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Cooper: Connolly having his best camp

Unlike previous preseasons, Lightning RW Brett Connolly’s stats won’t pop off the page.

Connolly, 22, scored his first goal in three preseason games Tuesday, a wrist shot past former Lightning G Anders Lindback in the third period.

But coach Jon Cooper said Connolly, the No. 6 overall pick in 2010, is having his best camp. And it couldn’t have come at a better time as the Lightning is expecting Connolly to compete for a top-six forward spot.

“He’s showing a lot more poise with the puck than he has in the past,” Cooper said. “One thing I’ve been kind of proud of him about is he was kind of a one-and-done player and now he’s starting to go into the corner and is coming out with the puck instead of sometimes he’d use to do some fly-byes and not come out with them. He’s engaged a little bit more, that’s all progress to me. He’s a better player today than he was last year at this time.”

Connolly has been sent back to American Hockey League Syracuse after strong camps before, including last season. But this year, he’d have to clear waivers first. Tampa Bay is giving him every opportunity, including a lot of power play time, and Connolly has responded. …

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Bishop said it felt like 'midseason' in Tuesday's start

Lightning goalie Ben Bishop stops a shot by Stars center Vernon Fiddler during the first period of Tuesday's preseason game in Dallas.

Associated Press

Lightning goalie Ben Bishop stops a shot by Stars center Vernon Fiddler during the first period of Tuesday's preseason game in Dallas.

For the Lightning, one of the biggest questions heading into camp was the health of goalie Ben Bishop, who underwent right wrist surgery in April.

But Bishop, the Vezina Trophy finalist, was encouraged how he felt Tuesday after playing his first full preseason game, a 5-1 win over the Stars in Dallas. Bishop stopped 21 of 22 shots, saying his wrist was "not an issue."

"This whole game, I felt like it was midseason," Bishop said. "So it was good. I'm ready to go."

After veteran Evgeni Nabokov starts Thursday's preseason game in Sunrise, Bishop is expected to split Saturday's presesaon finale with Nabokov, his last tune-up before the regular season opener Oct. 9 against the Panthers.

Coach Jon Cooper is happy with how Bishop has looked, pointing out it's a good sign the goaltender is playing the puck so much. …

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Injured Drouin still hopeful for home opener

Lightning touted wing prospect Jonathan Drouin has been encouraged by the progress with his fractured right thumb, making a small step Tuesday of taking the ice for practice in a red (non-contact) jersey.

Though Drouin is still limited - he watched most of the drills Tuesday - he's still hopeful he'll be ready by the opener Oct. 9 against the Panthers.

"I'm feeling better," he said. "There's still a little bit of pain, but we're going in the right direction. A couple weeks left and I'm sure I'll be fine by then. Progress has been really good."

Drouin, the No. 3 overall pick in 2013, injured his thumb on a freak fall on the ice the eve of Tampa Bay's first training camp practice (Sept. 18). He's kept his conditioning up skating on his own since, resisting the temptation not to try to push it when it comes to shooting. Drouin said it's been hard to watch the games, and a bit "frustrating," but likes where he's at.

"I want the home opener to be my goal," Drouin said. "If it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen. But that's around those days I'm thinking (of coming back). We've got a lot of time left to see what's going to go on with this, not going to rush anything obviously." …

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Cooper: "There are spots open"

Instead of heading to France, defenseman Luke Witkowski was getting ready to board a bus to Naples Monday afternoon, and he couldn't have been happier.

Witkowski, 24, had survived Saturday's large round of cuts, making him one of 28 players still in Tampa Bay's training camp for the final week. Twenty-five others had been reassigned to Syracuse in the American Hockey League, which holds its camp in Lyon, France.

"Bought myself a few more days," Witkowski said, smiling. "If this is the way to pass (up France), I'll take it any day."

Witkowski will be one of several players given a long look during the Lightning's final three exhibition games, including Tuesday night in Dallas. Tampa Bay has to be down to 23 players by the start of the regular season Oct. 9.

"Everyone has earned the right to be here," coach Jon Cooper said. "There are spots open. And I think the guys in there know it. There's competition we have with other teams in this league, but there's competition we have inside our lockeroom room. This is the week to get after it." …

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Big consolation prize: Crunch having camp in France

Coach Jon Cooper said if there was ever a year to get cut by the Lightning in training camp, it’s this one.

That’s because those reassigned to Syracuse of the American Hockey League Saturday got one heck of a consolation prize; a trip to France Sunday for a week-long camp with the Crunch.

“I think it should bring everyone’s morale up rather quickly,” Syracuse GM Julien BriseBois said.

