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Andrei Vasilevskiy could make exhibition debut tonight

After not playing at all for Russia in the World Cup, goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy couldn't wait to get back to Lightning camp and get in a game.

Turns out, Vasilevskiy, 21, didn't have to wait long, as he's on the roster for tonight's exhibition in Carolina, where he could make his preseason debut. Kristers Gudlevskis, who posted a shutout in Thursday's 2-0 win, is also in the lineup.

Vasilevskiy, who signed a three-year extension in July worth $3.5 million annually, is expected to continue in his role as backup to Vezina Trophy finalist Ben Bishop. Coach Jon Cooper has dubbed them a "1 and 1A" tandem, so it'll be interesting to see if Vasilevskiy gets a few more starts this season, especially if it could be Bishop's last season in a Lightning uniform.

Another couple World Cup returners, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Nesterov, are also in the game group tonight. So far Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson, J.T. Brown and Luke Witkowski. Brayden Point, who has goals in back to back exhibition games, appears to be in his third straight. Others playing are Bournival, Vermin, Blujus, Taormina, Hart, Dumont, Richard, Ikonen, Dotchin.

The Lightning plays on Saturday in Nashville.

 

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Kristers Gudlevskis takes another step

With Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy making for a Lightning log-jam in net, goalie Kristers Gudlevskis just has to wait.

But that hasn't stopped Gudlevskis, 24, from getting better. Coach Jon Cooper has seen some significant improvement since last season, as shown in Gudlevski's 21-save shutout in Thursday's 2-0 exhibition win over the Panthers.

"There's no question," Cooper said. "Every year, you just watch him improve and he's got more poise. He had to play the puck a lot (Thursday), which is not one of his strengths. But he's getting better at it. You see improvement in all areas. He earned that shutout tonight. It's great this organization has got depth in that position."

Gudlevskis and Adam Wilcox split the games at AHL Syracuse last season, and are expected to again this year. Gudlevskis, who went 16-12 with a 2.83 goals against average in 41 games, felt better late in the season.

"I feel like I've become a little bit more patient, more calm, and wait better for shots," Gudlevskis said. "Just stay focused." …

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Marchessault left Lightning for 'better opportunity'

Jonathan Marchessault left the Lightning in free agency, signing a two-year, $1.5 million deal with Atlantic Division rival Panthers in July.

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Jonathan Marchessault left the Lightning in free agency, signing a two-year, $1.5 million deal with Atlantic Division rival Panthers in July.

Jonathan Marchessault enjoyed his experience with the Lightning.

Even as he was a healthy scratch during last year's playoffs, the 5-foot-9 forward insisted he'd love to stay.

But Marchessault, 25, ended up leaving in free agency, signing a two-year, $1.5 million deal with Atlantic Division rival Panthers in July. As Marchessault returns to Amalie Arena tonight for an exhibition game against his former team, he said playing time was a factor in the switch.

"I wouldn't say it was about money or anything like that," Marchessault said in Sunrise before heading to Tampa. "I wanted a better opportunity to be in the lineup every night and to be able to maybe have a chance to go on the third line."

Marchessault spent parts of three seasons in the Lightning orgnanization, appearing in 46 NHL games. After appearing in the 2015 Eastern Conference Final against the Rangers, Marchessault helped provide a scoring boost to an injury-depleted Lightning forward group last season, with seven goals (and 18 points) in just 45 games.

But as the Lightning got healthy, Marchessault saw his role, and minutes, dwindle, playing in just five of 17 playoff games. …

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Nikita Kucherov won't report without a contract

Nikita Kucherov, a restricted free agent, won't be reporting to Lightning training camp until he's signed.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Nikita Kucherov, a restricted free agent, won't be reporting to Lightning training camp until he's signed.

Wing Nikita Kucherov may have played for Russia in the World Cup without a contract.

But Kucherov, 23, a restricted free agent, won't be reporting to Lightning training camp until he's signed, GM Steve Yzerman told the Tampa Bay Times today.  Yzerman said that message was relayed to him by Kucherov's agent, Scott Greenspun. The move is not uncommon for unsigned players, nor does it indicate a rift in negotiations.

"It's all part of the process," Yzerman said.

But with the season opening two weeks from today, no deal appears imminent. Kucherov, the team's leading scorer last season, could warrant $6 million or more annually. And that could be challenging for the Lightning, which has between $5-5.5 million of cap space remaining, per CapFriendly.com. It begs the question whether Tampa Bay may need to make another move to create room.

