James Wisniewski ready to 'earn' spot with Lightning
(Continuing blog series on "Questions for Lightning Camp")
This was a strange, and long, summer for James Wisniewski.
Wisniewski, 32, is an 11-year NHL veteran, so watching free agency go by without a contract offer was surprising.
"Not something I'm used to," he said.
But that's also why Wisniewski, signed to a camp tryout with the Lightning Aug. 10, was one of the early arrivals at the team's informal skates at Brandon's Ice Sports Forum. Wisniewski, who missed last season after tearing his left ACL in his first game with Carolina, entered Wednesday carrying a red Hurricanes bag over his shoulder.
And Wisniewski hopes he can end camp wearing Lightning blue.
"This is probably the most excited I've ever been coming into a training camp," Wisniewski said.
Wisniewski is one of the more intriguing players in Lightning camp, and could provide a low-risk, high-reward solution for an immediate need: a right-shot defenseman who can spark the power play. Tampa Bay's power play ranked 28th in the NHL last season at 15.8 percent, a stat Wisniewski brought up Wednesday. Wisniewski has 27 power play goals in his career, most notably in Columbus (2011-15), where he played for new Lightning assistant Todd Richards.
Of the two teams Wisniewski saw as fits this offseason, the Lightning came with the first, and strongest, pitch.
"(GM Steve Yzerman) told me they really wanted a right-shot power play defenseman," Wisniewski said. "I've been in that role the last six years or so. So what better team to come to than a team that loves being here?"
Wisniewski has to prove he's healthy, having played just one game since the 2014-15 season. And then he has to crack a returning blueline that has five returners that appear locks (Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, Braydon Coburn, Jason Garrison, Andrej Sustr). Prospect Slater Koekkoek who is expected to make push for a roster spot, as is Luke Witkowski. The team still hopes to sign restricted free agent Nikita Nesterov, too.
But for coach Jon Cooper, who routinely plays seven defensemen, Wisniewski could be one of the missing pieces for a team that's reached back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals.
"This is a team that can win it every year, and that's what we're all here for, getting our name on that Cup," Wisniewski said. "I've been playing this game long enough, it's time."