The overseas camp has been years in the making for the Crunch, which typically train in St. John’s, Newfoundland. BriseBois fondly recalled having camp in Edinburgh, Scotland back in 2009 when he was the general manager of the Hamilton Bulldogs, and has tried to work out a deal since he took over the Crunch in 2010. This year, BriseBois found a host in Lyon, the second-largest metropolitan area in France, with the Crunch set to play in three exhibitions, two against AHL Binghamton (Ottawa).

On the team’s final day, it will take a two-hour bullet train to Paris for a day of sight-seeing. …

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Vinik on spending to cap, keeping Stamkos and being "world class"

Lightning owner Jeff Vinik says is goal is to roughly break even while building a team that can compete at the highest level year after year.

And while Vinik said the organization is still losing "a little bit of money," he plans to continue his approach of spending at or near the salary cap, even as the cap will likely increase from $69 million in the next couple years due to a new Canadian television deal.

"How lucky am I to be an owner of a professional sports team and a professional hockey league team?" Vinik said. "And I want our fans and myself to enjoy giving our best shot to win."

Vinik's willingness to spend could come into play next summer, as the team can begin negotiating a potential extension for C Steven Stamkos in July, with the captain two years away from free agency and a sizable contract.

Vinik said he would leave it to GM Steve Yzerman to handle the negotations, but made it clear he wants Stamkos, a "superstar hockey player and a superstar person" to be here for the long haul.

"I'll tell Steven loud and proud, 'I hope you're with us for your whole career and lead us to a lot of Stanley Cups," Vinik said. …

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Back in black: Lightning like new alternate jerseys

Lightning captain Steven Stamkos figured the fans would like the team's new alternate jerseys, which would make them look "leaner and meaner."

And judging by the cheers from the 8,000-plus at Saturday's Fan Fest when Stamkos came on the ice in the new black sweater, he was right.

Tampa Bay tapped into it's history, having used to wear the black jersey, while still keeping the "BOLTS" on the front. The players, at least, liked the look, which will be worn at 13 selected home games this season.

"I love it," Stamkos said. "I've always been a fan of the black. Speaking to a lot of people around the organization, they like the balck, the fans like the black. I think it turned out great and it was exciting to go out there and have the fans' reaction. Seemed like they liked it as well."

Owner Jeff Vinik said the new jerseys had the "wow factor" to it, but were a collaborative effort of many in the organization, including general manager Steve Yzerman, president Steve Griggs and former captain Dave Andreychuk. The alternate jerseys can be purchased at team stores now, but won't be available until mid-November. …

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Lightning make next round of cuts, including DeAngelo, Erne

The Lightning made its big round of cuts Saturday afternoon, narrowing it's roster to the 28 it plans to bring to Estero Monday for the final week of training camp.

As expected, first-round pick D Anthony DeAngelo (Sarnia) and forward Adam Erne (Quebec) were sent back to their junior teams, and invitee goalie Peter Mannino was released from his tryout. Then there were 25 reassigned to Syracuse in the American Hockey League, with six having to clear waivers; Mike Angelidis, Mike Blunden, Matt Corrente, J.P. Cote, Philippe Paradis and Jerome Samson. The Crunch leave Sunday for training camp this week in France.

That means that defenseman Luke Witkowski and forwards Vladislav Namestnikov, Jonathan Marchessault and Cedric Paquette are still in camp, and likely to come with the team to Estero.  Coach Jon Cooper said they are bringing more players this week than they originally planned, partly due to their performance and positional need.

The roster needs to get down to 23 to start the regular season. …

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Stamkos getting explosiveness back

When Lightning captain Steven Stamkos takes the ice tonight for his first exhibition action, he'll do so looking - and feeling - more like his old self.

Stamkos said his surgically-repaired right leg feels much better than he did late last season, when he returned after missing 45 games following surgery to repair a broken tibia. While tonight's game against the Stars will provide a better barometer, he's already seen a big difference in practice and scrimmages.

"I think it's that first couple steps, that explosiveness that is a big part of my game," Stamkos said. "I definitely feel a lot more comfortable in that regards. We'll have to wait and see until the game, but in practices and scrimmages the skating is an asset of mine and I thought I was kind of a step back last year even when I did some back. I'm feeling good, feeling confident and mentally I'm in a much better state as well. You don't realize how much that has an affect on your game until you go through an injury like that and you find yourself protecting that spot a lot of instead of thinking maybe the next play, which I usually do. I'm in a better state that way as well."