"What the contract ends up at will dictate what we need to do," Yzerman said. "We'll do what we have to do to get under the cap." …

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Battle for bottom six continues tonight for Lightning

Cory Conacher, re-signed this offseason, was acquired partly to see if he can provide some production to replace Jonathan Marchessault.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Cory Conacher, re-signed this offseason, was acquired partly to see if he can provide some production to replace Jonathan Marchessault.

It's fitting former Lightning wing Jonathan Marchessault returns to Amalie Arena tonight with the Panthers for an exhibition game.

One of Tampa Bay's top priorities in training camp is to solidify its bottom-six forward group, needing much more production this season from them. Marchessault had seven goals and 11 assists in 45 games with the Lightning last year before signing with Florida as a free agent in July.

Take a look at tonight's lineup, and there are several returners like veterans Erik Condra and Cedric Paquette who are battling for their spots after down offensive seasons. Condra was largely a healthy scratch in the postsesaon after tallying just six goals in his first season with Tampa Bay last year.

Cory Conacher, re-signed this offseason, was acquired partly to see if he can provide some production to replace Marchessault. Yanni Gourde, Tanner Richard are playing tonight, and another candidate, Joel Vermin, played Tuesday.

Other regulars in the lineup tonight are Brian Boyle, Jason Garrison, Slater Koekkoek. James Wisniewski is getting in his second game on a camp tryout. Kristers Gudlevskis and Adam Wilcox are expected to split the game in net. …

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James Wisniewski encouraged with Lightning debut

After logging a team-high 21:20 in a 3-2 loss to Carolina, James Wisniewsk, 32, was encouraged with how he felt.

DIRK SHADD | Times

After logging a team-high 21:20 in a 3-2 loss to Carolina, James Wisniewsk, 32, was encouraged with how he felt.

Veteran defenseman James Wisniewski was admittedly anxious heading into Tuesday's exhibition opener.

Not only was Wisniewski, an 11-year veteran, playing in his first full game in nearly a year and a half. It was also the first game of his audition for the Lightning while on a camp tryout.

But after logging a team-high 21:20 in a 3-2 loss to Carolina, Wisniewsk, 32, was encouraged with how he felt. It was his first game since tearing his left ACL in the season opener last year with the Hurricanes.

"All in all, I didn't feel like I was lost out there," Wisniewski said. "I feel pretty good."

Wisniewski's main strength would be his ability on the power play, and there weren't many opportunities Tuesday. But he showed his vision and poise with the puck when playing the point. And he felt comfortable with the Lightning's systems.

"He's been around this league for a long time," coach Jon Cooper said. "He made the plays he had to. You can see that he knows where to be on the ice."

The Lightning has three more exhibitions this week, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, so it wouldn't be surprising to see Wisniewski in at least one of them.

 

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Bishop, Vasilevskiy back from World Cup

Ben Bishop, whose Team USA was eliminated Thursday, returned to Tampa on Monday night.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Ben Bishop, whose Team USA was eliminated Thursday, returned to Tampa on Monday night.

There was a familiar sight Tuesday, with Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy sharing the net in goaltending drills before the team's morning skate.

Both had been at the World Cup of Hockey in Toronto, Bishop for Team USA, Vasilevskiy with Russia. Vasilevskiy wasted no time in returning, asking after Russia's loss in Saturday's semifinal to get the first flight to Tampa Sunday morning.

Vasilevskiy, who didn't play in either Russia's exhibitions or games, needs more action, and didn't rule out getting in one of three Lightning exhibitions this weekend (Thursday, Friday, Saturday).

"Why not?" he said, smiling.

Bishop, whose Team USA was eliminated Thursday, got in town Monday night. He started Thursday's loss to the Czech Republic, taking part in some exhibitions as well, so he feels like he didn't miss much early in training camp.

"It feels good to be back," Bishop said. "Obviously it wasn't the result that we would have liked in Toronto, but it's over and done with now. Just focused on camp now and getting ready for the season." …

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Johnson, Killorn highlight Lightning lineup for exhibition

Tyler Johnson will be in the lineup tonight for the Lightning's exhibition opener against the Hurricanes.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Tyler Johnson will be in the lineup tonight for the Lightning's exhibition opener against the Hurricanes.

