Key decisions for Lightning remain in final week of camp
The Lightning made its biggest round of cuts Monday, with some of the big-named prospects heading out.
Gone are Matt Peca (who had his best camp yet), Anthony Cirelli, Mathieu Joseph, Mitchell Stephens, Brett Howden, Adam Erne, Erik Cernak, Ben Thomas, Daniel Walcott, Tye McGinn, Jamie McBain and Dennis Yan. Eleven of the 12 are heading to Syracuse, with Peca, Joseph and Cirelli showing in camp that they could help the Lightning as callups this season. Howden is going back to juniors in Moose Jaw, where he's captain and No. 1 center.
None of them are especially surprising, though Peca made a strong case to stick around with his stellar preseason. As did Erne. They'll be back.
Second-round pick Alex Volkov, most notably, is still around, getting a strong look, a darkhorse to crack the roster.
With its roster down to 26, Tampa Bay heads to Fort Lauderdale for the final week of training camp with some key decisions looming.
The two goalies - Andrei Vasilevskiy and Peter Budaj - are set. There are eight defensemen remaining, and the Lightning is expecting to potentially keep them all. The main competition is at forward, where the Lightning needs to cut at least three from the 16 left.
Here's what's left for Tampa Bay to figure out:
*Is Mikhail Sergachev ready? - The Lightning has certainly given Sergachev ample opportunity this preseason, playing him in three straight exhibitions (and over 20 minutes in each). Power play, penalty kill, left side/right side, he's seen it all. There's still a learning curve with Sergachev, especially when it comes to not doing too much. But Sergachev looks like an NHL defenseman in his skating, his insticts, his positioning. At this point, it'd be surprising if Sergachev didn't at least start the season with the Lightning (able to play nine games before having to get sent back to junior).
*Who's out at forward? If the Lightning goes with 13 forwards, three must go by opening night. The Lightning has to figure out who sticks around for the bottom-six. Yanni Gourde, signed to a two-year deal in the summer, looks like he's capable of sticking around. J.T. Brown and Cedric Paquette have been regulars, though haven't been overly impressive in preseason. Gabriel Dumont could have an edge with his faceoffs. Betting Cory Conacher and Michael Bournival are among those who are sent to Syracuse. There just isn't 'enough room.
Volkov, 20, is intriguing, his size and skill - not to mention his tenacity at driving the net - all NHL attributes. But do you have him make the team - as a first-year pro - to stick in bottom six?
With so much depth - and Peca performing so well in preseason - could a forward like Vladislav Namestnikov be drawing some trade interest from a team like Pittsburgh, which needs a third line center?
*Is Steven Stamkos healthy? Stamkos looked like his old self in Friday's exhibition debut, his first game in 10 months. But Stamkos is likely to get in at least one more preseason game out of the last three. The more reps he can get, the better. No doubt Stamkos will be in the lineup in Game 1, just a matter of what he looks like.
*Keep eight 'D'?: GM Steve Yzerman has said he expects to carry eight defensemen, noting how much depth you need at that position. If the Lightning does that, all eight guys in camp are safe, including Jake Dotchin, who has not played in preseason due to violating a team rule. It's encouraging that Anton Stralman returned to practice after missing the first week due to an undisclosed injury.
*Lining up - The Lightning has to decide their lines, even though the pairings will change so much during the season. So far, the pairs have been consistent, with Stamkos/Kucherov, Johnson/Palat, Callahan/Kunitz. The last three games will allow the coaches to experiment with different combos.
Brayden Point has been consistently used as a winger in the top-six, and I expect that to likely continue. He's comfortable there, even though he's better at center, and it keeps him on the top two lines.
Here's my opening night roster prediction:
Goalies: Vasilevskiy, Budaj
Defensemen: Hedman, Stralman, Coburn, Dotchin, Sergachev, Girardi, Sustr, Koekkoek
Forwards: Stamkos, Kucherov, Point, Callahan, Kunitz, Palat, Johnson, Killorn, Gourde, Brown, Paquette, Dumont, Namestnikov.
Who's out? Volkov, Conacher, Bournival