After having carried over 40 players for the majority of training camp, the Lightning whittled that number nearly in half in the last few days. The final six cuts, which occurred on Monday and Tuesday, were the most difficult, but in all, the Lightning kept guys who fill out the roster quite nicely.
General Manager Brian Lawton was upfront when he said that, regardless of salary, the Lightning were committed to keeping the players who earned their spots. To that end, players like Drew Miller, who is on a two-way contract, and rookie James Wright, who was signed to a contract after a superb camp, are with the big club. Other players on one-way contracts, meaning that they make the same (higher) salary whether they’re in the NHL or AHL, were assigned to Norfolk.
How did this group come to be? And what questions were answered during camp and the preseason? First and foremost, goaltender Mike Smith seems to be completely back from last year’s injury. Not only did Smith show no ill-effects from the post-concussion syndrome, he played as well as he did last year, when he was the team’s unanimous first-half MVP. In his four preseason starts (of which he played 11 periods, plus an overtime session), Smith went 3-0 and yielded more than one goal in only one game.
Two big questions involved the forwards: who would play with Vinny Lecavalier and Alex Tanguay and which players would comprise the third and fourth lines? Steve Downie deservedly will start the season at right wing with Vinny and Tanguay. He is a tenacious player along the boards and is capable of both winning loose pucks and holding onto the puck once he gets it. He’s got offensive talent, too. On his first shift with Lecavalier and Tanguay (to start the third period against the Phoenix Coyotes in Loveland, CO), he made a terrific saucer pass to Lecavalier, completing a two-on-one rush and allowing Vinny to bury the shot into the net. Downie maintained his solid – and disciplined – play on that line in the final two preseason games as well.
As a third line, Rick Tocchet really likes the unit of Wright, Jeff Halpern and Miller. All three are smart players and they know where to be on the ice at all times. In other words, they haven’t hurt the Lightning defensively. Plus, they’ve chipped in some offense. Halpern scored two goals (and Wright assisted on both) against Phoenix in Everett, WA. As well, that line was on the ice when Kurtis Foster tied the score against Edmonton in the final two minutes of regulation. The fourth line, with Todd Fedoruk, Zenon Konopka and Stephane Veilleux, too, has provided offense. Fedoruk and Konopka both scored goals during the preseason and Veilleux has been a valuable defensive forward throughout his career. Fedoruk, especially, has shown that he’s got ability. Tough guys sometimes don’t get the credit they deserve for being able to play the game. He’s strong along the boards, makes sound decisions and has quite good hands. The Lightning didn’t get enough offensive production from their bottom two lines last year. With this current group, they hope they’ve addressed that concern.
The Lightning will open the season with nine defensemen on the roster. Most people might have penciled in the six guys who played in Sunday’s preseason finale at Atlanta: Mattias Ohlund, Victor Hedman, Matt Walker, Paul Ranger, Andrei Meszaros and Foster. These players give the Lightning a nice mix of offensive pop, rugged physicality, experience, size and skating ability. It was a good competition at that position during the preseason and it’s encouraging that the Lightning has so much depth at that position, given how many defensemen the team was forced to use last year. Let’s hope the injury bug stays away from the blue line this season, but camp showed that the team is much deeper to handle adversity.
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