The Lightning will have several regulars in the lineup tonight for its exhibition opener against the Hurricanes at Amalie Arena, including Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn.

Cory Conacher, re-acquired in the offseason, will likely play on their line, as he has during the first few days of camp. Other regulars playing tonight are J.T. Brown and Braydon Coburn, with defensemen Slater Koekkoek and Luke Witkowski both battling for one of the last spots on the blueline.

Veteran defenseman James Wisniewski, in camp on a tryout, will start his audition against his former team. Read about Wisniewski in today's Times.

There are also many draft picks making their exhibition debut tonight, with first-round pick forward Brett Howden, defenseman Libor Hajek, Mathieu Joseph, Bokondji Imama, Dennis Yan and Matt Spencer. It's a good chance for the Lightning brass to get a look at these prospects against several Carolina regulars, including Noah Hanifin.

"Really excited," Spencer said. "I've been looking for this for a long time."

There's also a family connection, with the Lightning's Tye McGinn and brother Brock (on Carolina) both in the lineup.

Full lineup: …

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Lightning re-signs Nikita Nesterov

Nikita Nesterov was signed to a one-year, $725,000 deal.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Nikita Nesterov was signed to a one-year, $725,000 deal.

The Lightning re-signed defenseman Nikita Nesterov Monday, leaving it with just one (but important) restricted free agent left:

Nikita Kucherov.

Nesterov, like Kucherov, was playing with Russia at the World Cup, and is set to rejoin camp in the next week. Nesterov was signed to a one-year, $725,000 deal.

That doesn't leave a lot of room for Kucherov, who could command $6 million or more per season. After Nesterov signing, Tampa Bay has between $5-$5.5 million of salary cap space remaining this season, per CapFriendly.com. Even if you temporarily put Ryan Callahan on long term injured reserve, it won't save a ton, plus he's expected to return by mid-November. The team also has to account for potential bonuses earned by the likes of Jonathan Drouin and Andrei Vasilevskiy this season.

Lightning GM Steve Yzerman said Sunday he's "very hopeful" to get Kucherov signed, adding he can "push harder" with the World Cup over. The two sides have been talking but nothing appears imminent.

The question remains whether the Lightning can sign Kucherov without having to first make a deal to clear space?

It could be an interesting few weeks, and creative cap-crunching, for the Lightning.

 

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Lightning to honor Vinny Lecavalier Oct. 18 vs. Panthers

Vinny Lecavalier, the Lightning's No. 1 overall pick in 1998, spent 14 of  his 17 NHL seasons in Tampa Bay.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Vinny Lecavalier, the Lightning's No. 1 overall pick in 1998, spent 14 of his 17 NHL seasons in Tampa Bay.

Former Lightning Vinny Lecavalier was a surprised guest at Sunday's Fan Fest, getting a standing ovation from the crowd of season ticket holders as he was introduced.

Lecavalier, 36, had a big smile on his face.

"It's nice to see them again," Lecavalier said.

Lecavalier will get to see more on Oct. 18, when the Lightning plans to honor the former face of the franchise before the game against the Florida Panthers. The club will not be retiring Lecavalier's No. 4 jersey, but it should be a special night.

"It means a lot," Lecavalier said. "I spent 14 years. The fans, they're clapping, they seem happy to seee me. It's pretty cool."

Lecavalier, the Lightning's No. 1 overall pick in 1998, spent 14 of  his 17 NHL seasons in Tampa Bay. He retired after finishing last season with the Kings. "It's weird, when I got that email about the alumni meetings, that's when I'm really like, 'It's all over," he quipped. …

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Lightning pushes pace early in camp

Lightning center Brian Boyle's practice ended a little early Saturday after the heel of defenseman Braydon Coburn's stick blade caught him in the nose during a 1-on-1 drill.

Boyle was fine - no hard feelings - just some pain and blood on his jersey.

"It's going to happen sometimes," Boyle said, smiling. "The guys had a good chuckle out of it."

But the friendly fire Saturday is just an example of how intense, and fast-paced, the first part of Lightning training camp has been. Associate coach Rick Bowness

told the team it'd be a tough camp, hoping to get them up to the same speed as the 12 players who have already seen game action at at the World Cup.

Mission accomplished.

