."
Joseph was a consistent performer this preseason. He played in six games - more than any other Lightning player - and led the team for goals (4) and scoring (8 points). Three of his four goals came in the final two preseason games when the opponent, both times the Panthers, were icing a roster similar to one they'd utilize during the regular season. That he was able to find success against established NHLers likely helped him make the team.
"What we really liked in the preseason was he was finishing a lot," Cooper said. "…We've got a few guys still nicked up, so there's spots open and he's jumped into a position to try and seize one of them. But his tenaciousness, his ability to get to pucks and push defenses back is really what he's done here in the preseason, and it's earned him a spot to be here for now."
Typically players need a couple seasons in the AHL to develop their game before they're ready for the NHL.
Joseph needed just one.
"I didn't really have any expectation coming into camp," Joseph said. "I think I was able to show that I can play in the league and we'll see how it goes in the first couple games. My first goal was to make a good impression on the staff. I was fortunate enough to play with really good players, NHL guys right off the bat. That gave me confidence right away. They helped me a lot. I was just trying to go on the ice and work hard and execute the system, the little details that the coaching staff are asking, show up at the rink every day and learn and try to get better."
Martel had limited time to make an impression after coming to the Lightning halfway through camp and was only available for the final three preseason games but made the most of his few opportunities.
When Martel arrived at Lightning camp, he said he was a Yanni Gourde clone. His relentlessness during his three preseason games certainly reminded observers a lot of Gourde.
"I think for the short amount of time I had with just coming in and playing the next day and practicing hard, I think I did pretty well," Martel said. "I was kind of stressed, new team, new rink, all new teammates. I think I did pretty good. I was proud of myself. I played hard. I played quick. I created a lot of offense. Sometimes if you're on the fourth line, you're more defensive, but I think our line played a good two-way game and that's great."
Video: Cooper on preparing for season opener
In the final two preseason games against Florida, Martel played on a line with Cedric Paquette and Cory Conacher. During the win in Sunrise, Cooper said that fourth line was the Bolts' best, the energy they provided sustaining the rest of the squad. Martel also recorded his first point with the Lightning after delivering a pretty feed from beside the net onto the back post for Cory Conacher to slam home.
"The one thing I do know about him is he got better in every single game he played in," Cooper said. "Another one that is feeling more comfortable being in our locker room and being a part of our team. I'm sure it's got to be tough coming to a new place and not really knowing anybody. But he's fit in great and you can see his play's just getting better and better every day he's here."
Making the Opening Night roster is only one step in the process for Joseph and Martel. The next is staying on it.
"You hope to see these every year," Cooper said. "We've slowly through management and scouting, they seem to find these gems for us along the way. When guys get into their first NHL games, fulfilling that lifelong dream, you're kind of like a dad sitting there watching it all unfold. The key to the whole thing is you can't be satisfied when you do get that first game and that's it. All of a sudden you take a breath and say, 'Oh my gosh, I finally made.' To me, your work's just begun. It's great to get that first one out of the way, but do you want to play one or do you want to play 82? Or do you want to play 820? That's where your work ethic and you have to stay with it and work even harder to stay. A lot of our guys have done that."