Monday, April 23, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning opens training camp facing questions

TORONTO — 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."

Kucherov, 23, hopes to be part of it. But the fact Kucherov, the team's leading scorer last season, is still unsigned is one of the biggest unanswered questions as the Lightning opens training camp today 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.

Here are other key questions that need to be sorted out in camp before the Oct. 13 season opener.

How will the World Cup impact camp?

The Lightning will start camp without 12 regulars, who are all at the World Cup, not to mention coach Jon Cooper. But Cooper doesn't think it will hurt them. Associate coach Rick Bowness, a former head coach for five NHL teams, will run practices in Cooper's absence. The roster was padded out with 11 camp invitees, several from the Lightning's ECHL affiliate in Kalamazoo. With Tampa Bay bringing back most of the same team from the past two years, no new system has to be installed. Once the World Cup players are eliminated, they'll likely get up to five days off before returning to practice. "When they come back they'll be in game mode playing at an elite level right away," Cooper said. "For us, I think it's a bonus."

How does the Lightning fix the power play?

The Tampa Bay power play, which ranked 28th in the league last season (15.8 percent), needs a makeover. New assistant Todd Richards, the former Columbus coach, is expected to add another voice to the unit, run by Cooper. Veteran defenseman James Wisniewski, who is getting a camp tryout, could fill a need as a right-shot, power-play spark, boasting years of experience in the role. Jonathan Drouin, coming off his monster postseason, should add another weapon. Expect several personnel combinations to be tinkered with.

Does Wisniewski stick?

Wisniewski, 32, an 11-year NHL veteran, will be given a good opportunity to make the team. He has to prove he's healthy, having missed almost all of last season in Carolina after tearing his ACL in his first game. But he could be a low-risk, high-reward option, especially with Cooper often using seven defensemen in his lineup.

Does Slater Koekkoek crack the roster?

Defenseman Slater Koekkoek, a 2012 first-round pick, really emerged in the playoffs. He played 10 games (after appearing in nine during the regular season) and some high-leverage minutes. Koekkoek supplanted veteran Matt Carle, who was bought out in the offseason, and played more than Nikita Nesterov, who is an unsigned restricted free agent. But Koekkoek has an inside shot to make his first opening night roster. He just has to earn it in preseason.

Who fills out the bottom six?

The Lightning returns a strong core at forward. But it has to temporarily replace veteran wing Ryan Callahan, who is expected to be out until mid November after June hip surgery. Tampa Bay lost depth forwards Jonathan Marchessault and Mike Blunden in free agency. Cory Conacher, a former Lightning wing who re-signed this summer, will try to force his way onto the roster; he'd have to clear waivers to get sent down to AHL Syracuse. Even veterans like Erik Condra, signed for two more years, will have to battle for spot in lineup. "I don't think we've ever sat here and said, 'We're contract based, this guy has this deal, he's going to play,' " Cooper said. "That's not the case. The guys that are deserving are going to make the team."

Contact Joe Smith at [email protected]

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