The coaches have noticed it,, too. …

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Stamkos, Bishop to play tonight against Stars

Two of the Lightning's top players will see their first exhibition action tonight, with captain Steven Stamkos and goalie Ben Bishop in the lineup against the Stars at Amalie Arena.

There will be plenty of veterans playing tonight, with RW Ryan Callahan, C Brian Boyle, LW Brenden Morrow in their first games. D Victor Hedman will be paired with fellow Swede Anton Stralman, with D Eric Brewer paired with first-round pick D Anthony DeAngelo, who is seeing his first NHL action.

Bishop, who is recovering from offseason wrist surgery, will start the game, and will likely split the exhibition with G Evgeni Nabokov. Bishop said his wrist is coming along really well, though not 100-percent, and hopes to get in 2 1/2 exhibitions.

Stamkos has been encouraged with how his surgically-repaired right leg has felt during practices, though hoping to play in three exhibitions.

Here's some of the lines: Kucherov-Stamkos-Callahan/Morrow-Boyle-Vermin/ Gourde-Paquette-Connolly/Ikonon-Kunyk-Paradis.

The Stars are bringing G Kari Lehtonen in goal with Jack Campbell, with Jason Spezza one of the veterans.

 

 

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Injured Drouin still pushing to be in lineup when season starts

Jonathan Drouin is expected to be out 3-4 weeks with a right thumb fracture.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Jonathan Drouin is expected to be out 3-4 weeks with a right thumb fracture.

Touted prospect Jonathan Drouin skated in practice with the Lightning's game group Thursday morning, doing light stick-handling and shooting.

Drouin, out 3-4 weeks with a right thumb fracture, did so with help of a splint.

"A little step," Drouin said. "Many more steps to come."

Drouin, 19, was out there mostly to observe during drills, trying to get acclimated to the system even he can't fully participate in practices and games.

"You can watch video and say you understand, and sometimes you don't," Drouin said. "Unless you're out there going through it or watching what's going on. I don't want to be behind when everything starts."

Drouin said he felt a little pain during some of the shooting - "we're far away from where we want to be" - so he's not going to push it. It still doesn't make it any easier to have to watch preseason games instead of being on the ice.

"Obviously I want to be playing in these preseason games and jump right in when the season starts," Drouin said. "There's not much you can do about it. It's disappointing, but I've got to move on and make sure I'm ready physically and mentally when everything comes." …

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Palat, Johnson headline Lightning Thursday lineup

Calder Trophy finalists Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat headline the Lightning lineup for Thursday's game in Nashville against the Predators.

Palat and Johnson will be joined by J.T. Brown, Slater Koekkoek and the line of Nikita Kucherov, Vladislav Namestnikov and Jonathan Marchessault, which combined for eight points on Tuesday.

D Radko Gudas, Mark Barberio, Luke Witkowski, Andrej Sustr, along with Mike Angelidis, Jerome Samson, Cody Kunyk, Henri Ikonen and Richard Panik will be playing.

In net, G Kristers Gudlevskis is expected to play the whole game, with Andrei Vasilevskiy to back him up .

 

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Lightning to unveil third jersey at Fan Fest; full schedule

The Lightning announced it will unveil its new (third) alternate jersey Saturday at Fan Fest, with captain Steven Stamkos showing it off before the noon scrimmage at Amalie Arena.

Tampa Bay released more details and a full schedule for the event, which begins at 9:30 a.m. and is free to the public. Other than the unveiling of the jersey, the highlight will be a scrimmage from noon-12:45 p.m. Players will sign autographs in two, 45-minute shifts at 1:15 p.m. and 2 p.m. There will also be interviews with general manager Steve Yzerman (10:30 a.m.), owner Jeff Vinik (11:45 a.m.) and coach Jon Cooper (12:45 p.m.) …

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Lightning cuts include Point, Thomas and Masin

The Lightning made its first round of cuts, reassigning 2014 draft picks C Brayden Point, D Ben Thomas, LW Cristiano DiGiacinto and D Dominik Masin to their junior teams.

D Kodie Curran and C Mike Aviani, who both played well in camp, were released from their invites.

“(Curran) is a big kid who can skate and move the puck,” associate coach Rick Bowness said. “He’s not looked one bit out of place at all.”

There should be some more cuts on Wednesday, following tonight's first exhibition game.

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Drouin out 3-4 weeks with thumb fracture

Touted Lightning wing prospect Jonathan Drouin will be out 3-4 weeks due to a slight fracture in his right thumb, putting his start to the season in jeopardy.

It's a big blow to Drouin, and the Lightning, as the 19-year old was expected to make the team out of camp.

Read Joe Smith's full story here.

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