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What to expect as the Bolts get back to work

Bryan Burns takes a look at four questions facing the Lightning as the team prepares to open training camp on Monday

by Bryan Burns @BBurnsNHL / TampaBayLightning.com

On Monday, the Tampa Bay Lightning and the rest of the National Hockey League will enter Phase 3 of the Return to Play Plan:

Training camp

It's been nearly four months since the Lightning last played a competitive hockey game. They're still two weeks away from game action, but just seeing the team on the ice preparing for the playoffs will be enough to pull any Bolts fan out of their quarantine blues.

Here are some of the storylines we'll be following Monday as the Lightning take the ice in front of the media for the first time in a long time.

We've endured a lot of nothing over the last few months as we waited to see if hockey would be able to resume, and then when it would resume. 

It's close. The prospect of crowning a 2020 Stanley Cup champion is looking like more of a reality. The NHL and the NHLPA ratified the Return to Play Plan and a four-extension to the Collective Bargaining Agreement Friday evening.

Monday begins the next step.

Who can we expect to see?        
Well, there's the 25 regulars on the Lightning roster at the pause, including goaltenders Andrei Vasilevskiy and Curtis McElhinney.

The Phase 3 guidance of the Return to Play Plan limits the number of players at training camp to no more than 30 skaters plus an unlimited number of goaltenders.

For the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs (Phase 4), teams can have no more than 31 players including goaltenders.

With that in mind, some of the Lightning's top performers in Syracuse will make the journey to Tampa to take part in training camp and accompany the team to their hub city.

Alex Barre-Boulet led the Crunch in goals and scoring in 2019-20 after posting 27 goals and 56 points. He has yet to make his NHL debut but will be targeting a roster spot on the Lightning when the 2020-21 season begins. A strong showing in camp the next two weeks could give him a jump start in that regard.

Mathieu Joseph began the season with the Lightning before being re-assigned to the Crunch on December 19. He tallied four goals and three assists in 37 games with Tampa Bay while contributing 21 points in 29 games for Syracuse. His speed could be a valuable commodity for the Lightning should they need to call on their reserves at any point during the postseason.

Gemel Smith was in Tampa Bay too at the start of the season until Brayden Point fully recovered from offseason surgery and was ready to make his season debut October 10 at Toronto. Smith, a center, scored a goal in three games with the Lightning. In Syracuse, he was one of the Crunch's top contributors, scoring 22 goals, second-most on the team, and reaching 40 points on the season.

Alex Volkov made his NHL debut October 30 in New Jersey and recorded his first NHL point (assist) January 14 versus Los Angeles while playing nine games for the Lightning. Like Joseph, he's another skilled youngster with plenty of intangibles that could give the Lightning a different look should they need to dip into their reserve group.

Fan favorite Luke Witkowski will be among the call-ups too. Witkowski started the season in Tampa Bay as a forward, scoring his second-ever NHL goal in a loss at Ottawa October 12. He played 29 games on defense for the Crunch but enters training camp in Tampa Bay again as a forward.

With a stacked blue line, the Lightning don't have much need for additional bodies on defense, but prized prospect Cal Foote will get a chance to tag along for the playoff experience, which can only help further his development. Plus, he'll provide a big body in practice for the Bolts to go up against.

In net, Crunch goalies Spencer Martin and Scott Wedgewood will make sure Vasilevskiy and McElhinney aren't overworked over the two-week camp.

What will the defensive pairings look like?
The presumption is the Lightning will have their full complement of defensemen available for the start of the postseason, and nothing we're hearing would indicate otherwise.

At the pause, remember, Jan Rutta had missed 17-consecutive games with a lower-body injury. Victor Hedman sat out the final two games of the regular season with a lower-body ailment. And Ryan McDonagh admitted during the pause he tweaked a previous injury in the final game of the regular season at Toronto and would benefit from time away from the rink.

All three should be 100 percent when training camp opens Monday.

Add into the mix the continued development of youngsters Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak, the steady, effective play of veteran Kevin Shattenkirk, a pair of capable reserves in Braydon Coburn and Luke Schenn and the acquisition at the trade deadline of Zach Bogosian for insurance purposes and the Lightning have one of the deepest defensive corps, if not the most talented, in the League.

