How does signing James Wright muddle the fight for spots on the Lightning's bottom two lines?
Say this for the Tampa Bay Lightning's training camp, it will not lack for intrigue as the team works to get its roster to the required limit of 23 by the Wednesday deadline.
As we said in an earlier post, the battles on defense revolve around the last two of an expected eight positions the team likely will carry. Assume Mattias Ohlund, Victor Hedman, Kurtis Foster, Paul Ranger, Andrej Meszaros and Matt Walker are set. That leaves Lukas Krajicek, Matt Smaby, David Hale (who has had a better than expected camp), Matt Lashoff and Mike Lundin (who has gotten a good look) battling for the final two spots.
It is at forward, however, that things took a bit of a turn on Saturday as the Lightning signed wing James Wright to an entry-level, three-year deal. Under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, Tampa Bay has up to nine regular-season games to determine whether or not to send Wright back to juniors. And if the Lightning is going to bring Wright to Tampa to start the season, that is one less spot open for, perhaps, someone who had a spot in the past.
So, let's assume Tampa Bay keeps 13 forwards and let's assume Wright, Ryan Malone, Steven Stamkos, Marty St. Louis, Alex Tanguay, Vinny Lecavalier, Steve Downie, Jeff Halpern, Todd Fedoruk, Stephane Veilleux and Zenon Konopka are safe. If no trades can be made, that means decisions have to be made on Ryan Craig, Brett McLean (who would have to be signed), Brandon Bochenski, Adam Hall and Drew Miller, all of whom are fighting for two spots.
All those would have to clear waivers in order to be sent to the minors. Only Miller is on a two-way deal, but do you really think the Lightning would chance losing Miller off waivers and having nothing to show for the trade of Evgeny Artyukhin to the Ducks? And it appeared against the Coyotes on Thursday, coach Rick Tocchet liked the line of Wright, Halpern and Miller. But that is just spit-balling.
GM Brian Lawton was not giving anything away Saturday, though he apparently was loving the fact the team has some competition in camp.
"Yes, I am," he said. "I really had a lot of concern about, not necessarily, our top-six forwards but our bottom six, and there has been fantastic competition at that level. So, everybody comes in equal. Whoever earns it stays and whoever doesn't won't. That's the nature of the business. The players understand that. There's a lot at stake."
Lawton said he has no problem sending a player with a one-way contract to the minors, if that has to be done.
"We're not trying to send a message to any particular people," he said. "I've had a lot of discussions with the leaders of the club. They know where we stand. it hasn't been acceptable the past two years and we have to do what we can to get better and to win. That's the bottom line. Ultimately, our vision is to have a younger team. There's no doubt about that. The league is more conducive to it. Younger guys can play in the league, in my opinion. We see it more and more around the league."
That kind of talk bodes well for Wright.
"He's a young player," Lawton said. "I don't care how old guys are. If they can prove where they're at on a nightly basis, they'll be on the team. I don't care what your contract is or how old you are. We're looking to get better, and we're serious about it."
Said Wright: "I have to earn my place here. I have to earn it to stay around."