For the Lightning – and for most NHL clubs – training camp and the preseason are important for three primary reasons. First, teams want their NHL regulars to get their timing back for the start of the regular season. This is accomplished by playing (and hopefully playing well) in a handful of preseason games. Guys want to feel good about their game heading into that first regular season contest. Second, coaches want to implement/review/add system components in different game situations. This is a process that will continue throughout the regular season, but camp is where it starts. It’s an important first step. The better players absorb the intricacies of their club’s system in camp, the more prepared they’ll be to successfully execute that system from the start of the season. And third, camp and the preseason is the time that prospects and/or players on the bubble between the AHL and NHL can make a statement that they’re NHL-ready. This could mean grabbing an open roster spot and starting the season in NHL. Or it could mean laying the groundwork for an early-season recall.
There are other benefits to camp and the preaseason, such as giving green prospects a taste of an NHL camp or giving management a chance to track a prospect’s progress from year-to-year. Coaches will experiment with forward line combinations and defense pairing, looking for units they can use in the regular season. But the aforementioned Big Three contribute the most to a club’s start once the regular season begins. And, with two preseason games left, the Bolts appear to be in good shape in all three areas.
Are the regulars ready for the season opener against the Florida Panthers on October 9 at Amalie Arena? They look as though they are. That “readiness” was on display in their convincing preseason victories over Nashville and Dallas (twice). It’s true that in the first two wins, the Lightning faced opposing lineups with only a portion of NHL regulars. But none of the “NHL Bolts” seemed to struggle with timing in those contests. (Ryan Callahan, in particular, made quite an impact – literally – in his one preseason game so far, as he laid out multiple Dallas players with his usual hard-nosed, physical style). With two more preseason games this week, these players will have an opportunity to fine-tune their game some more.
It’s been particularly encouraging to watch Steven Stamkos and Ben Bishop, both of whom are coming off injuries sustained last year. Stamkos admitted that, after returning from his broken leg last year, he didn’t feel quite the same as before the injury. After a full summer of training, Stamkos has stated that his leg feels better and that improvement is reflected in his “first step” burst. That burst has been evident throughout camp – and was on display last Friday against Dallas in his lone preseason game so far. Bishop, who underwent offseason wrist surgery, has been encouraged with how good his wrist feels. Before camp, he wasn’t sure if the wrist would be 100% healed, but so far, he has had no limitations and felt no ill effects from his work in the net. That includes practices, scrimmages and action in two preseason games.
Following Tuesday’s win in Dallas, a game in which Bishop stopped 21 of 22 shots and was not hesitant to play the puck (a part of his game that was affected by the wrist ailment last year), the Lightning goalie said it felt like the “midseason”. So for the Lightning captain and top goalie, camp has not only gotten them in “game shape”, it has allowed them to feel good about their health entering the regular season.
System Play: Last year’s training camp was Jon Cooper’s first as the Lightning’s head coach. He used camp to introduce his own system. In a weird twist, then, the players most familiar with it weren’t the NHL vets – rather, it was the guys who had played for Cooper in the minors. So there was a learning curve for everyone on the roster - acclimation for the vets to a new system and for the youngsters to the rigors of playing in the NHL.
As compared to last year, the learning curve isn’t as steep for the returning Lightning players. But the Bolts have not only added some new faces to the organization (and they do need to teach what is, for them, a new system), the team has also added some “tweaks” to last year’s system. The coaches, after watching how Montreal controlled most of last year’s playoff series against the Bolts, have tweaked the team’s neutral zone coverage for this year.
While other teams often spend a good portion of training camp playing scrimmages (it’s an effective way to see how players react in game situations), the Lightning only had a couple of scrimmages early in camp, plus the entertaining scrimmage at Fan Fest last Saturday. Instead, the Lightning have been working consistently and repeatedly on their system play. (They’re also spending time on other game situations, such as special teams play, four-on-four action and shootout practice.)
If Tuesday’s game in Dallas is any indication, the players have absorbed what the coaches are teaching. The Lightning’s neutral zone play was outstanding. Against a Stars team that was dressing most of its regulars (and many of those regulars possess high-end skill and speed), the Bolts didn’t let the Stars generate much speed at all though the neutral zone. Instead, when they weren’t turning the puck over in the neutral zone, the Stars were forced to dump and (often unsuccessfully) chase.
Granted, the win in Dallas was a preseason victory and, as I mentioned earlier, system learning is a long-term process, but the Lightning coaches were very encouraged by what they saw on Tuesday.
Following Fan Fest on Saturday, the Lightning made 28 cuts. Twenty-five of those players were assigned to Syracuse. Twenty-eight players remained on the Lightning’s training camp roster (including third goalie Allen York). Those 28 are spending the week in Naples. That number, according to Lightning coaches, is a higher one than what they expected to bring to Naples. It’s higher because of the exceptional play of a few up-and-comers. That’s been another positive development in camp.
It’s always fun to watch recent draft picks arrive at camp and see them play live for the first time. Since Steve Yzerman took over as General Manager over four years ago, the organizational philosophy has been to let young players develop at their own pace. To that end, most of them spend time in the minors. Players entering their first full pro season like Slater Koekkoek, Henri Ikonen, Joel Vermin, just to name a few, will benefit from their time in Syracuse and, with the help of Crunch coaches Rob Zettler and Trent Cull, will acclimate to the pro game.
What’s been really terrific to see this year, though, has been the progression of young players who have already gotten some seasoning in the minors. As opposed to last year’s camp, defenseman Luke Witkowski looks like a different player this year. He’s more confident in his decision-making - and making the right play more often than not. According to Associate Coach Rick Bowness, who works with the “D”, the Bolts were expecting to bring eight defensemen to Naples. Witkowski’s play convinced the Lightning that they needed to bring nine. Similarly, Vlad Namestnikov, who has always possessed NHL-skill, is stronger this year. That added strength has helped him hold onto the puck more, which means he’s making more plays. I don’t know if he was one of those the coaches expected to make it to Naples, but either way, his play dictated the decision. The same goes for Cedric Paquette, who played the final two regular season games with the Bolts last year and all four playoff contests, and Jonathan Marchessault, who has only two NHL games of experience so far in his career.
The Bolts must reduce their roster to 23 players before opening night, so there are still a handful of cuts to be made. But for those that don’t make the roster in early October, they’ve left an impression. An impression that they’re ready and able when a recall is needed. That they’re ready and able to help the Lightning win games now.
As was the case last year, I’ll be producing regular material for tampabaylightning.com. This “Mishkin’s Musings” column will appear approximately once a week. Also, the “Extra Shift”, in which I detail my take on every game, is typically posted the morning after each Lightning game. “Extra Shift” also provides a link to the audio highlights.