"Skating-wise, conditioning on ice, this is by far the hardest camp in my 12 years," veteran defenseman James Wisniewski said. "They said guys are playing games, you've got to rock and roll...
"I don't even know if you work this hard in a game." …

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Tyler Johnson wishes he could have played for USA

Lightning center Tyler Johnson didn't take to Twitter - like the Penguins Phil Kessel famously did - to express his disappointment in Team USA's performance in the World Cup.

But after the Americans wrapped up an 0-for-3 tournament Thursday in a loss to the Czech Republic, Johnson said he wished he could have helped.

"I think everyone can say they're disappointed at the fact that they didn't do as well as they probably could have," Johnson said." I wish I could have been there. I wish I could have played, but that's their decision. That's what's great about our country is we have a lot of good players, good quality players. They went one route, so hopefully next time I'm playing better so I can make it."

Johnson didn't have his best season last year, with 14 goals and 38 points, largely due to a nagging wrist injury that sapped his strength. Team USA, which emphasized grit over skill in building its team, left Johnson off its roster, and didn't choose him when teammate Ryan Callahan (hip surgery) had to pull out in June.

USA lost to Europe, Canada and Czech Republic, drawing sharp criticism from some American players. …

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Unique Lightning camp provides opportunity

Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman admitted it was a bit strange Thursday morning when training camp opened without 12 regulars, who were at the World Cup.

"You're looking around, 'Where's Stammer? Where's Heddy?" Yzerman said of captain Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman. "From that sense, it's a little different."

But as the coaching staff held its first meeting with what's left of the team, they issued a challenge to others to take advantage of a rare opportunity.

"They're going to get looks that they normally wouldn't get," said associate coach Rick Bowness, who is running camp while Jon Cooper is at World Cup with Team North America. "Players make those decisions for you with their effort and their play on the ice."

The most notable beneficiaries are the likes of former Lightning forward Cory Conacher, re-signed over the summer, and veteran defenseman James Wisniewski, who is in on a camp tryout. Yzerman noted Wisniewski, 32 who fills a need as a right-shot on the power play, should get a lot of playing time in preseason with four defensemen at World Cup. "We're going to give  him a very good chance to make this team," Yzerman said. …

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Yzerman on Kucherov: 'We want him here'

Nikita Kucherov, 23, led the Lightning in points last season, and in the playoffs.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Nikita Kucherov, 23, led the Lightning in points last season, and in the playoffs.

Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said he's in "constant communication" with Nikita Kucherov's representatives, and is hoping to get the touted wing signed "as soon as possible."

But while the goal is to get Kucherov, a restricted free agent, signed by the time he returns from the World Cup of Hockey, Yzerman indicated "that may or may not happen right away."

Kucherov, 23, led the Lightning in points last season, and in the playoffs. Playing for Russia in the World Cup, it's unknown if Kucherov would report to training camp without a deal. But Yzerman doesn't anticipate it being a distraction for the team.

"We want him here," Yzerman said. "He's a tremendous player, a popular player on the team. Being young, he's still one of our leaders on our team. We want to get him here as soon as possible. It takes time."

Yzerman said he's also hopeful to get a deal done with the other remaining restricted free agent, defenseman Nikita Nesterov.

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Contract or not, Kucherov enjoys World Cup

Nikita Kucherov, the Lightning's leading scorer last season, is still unsigned.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Nikita Kucherov, the Lightning's leading scorer last season, is still unsigned.

Wing Nikita Kucherov isn't interested in talking about his contract, or lack thereof.

But the restricted free agent certainly took notice this summer when the Lightning locked up teammates Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman for eight-year deals.

"It's great that Tampa is keeping everybody," Kucherov said after Russia's practice Wednesday at the World Cup of Hockey. "It's a great chance to go on another run at the Stanley Cup. I'm just happy for Stammer and Heddy signing in Tampa for the next 8-10."

Kucherov, 23, would love to be in that spot. But the fact Kucherov, the team's leading scorer last season, is still unsigned is one of the biggest unanswered questions facing the Lightning as opens training camp Thursday at Amalie Arena. General manager Steve Yzerman has said he hopes to get a deal with Kucherov before the Russian returns from the World Cup. But Yzerman said Wednesday there's nothing new with negotiations. A deal doesn't appear imminent.

It's not easy. Kucherov could warrant in the six-year, $36 million range Filip Forsberg signed with the Predators, maybe more. The Lightning should have between $5-$6 million in cap room for this season. …

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