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Three things to watch as Lightning training camp opens

As training camp gets underway for the Bolts, Bryan Burns will have his eye on the GM transition, position battles and the d-corps

by Bryan Burns /

Thursday marks the unofficial start of the 2018-19 season for the Tampa Bay Lightning as training camp opens with medical exams, off-ice testing, team meetings and media obligations at AMALIE Arena. Friday, all 62 camp players will take the Ice Sports Forum rink (in three separate groups), and, after just four days on the ice, the Lightning will open their preseason slate at home against the Carolina Hurricanes.

With basically the entire team returning, there aren't too many unknowns for the Lightning. But there are a couple questions that will need to be answered in training camp.

Here are three things we'll be looking when the Lightning return to the ice.

1. Changing of the guard
Tuesday's major announcement certainly caught Bolts nation by surprise, myself included.

But when the Tampa Bay Lightning open training camp at AMALIE Arena on Thursday, they'll do so without Steve Yzerman as general manager for the first time since the 2009-10 season.

Julien BriseBois, assistant general manager and Yzerman's right-hand man for the past eight seasons, takes over as GM, with Yzerman remaining on board as a senior advisor to BriseBois.

The transition should be seamless. BriseBois has been groomed for this eventuality for years. Over the last couple seasons, anytime an NHL general manager job opened, BriseBois' name was inevitably listed among the candidates. As Lightning owner Jeff Vinik said at BriseBois' introductory press conference: "We are so fortunate that another team in the league hasn't taken him before this point."

BriseBois has worked hand-in-hand with Yzerman over the past eight years on everything from contracts to free agency to trades to contracts, selecting players, etc. The two have similar philosophies with respect to how an NHL organization should run. And let's not forget Yzerman isn't going anywhere either. As BriseBois said Tuesday, he and Yzerman are essentially just switching job titles. They'll still be doing a lot of the same things together, except now it will be Yzerman playing the role of right-hand man.

So when BriseBois said it will be "business as usual" when the Lightning open camp, he meant it.

Still, it's going to feel a bit different without Yzerman at the helm.

Video: Julien BriseBois named General Manager of Lightning

2. Where are the position battles?
Quite frankly, they're few and far between on this Lightning roster.

Sure, there will be guys fighting for more ice time, better roles, greater responsibility, etc.

But as far as roster spots, they're pretty much all accounted for.

Eight of nine defensemen return from last season, the only exclusion being Andrej Sustr, who signed as a free agent with Anaheim in the offseason. Those eight will likely comprise the Bolts' blue line when the regular season starts.

Likewise, the goaltending situation seems set with Vezina finalist Andrei Vasilevskiy between the pipes and Louis Domingue, re-signed to a two-year contract in the offseason, entrenched as backup.

That leaves only a few openings at forward, emphasis on few.

The personnel among the top three lines would seem to be the same from the postseason with only some mixing and matching among the top nine needing to be figured out.

The fourth line is where you could see some fights for spots.

Cedric Paquette returns and figures to be a given. Chris Kunitz departed during the summer via free agency while the Lightning picked up a bottom six forward in Andy Andreoff, who came over in a trade from Los Angeles. So consider that a wash.

Ryan Callahan will miss all of October while he continues to rehab an upper-body injury. Somebody will need to fill that spot until Callahan returns hopefully in early November. Could his replacement come from a handful of established players - Cory Conacher, Gabriel Dumont, Adam Erne and Michael Bournival - who have proven themselves as valuable role players over the past couple of seasons? Or will we see a young up-and-comer like Mathieu Joseph, Alexander Volkov or Mitchell Stephens get the nod? 

My thought is the Bolts probably go with more established players to fill Callahan's and Kunitz's spots on the fourth line and send the youngsters, who aren't necessarily suited for that role, other than maybe Stephens, back to Syracuse for more seasoning. And then if an injury occurs among the top nine during the regular season, you might see one of the youngsters make their debut depending on how their season is going in Syracuse.

However it plays out, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper and the rest of the staff will certainly have plenty of options to figure it out.

Video: Hedman on excitement for upcoming season

3. Will the Lightning carry eight defensemen again this season?
One of the big storylines coming out of training camp last season was the number of defensemen on the Opening Night roster.

NHL teams typically carry 14 forwards, seven defensemen and two goaltenders to fill out the 23-man roster. The Lightning, though, had five veteran defensemen who were no-brainers to make the team, a couple of young blueliners in Slater Koekkoek and Jake Dotchin they wanted to keep around and the rookie Mikhail Sergachev, who had a great training camp and forced his way onto the roster.

"I could have 10 defensemen if I want," Yzerman deadpanned when asked last training camp if he would follow through with the uncommon move of carrying eight defensemen on the roster.

Looking at the list of players that will open camp with the Lightning, it certainly appears the team will probably carry eight defensemen again when this season's Opening Night roster is announced.

We all know the givens: reigning Norris Trophy winner Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Braydon Coburn and Sergachev. Dotchin and Koekkoek are back again this season, Koekkoek re-signing a one-year deal during the offseason and Dotchin in the second year of a two-year deal he signed last summer.

Prospects like Erik Cernak, Cal Foote and Dominik Masin will get a long look in training camp. But even if they're ready for the NHL, there might not be a spot for them.

The blueline appears pretty well set. And with the same eight players returning for this season - along with a full training camp in Tampa Bay for McDonagh - that continuity should result in better performances for the group as a whole.

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