Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Finding depth scoring a Lightning priority

RALEIGH, N.C. — The urgency with which veteran wing Erik Condra skated, and created, in Thursday's preseason game, you'd think he was fighting for his job. "You have to come in and impress," Condra said.

The Lightning has made it clear it needs more offensive production from its third and fourth lines this season. It was exposed as a top-heavy team in last season's playoffs, losing to the deeper Penguins in the Eastern Conference final.

Bounce-back seasons from Condra and center Cedric Paquette would help, and plenty of prospects, along with free-agent signee Cory Conacher, are pushing for a spot. At least one open roster spot will be open to start the season with Ryan Callahan (hip surgery) out until mid November.

"I don't think anybody can sit there and say, 'Oh, I'm completely comfortable,' " coach Jon Cooper said, "even guys that have kind of been mainstays. There are open spots on this team. Everyone is breathing down each other's necks."

Condra, who signed a three-year, $3.75 million deal before last season, struggled in his first year in Tampa Bay. It was tough for the only new guy on an established, tight-knit team coming off a run to the Stanley Cup final. Condra wasn't as effective as he needed to be, with just six goals (11 points) in 54 games, and he was a healthy scratch in all but three playoff games. "It was an up-and-down year," he said. "I've never really gone through it to that extent."

Paquette never really found his game, largely due to injuries. He missed the season's start due to a left foot injury suffered blocking a shot in a preseason game. The foot became in infected in December, an issue that lingered. "I know my game wasn't there at all. I didn't play very (well)," said Paquette, who had six goals in 56 games. "We need scoring from all four lines, and last year that's what we were lacking in the playoffs. Myself, I didn't produce like I was the year before. I wish I could have helped more."

Paquette should be able to this season, saying he's in his best shape in four years. "I'm ready," he said. So are Conacher, signed to a one-year, one-way deal, and prospects such as Joel Vermin. Vermin has plenty of speed and hockey sense, and he can score, with nine goals at AHL Syracuse. He appeared in six games with the Lightning last season before a broken finger ended his stint. "I came here to make the team," he said.

The Lightning did get career offensive years last season from J.T. Brown (eight goals) and Vladislav Namestnikov (14), and veteran Brian Boyle had 13 goals, including five in the playoffs. But with captain Steven Stamkos missing all but one playoff game due to a blood clot, Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson, Jonathan Drouin and Alex Killorn carried the load with 28 of the Lightning's 48 playoff goals. Callahan, Namestnikov, Brown, Paquette and Valtteri Filppula had four among them. Meanwhile, the Penguins' third line of Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin combined for 20 goals and 57 points in the postseason.

"Everything fell on the paddle of a few guys that carried us as far as we could go," Cooper said. "But we needed more. You can see the team that won the Cup (Penguins) got scoring all through their lineup. And ultimately, that's what you need to win."

The Lightning is determined to find it.

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