TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday opened their first training camp without Vincent Lecavalier since 1998, and the emphasis definitely is on youth and the future.
Lecavalier, now with the Philadelphia Flyers, had his absence noted, but for many his departure is viewed as a mixed blessing.
"Not having Vinny here is a little weird," veteran forward Ryan Malone said, "but we recognize it as a business decision."
It is a new day in Tampa Bay, and the door is open for an enthusiastic collection of members of the Lightning's American Hockey League affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, to make their mark.
"We've had to absorb some big losses on our roster, but that's the door opening for some of the young talent, and a lot of this talent has won before," Lightning coach Jon Cooper, starting his first full season with the team, said. "They have it in them. They know what it takes. This is just another little step they have to take. There will be some battles and I'm pretty excited to see which ones grab the torch."
There will be a lot of hands reaching for that torch, since there are nine forwards in camp who played in Syracuse last season competing for three or four open roster spots. Add in 2013 first-round draft pick Jonathan Drouin and the competition becomes even tougher.
"This is kind of a new era, I suppose," Cooper said. "There is a crop of young talent coming in that the organization hasn't seen in quite some time. We have a bunch of guys that have been to the Calder Cup finals two years in a row. You can see there is an influx of talent coming into the organization. This camp will probably be as competitive as the organization has seen in some time."
Call it a logjam of youth, and general manager Steve Yzerman would agree.
"The reality is that some guys have played in the AHL for a couple of years and really excelled," Yzerman said. "It's time for them to move in to the NHL. It's not like we are just going to throw a bunch of guys into the lineup. We have a lot of players and at the end of camp, I'm hoping where we have too many players and have to figure out what to do with them. The young kids have options and you can assign them, but I hope we are in a position to make some tough decisions and that means guys have played well."
In many ways it seems like Cooper, who came up from Syracuse to replace Guy Boucher for the final 16 games of the season, brought along his Syracuse team with him.
"I think that the younger guys, that rookie group, the benefit they have is that they have played for me before, so I think these guys have a little bit of confidence coming in," Cooper said. "Some young guys come in wide-eyed and nervous. This group of guys isn't like that. I think that they have a coach that they have had success under has probably helped them with their confidence. So maybe some of these veteran guys are looking in the rear-view mirror a little bit."