Thursday, January 18, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning's fight for forward spots hits critical juncture

ESTERO — Coach Jon Cooper on Monday did not reveal when the Lightning will get down to the 23-player roster limit.

But he acknowledged the next two preseason games — tonight at Nashville and Thursday at Germain Arena against the Panthers — are "a big couple of games coming up right here."

That's because Tampa Bay still doesn't have clarity in filling its open positions at forward.

How many spots are open? If you assume the team keeps Pierre-Cedric Labrie because of his physical presence (not a lock, by any means), probably three in the top 12 with nine players in the mix: J.T. Brown, Brett Connolly, Jonathan Drouin, Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Richard Panik, Tom Pyatt and Dana Tyrell.

"There are a few spots and we have lots of forwards," Palat said Monday. "Every day is important for us. Every day we have to work hard and do our best."

Several players have pushed the envelope, including Connolly, with three goals in two games, and Palat with two. Brown has a goal and three points in two games. Panik has a goal and two points in two games.

Still, things are so muddled Cooper said those competing for jobs "definitely will get a look" during the next two games.

"We're going down to the last few preseason games here and everyone is going to give their best effort," Brown said. "You just have to focus on yourself and playing your game."

As Connolly put it, "It's your last chance to put some stuff into Cooper's head."

Wingin' it: After playing center for the first 12 days of training camp, Drouin, the No. 3 overall pick of the June draft, returned to his natural left wing during a situational scrimmage at Germain Arena. That he was on a line with C Steven Stamkos and Marty St. Louis was "pretty exciting," Drouin said.

"They make plays," he added. "They're smart. It makes everything easier on the ice."

That said, the line is not scheduled to debut tonight at Nashville as St. Louis is not in the lineup.

Experimenting with Drouin at center and shifting him back to wing was planned, Cooper said.

"We wanted to take a look at Jonathan at center. Now we'll take a look at him at wing," he said. "There's no guarantees where he'll be in the lineup moving forward. But it was good to see him in the scrimmage. I thought he did well there."

Drouin said center or wing is fine with him.

"Wherever they want me to play," he said, "I'll play."

Scrimmage: In the most detailed work yet in terms of installing Cooper's system, special teams practice and a situational scrimmage dominated an almost two-hour practice.

Cooper said the players needed to get their legs going after the bus ride from Tampa.

Plus, "We have a game (tonight) and wanted to get the guys a little more focused on getting up and down the ice," Cooper said. "I was pretty happy with what went on."

Odds and ends: G Anders Lindback, acquired in a June 2012 trade with the Predators, starts tonight in Nashville. … The Lightning's only public practice at Germain Arena is noon Wednesday.

Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]

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