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Three questions facing the Bolts as training camp begins

Camp opens on Thursday with off-ice testing and media day at Amalie Arena

by Bryan Burns / TampaBayLightning.com

It's here.

Finally.

Tampa Bay Lightning training camp opens Thursday with medical exams, off-ice testing and media day, marking the official start to the 2019-20 season. The Lightning are coming off a record-setting 62-win regular season and Presidents' Trophy in 2018-19.

They're also smarting from a four-game sweep at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the playoffs.

Because of those circumstances, this season shapes up to be one of the most intriguing in franchise history.

Here's what we're asking ourselves as the Lightning embark on the upcoming campaign:

Is it time to panic about Point?
Not yet.

Sure, it's not idea your top two-way forward - Point placed ninth in Selke Trophy voting in 2019 - and a 40-goal, 90-point scorer is not under contract at the start of camp.

But remember, this same scenario played out with Nikita Kucherov going into the 2016-17 season. Kucherov was coming off his entry-level contract and due a substantial pay raise. The Lightning and Kucherov's camp couldn't agree on a new contract by the beginning of training camp.

However, that was also the offseason the World Cup of Hockey was being played, so Kucherov's absence was masked by the fact half the Lightning team was still in Canada competing in the tournament, Kucherov included.

Two days before the start of the season, the Lightning and Kucherov agreed to terms on a three-year bridge deal at an average annual value of $4.766 million per season, a steal at the time and even more so in retrospect. Kucherov appeared unaffected by the late arrival; he scored 40 goals that season, the first 40-goal season of his career and only one less than the career-high 41 goals he netted last season.

The hope is the holdup with Point doesn't linger that long into camp. But in reality, as long as a new contract is completed by the season opener on October 3, there's really no reason to get bent out of shape.

Now, if it's October 2 and a deal still isn't in place, then maybe we'll all have a good cry.

Where are the open roster spots?
There are 11 forwards on the roster who are a lock for one of the 12 starting spots: Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Ondrej Palat, Yanni Gourde, Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, Cedric Paquette, Anthony Cirelli, Mathieu Joseph, Pat Maroon and Point, once he eventually signs.

Danick Martel would seem to have a leg up on the 12th forward position, but there are others in the pipeline vying to crack the starting lineup.

Carter Verhaeghe would seem to have the best chance after finishing the 2018-19 season as the leading scorer in the American Hockey League with 82 points for the Syracuse Crunch. He would need to clear waivers to be sent back to Syracuse, and chances are another team will scoop him up if the Lightning go that route.

Therefore, it's likely they won't.

There are others too who could challenge Martel and Verhaeghe for the 11th and 12th forward spots as well as reserve rolls on the Lightning bench. Cory Conacher, Alex Volkov, Mitchell Stephens and Alex Barre-Boulet will all get long looks in camp. Boris Katchouk and Taylor Raddysh, who were both standouts over the weekend at the Prospects Showcase in Nashville, are knocking on the door but still probably another season away. What about Luke Witkowski? He played the wing in Detroit but was a defenseman with the Lightning. Could he play a dual role in Tampa Bay this season? And don't forget about Gemel Smith either. He's likely targeted as a veteran presence for the Crunch this season, but he played 46 games in Dallas two seasons ago and could stick around in Tampa Bay if he turns some eyes in camp.

The blue line looks clear cut. Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, Braydon Coburn, Mikhail Sergachev, Erik Cernak and Kevin Shattenkirk are likely your six starters. Witkowski, Jan Rutta and Luke Schenn will be battling for a backup role, or maybe even a starting gig if one clearly outshines the aforementioned six in camp. The question here is how many defensemen do the Lightning carry on the opening night roster? They had seven to start last season but maybe they go with 13 forwards and eight defensemen to begin 2019-20 because of the depth they have at that position.

And goaltending is set with reigning Vezina Trophy winner Andrei Vasilevskiy back between the pipes and Curtis McElhinney as the backup. What happens to last year's backup Louis Domingue remains to be seen.

How will the defense line up?
There are two schools of thought here. Is Mikhail Sergachev ready to assume the role of a top-pairing defenseman alongside Victor Hedman? Or would a more veteran player like Kevin Shattenkirk be a better option to go with Hedman, giving Sergachev more time to develop before being handed the added responsibility of a No. 1 role?

My thought? I think Sergachev is ready. He's performed well over the last two seasons as a third-pairing defenseman partnered with Braydon Coburn, and over the summer, he took another step in his development at the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships, quarterbacking a lethal Russian power play throughout the tournament and delivering a goal and six assists in 10 games, tied for third-most points among all tourney defensemen, to help Russia earn bronze.

Give Sergachev the first opportunity to skate with Hedman. If it works, great. If not, pairings can always be adjusted throughout the season. Sergachev will have to earn it in camp, but as long as he performs well over the next three weeks, I think he'll be given the first opportunity to fill the No. 1 right-side defenseman role.

If Sergachev goes up to the top pair, Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak should remain the second pair. They were the Bolts' top shutdown duo a season ago and developed immediate chemistry when they were put together. I don't see that changing this season. At third pair, Braydon Coburn slots into the left side, where he's been a steady performer since coming over to the Lightning courtesy of a deadline day deal during the run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2014-15. On the right, Kevin Shattenkirk, acquired by the Lightning on August 5 after the New York Rangers bought out his contract, said he will come into camp with "a chip on my shoulder", which has to be music to the ears of the Lightning considering he put up four-straight seasons of 40-plus points from 2013-14 to 2016-17 before seeing his production dip the last two seasons with the Rangers.

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