ESTERO, Fl. – Two games remain on the Tampa Bay Lightning’s preseason schedule and just two opportunities for 36 training camp-goers to prove their case to the jury. The math is easy, but delivering the final verdict is much more difficult for head coach Jon Cooper and his staff.
According to Cooper, no cuts will be made by the Bolts until after Saturday’s game against the Florida Panthers. The next few days will provide some clarity on impending decisions however, as they move closer to Opening Night.
“After tomorrow’s game things will start to get clearer as to what we’re going to do,” Cooper said. “We’re kind of balancing Saturday’s game between who we’re going to open with and giving guys one more shot to see what they can do.”
Not necessarily feeling a sense of separation between those fighting for one of just a few roster spots, Cooper said it was more that “things are confirmed in his head,” as far as certain players are concerned.
“Guys have been helping themselves, some guys haven’t been,” he continued. “I’ve watched a positive progression in a lot of players, which is a good sign. Whether or not that’s enough to put them on the team that remains to be seen.”
Tampa Bay general manager Steve Yzerman, who was also on hand for practice Wednesday at Germain Arena, believes that the fact their AHL affiliate is easily accessible, also makes the decision process a lot easier.
“The good thing is, for a lot of them, worst case scenario is that we have to send some of them to Syracuse to start with and they’re a phone call away,” Yzerman said. “Jonathan Drouin is an exception because if we send him to juniors he can’t come back this year.”
BREAKING DOWN DROUIN’S CIRCUMSTANCES
Because Drouin has an NHL contract, he can play up to nine games in the league as a trial period after training camp, per NHL rules. If Tampa Bay decides to return him to juniors, his contract is effectively put on hold until training camp the following season, when he would start the first year of his contract.
If he is in fact optioned to his junior team, the Halifax Mooseheads (QMJHL), Drouin would not be available to return to the Lightning for the rest of the 2013-14 season.
For Cooper and Yzerman, there is no timetable on Drouin’s progression to the pros. The two are more concerned with their 2013 top draft pick being able to develop properly.
“Mostly we want to play him,” Yzerman said. "If he’s not going to play regular minutes, I want him to play. It’s not the end of the world if a player has to go back, but we certainly want to give him every opportunity, before making that final decision."
And although it may seem like expectations are high, Cooper acknowledged that the NHL is a vastly different world to a junior player.
“The jump from juniors to the American Hockey League is a massive one; I can’t imagine the jump from juniors to the NHL,” Cooper said. “He’s taking everything in and I’ve been really happy with a lot of things he’s done. He needs work on other things, but that’s because he’s playing a game with a lot more pace than he’s used to.”
When asked how critical the last two games were, Cooper couldn’t stress enough that they “are important, extremely important.”
“‘Can we throw in another adjective?’ Paramount,” Cooper added.
ODDS ‘N ENDS
Lightning forward Ryan Malone did not participate in practice Wednesday and is considered day-to-day with an upper-body injury.
Thursday’s lineup -
Forwards: Drouin-Connolly-St.Louis; Malone-Pyatt-Kucherov; Palat-Johnson-Panik; Labrie-Thompson-Crombeen
Defenseman: Brewer- Barberio; Aulie-Korobov; Cote-Taormina
Goaltenders: Bishop, Gudlevskis