Lightning defense set, forward spots up for grabs
With the Lightning putting Luke Witkowski on waivers Friday, it made it clear what's been expected all along.
Defenseman Slater Koekkoek is set to make his first opening night roster.
The former first-round pick, who emerged in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, just had to play his game in training camp. And Koekkoek, who is the team's sixth/seventh defenseman, certainly has.
"It's a lot of gradual steps," coach Jon Cooper said. "Everything from his awareness in his d-zone or ability to jump in the play. He's really figured out taht his skating is his biggest asset, and how he can take advantage of that, closing on guys, angling, gapping, all those things that he was maybe a little bit tentative to do in the past he's doing much better now."
With the Lightning's seven defensemen set, it still has to figure out what it plans to do at forward. Cooper said they haven't decided whether they'll carry 13 or 14 forwards to open the season. But Tampa Bay has two open spots, temporarily filling in for Ryan Callahan (hip surgery) and Nikita Kucherov (contract holdout).
Brayden Point, Joel Vermin and Cory Conacher are all in the lineup for tonight's exhibition finale against the Predators at Amalie Arena. Conacher and Vermin would appear to be vying for Callahan's spot; he's out until mid-November.
But Point has seemed to be a temporary placeholder for Kucherov, playing on line with Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn. That's where Point will be tonight, an important showcase as the Lightning considers whether to plug him into Kucherov's spot for Thursday night's opener, if Kucherov remains unsigned. Point will also get some power play time.
"We'll see," Cooper said. "That's what the exhibition games are for. For Brayden Point, he's one of those guys in the mix fightning for one of those spots. He's going to be plugged in (tonight) to see how he's going to do and how he's going to adapt with the linemates."
The roster has to be finalized by Tuesday at 5 p.m.
Most of the Lightning regulars are in the lineup tonight, with captain Steven Stamkos, defensemen Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman making their exhibition debuts since returning from the World Cup. Ben Bishop is scheduled to start in net, and likely will play the entire game.
The Predators will have most of their regulars, too, including P.K. Subban and Matt Carle, the former Lightning defenseman who was bought out this summer.
It appears Koekkoek, Brian Boyle and J.T. Brown will be tonight's Lightning scratches. The lines are Palat-Stamkos-Drouin/Killorn-Johnson-Point/Namestnikov-Filppula-Vermin/Conacher-Paquette-Condra
Lightning lineup: Garrison, Stralman, Johnson, Paquette, Killorn, Palat, Conacher, Condra, Brown, Drouin, Point, Filppula, Coburn, Sustr, Hedman, Nesterov, Namestnikov, Stamkos, Vermin.
Predators lineup: Bitetto, Ellis, Weber, Granberg, Forsbeg, Sissons, Fisher, Ekholm, Smith, Bass, Neal, Salomaki, Carle, Gaudrea, Wilson, Arvidsson, Kamenev, Watson, Fiala, Josi, Ribiero, Subban, Johansen.