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Might Vinny be held out of opener?



Bear with me here, even though this is more speculation and reading between the lines than anything.

We read in Tuesday's paper that hockey ops chief Brian Lawton said he would not hesitate to keep star Vinny Lecavalier and defenseman Paul Ranger out of at least the season opener Oct. 4 in Prague if their rehabbing right shoulders were not ready to go. He said he might even put them on injured reserve to help the team manage their numbers. That's a big hint not to be taken seriously, especially after watching Jussi Jokinen star at center this preseason. And while Jokinen's move to the middle might have been, as coach Barry Melrose said, an "experiment," it is not far-fetched to believe it also was a tryout to see if Jokinen could contribute at the position if Lecavalier isn't ready. In Tuesday's 3-2 victory over the Rangers, Jokinen played between Marty St. Louis and Vinny Prospal and had an assist.

Making a move to keep Lecavalier, and even Ranger, out of the lineup more manageable is the schedule. After Tampa Bay plays regular-season games Oct. 4 and 5 against the Rangers in Prague, it plays just seven times in the final 26 days of October, so it is not as if the team is sacrificing much of the season if it wants to devote part of that time to making sure Lecavalier and Ranger are healed.

So just keep all that in the back of your hat.

What else did we learn Tuesday? Well, we know that goaltender Mike Smith looked awfully good. And isn't it amazing how much better he looked when the guys in front of him are playing with motivation and without fear of, as he said, having someone "on your back." No names, please, but we know to whom he was referring.

Looks like Evgeny Artyukhin is proving he was worth the investment, or at least the coaching staff believes he eventually will be. The big Russian was not supposed to play Tuesday, but coach Barry Melrose apparently wanted to take another look at him with linemates Ryan Craig and Adam Hall, and scratched Jason Ward.

Ward said after the game he is not hurt and was given no reason for the change, but it seems pretty clear the Lightning brass is making final decisions. Both Melrose and associate coach Rick Tocchet called Artyukhin "a project." And, boy, he is a penalty waiting to happen (he has four in three), but he has looked stronger and stronger on his skates in each game. He was particularly strong in the first period when he blew past Rangers defenseman Wade Redden and got off a shot that Ryan Craig put in on the rebound.

Does that mean Ward is on his way out? We'll see. More likely right now is defenseman Andrew Hutchinson, who has shown absolutely nothing. Hutchinson has a $500,000 one-way contract, so if he is put on waivers, there is no chance anyone will take him until he is put on recall, when Tampa Bay will still be on the hook for half his $500,000 salary. And perhaps it was just a coincidence, but defenseman Janne Niskala, who has been noticeable and good with the puck, was moved into Hutchinson's seat in the big locker room at the St. Pete Times Forum. He was in an auxiliary room when camp began.

So how do these lines, on display Tuesday, sound?

Vinny Prospal-Jussi Jokinen-Marty St. Louis

Ryan Malone-Steven Stamkos-Radim Vrbata

Gary Roberts-Chris Gratton-Marfk Recchi

Evgeny Artyukhin-Ryan Craig-Adam Hall

On defense, seems Andrej Meszaros, Matt Carle, Janne Niskala, Paul Ranger (if he is healthy) and Shane O'Brien are set. Assuming Hutchinson is out (and that, again, is speculation), that would mean Mike Lundin, Matt Smaby and Vladimir Mihalik still are in play.

Lots of moving parts and only two days until they leave for Europe.    

[Last modified: Sunday, August 16, 2009 4:38pm]


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