TAMPA — Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman admitted it was a bit strange Thursday morning when training camp opened at Amalie Arena without many familiar faces.
No captain Steven Stamkos. No Victor Hedman or goalie Ben Bishop. Twelve regulars in all were still at the World Cup in Toronto.
"You're looking around, 'Where's Stammer? Where's Heddy?' " Yzerman said.
But as the coaching staff held its first meeting Thursday with what was left of the team, it issued a challenge for others to take advantage of a rare opportunity.
"They're going to get looks that they normally wouldn't get," said associate coach Rick Bowness, who is running camp while coach Jon Cooper is at the World Cup as an assistant with Team North America. "Players make those decisions for you with their effort and their play on the ice."
The most notable beneficiaries are the likes of former Lightning forward Cory Conacher, re-signed over the summer, and veteran defenseman James Wisniewski, 32, in camp on a tryout. Yzerman said Wisniewski, who fills a need as a right-handed shot on the power play, should get a lot of playing time in the preseason with four defensemen at the World Cup. Wisniewski said that factored into his decision to come to Tampa Bay.
"We're going to give him a very good chance to make this team," Yzerman said.
But many others — including forwards Tanner Richard, Joel Vermin and Tye McGinn — who saw action with the Lightning last season also will have a showcase. All of them are in the same practice group with the regulars in camp, including Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, Brian Boyle and J.T. Brown. So are defensemen Slater Koekkoek and Luke Witkowski, expected to compete for one of the last spots on the blue line.
Though the roster has a lot of locks, Yzerman noted how center Vladislav Namestnikov was expected to start the season with AHL Syracuse two years ago but forced the Lightning's hand with his play in the preseason. The Lightning at least needs a temporary replacement for wing Ryan Callahan, who is out until mid November due to hip surgery. With four of its six exhibitions coming next week, starting Tuesday at Amalie Arena against the Hurricanes, those on the bubble will likely get the lion's share of the playing time.
"We're always wrestling, (Cooper) and I," Yzerman said. "As management, we're wanting to see these players, we need to see these players. And coaches, as camp goes along, we want to get their returning players into the lineup as many games as we can. This gives … some young guys that have been up and down that are knocking on the door a chance to play as well."
The Lightning will start to get some players back from the World Cup soon. Bishop (United States), Ondrej Palat and Andrej Sustr (Czech Republic) and Valtteri Filppula (Finland) head back from Toronto today with group play over and their countries eliminated. So soon will Cooper and wing Jonathan Drouin (North America), whose team was eliminated with Russia's win over Finland on Thursday.
Those players are expected to get potentially up to five days off before having to join camp practices. But Hedman and Anton Stralman (Sweden), Stamkos (Canada) and the Lightning's four Russian players (Namestnikov, Nikita Kucherov, Nikita Nesterov and Andrei Vasilevskiy) will be gone through this weekend's semifinals at the least.
"By the time they come back, that's when we are going to start gelling," Johnson said. "That's when you start to do more of your systems and get back into that rhythm. So that will be the perfect time for them."
But now is the time for others.
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.