But how will they line up when the games count?

My guess is they'll go with the combinations they used primarily during their 23-2-1 run from December 23 to February 17. Over that stretch, the Lightning paired Rutta with Hedman, Rutta proving to be the smart, stay-at-home partner that allowed Hedman to patrol the ice as he saw fit and control the game from the back end.

McDonagh and Cernak have been entrenched as a pair all season and that shouldn't change. They're the Bolts' shutdown pair and will be relied upon heavily in critical situations.

Sergachev started to play more physically around the time the Lightning began stringing together wins, and his confidence blossomed as a result, to the point where he's earned more ice time, more responsibility and a crack at the top pair. But moving him up with Hedman would create an issue with who plays with Shattenkirk - both Shattenkirk and Rutta are right-shot defensemen who play primarily on the right side while Sergachev has proven he can play and thrive on either side - and he combines so well with Shattenkirk that I can't see the coaching staff making that move, at least initially.

There wouldn't be a better third pairing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs than Sergachev and Shattenkirk either.

If injuries occur, like they always do in the playoffs, the Lightning have options. When Rutta went down with a lower-body injury in the win over Vegas February 4, Coburn entered the lineup, and the Bolts didn't miss a beat. He's meticulous about how he trains and takes care of his body. The four-month pause should leave him rejuvenated for this run.

Luke Schenn filled in when McDonagh was sidelined. Tampa Bay continued to win. More injuries to the back line necessitated the acquisition of Bogosian, who got an eight-game trial with the Lightning before the pause to show how he could be deployed.

Add in call-up Cal Foote, who recorded six goals and 22 assists in 62 games for Syracuse, and the Lightning are loaded on the back end.

Is Stamkos healthy?
This question is at the forefront of most Lightning fans' minds.

Stamkos should be fully recovered from the March 2 surgery he had to repair a core muscle injury, his rehab timeline suggesting he would be able to return to action in six to eight weeks, which would have put him back on the ice anywhere from April 13 to April 27.

That would have been nearly three months ago.

Unfortunately, on a media conference call Saturday morning to discuss the ratified Return to Play Plan and the four-year extension of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois said Stamkos had suffered a new, lower-body injury during Phase 2 training sessions and won't be a full participant once training camp opens Monday.

"He will be in camp," BriseBois said. "He's here. He's skating. He's been getting treatment. He's been coming to AMALIE (Arena), doing his dry land work, but he will not be a full participant on day one of training camp."

BriseBois indicated Stamkos should be a full participant by the time the Lightning drop the puck for their first round robin game against Washington on August 3 in Toronto.

"We don't have a specific timeline for when he will be a full participant in camp, but we expect he will be ready in time for games," BriseBois said.

How will the Lightning approach the round robin games?
Should Tampa Bay go all out in their three round robin games versus Washington, Boston and Philadelphia in an effort to wrap up the No. 1 seed for the Eastern Conference?

Or should they treat the three games before the quarterfinal round as a chance to nail down their lineup and get everybody on the roster a chance to get game action before the best-of-seven series begin?

Telling any NHL player to take it easy is akin to asking Ric Flair to cool it with the "woos".

Not going to happen.

Heck, we all watched Michael Jordan in "The Last Dance" tossing quarters at a wall with his security detail before a game, betting on who could come closest without hitting the wall.

The players on the Lightning are no different: If there's a contest, they want to win it.

But I don't think the Lightning should be overly concerned with the results from the round robin. There's no home-ice advantage to play for. Plus, if you think you're a championship-caliber team, it shouldn't matter if you play the five seed, the eight seed or the 12 seed in the opening round. To be the best, you're going to have to beat the best anyway (and we all saw last playoffs how the lowest seed can be just as dangerous as the top seed).

To be sure, there is an advantage to being the No. 1 seed: getting the last change in four of the seven games of a series. The Lightning will want to be that team.

But in my view, the mentality heading into the round robin games should be more about rediscovering that chemistry the team had during the latter half of the regular season, finding that groove they were in when they went 23-2-1 over a two-month stretch and vaulted to within a point of the overall NHL standings and give the backups some run to knock off the rust from the lengthy break.

That will help them advance deeper into the playoffs more so than going 3-0-0 in the round robin.

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