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Position Battles Prove To Be At A Premium At Lightning Training Camp

by Peter Pupello / Tampa Bay Lightning

Dana Tyrell had waited long enough - first, to succeed in accomplishing his goal of making the Tampa Bay Lightning’s final roster out of training camp last season, and then again to re-establish himself as he now hopes to do it all over again this week at the Lightning’s 2011 Training Camp.

Perhaps none of the other 56 attending members at the club’s annual showcase this week know better than Tyrell that along with hockey comes no guarantees. After all, it was just two years ago when the Lightning forward was poised to shine on the international stage as he, playing on a line next to would-be Islanders superstar John Tavares, suited up as a representative for Team Canada at the World Junior Championships.

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Instead, Tyrell ended up watching his team win the gold medal from the bleachers after suffering a severe knee injury which came as a direct result of a nasty collision with now-Lightning teammate Victor Hedman, who at the time was skating for Team Sweden. Tyrell prepared himself for intense rehabilitation sessions, while Tavares would go on to be the number-one overall pick in that summer’s draft.

But even after appearing in 78 games for the Lightning last season as an NHL rookie, Tyrell feels as if his spot on this year’s team is anything but assured.

“I have to establish myself every year,” he said. “Anybody can take anybody’s job, so it’s important that I stick to my game and prove to them what I can do and that I can still compete with these guys.”

Tyrell knows just how difficult it is to crack an NHL roster. The surgical scars on his knee can help remind him of what it takes to get there. If any doubt calls for further affirmation, he can simply glance across the locker room at teammates Martin St. Louis and Adam Hall, who themselves have wrestled with the challenges of leaving a lasting impression on a coaching staff.

In fact, that is exactly what makes Tyrell’s current situation all the more difficult.

With two established goaltenders, eight defensemen on one-way contracts and the additions of forwards Ryan Shannon and Tom Pyatt expected to fill the voids left by Simon Gagne and playoff hero Sean Bergenheim, Tyrell is in the running, again, for what is likely to be the final roster spot before the team opens its preseason campaign on Tuesday in St. Louis. Of course, he is also receiving stiff competition from Blair Jones, Carter Ashton, Mattias Ritola, James Wright and Michel Ouellet, among possibly a few others.

Such is the predicament not only for Tyrell, but for perhaps Lightning brass as well, as each one brings something to the table that could help the Bolts through the course of the regular season as they aim to raise the bar a bit higher following an exciting and lengthy run in the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs. And that alone, presents the primary puzzle which head coach Guy Boucher, with all his cerebral aptitude, hopes to crack.

“We got a lot of guys who have stood out to this point, fighting for jobs,” Boucher said. “They’re all looking to fill the holes, but I wouldn’t want to make my final judgments today and hope that I got it right. If that were the case, I think I’d have a hard time.”

Tyrell brought energy and speed last season, but missed 11 of the team’s 18 playoff games due to a broken foot. He kills penalties, fights for pucks in the corners and is not afraid to throw a check or face an opponent’s top offensive line. Jones perhaps has the most NHL experience among all of the top contenders after being the Bolts’ frequent call-up over the past few seasons, while Ritola brings tremendous puck-handling skills and plays a more responsible, possession game centered around protecting the puck. Ashton has yet to see any NHL action, but boasts a big body similar to Ryan Malone that could be useful in creating traffic in front of the net. There is also Ouellet and Wright, who having played with the big club previously, possess a sense of familiarity with the organization and its top players with whom they have played with before.

With the field crowded, each player is fully aware how important each day is at training camp. With scrimmages and team practices now for the most part over, the Lightning executive staff, as well as the players, will get additional opportunities to assess where each stands as all the players are expected to see action in at least one of the team’s six preseason games.

Few question the will and determination of those seeking roster spots, as general manager Steve Yzerman was quick to admit “they’re all fighting.” But those with whom each is competing can do the things Yzerman and Boucher are looking for equally as well. That, according to Yzerman, is why this week will prove crucial in the team’s process of finalizing the roster in preparation for the regular season.

“We have one week to make some really tough decisions,” he said. “A lot of guys have looked impressive, but there’s a lot of work to be done in just a short amount of time, so this road trip we start will really be a good indication of where we are heading into the regular schedule.”

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