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Tough Lightning roster decisions looming

Joe Smith, Times Staff Writer

Sunday, October 5, 2014 12:40pm

For C Vladislav Namestnikov, the next couple days will be nerve-wracking.

Namestnikov, 21, made a strong impression during Lightning training camp, but won't know until Monday at the earliest if he'll start the season on the 23-man roster.

"I hope so," he said. I've done everything I could. Now it's up to them to decide."

For coach Jon Cooper, this is the "worst part of the year." Sensing how strong the competition was during the preseason, sending as many as five players down to Syracuse in the American Hockey League by Tuesday's 5 p.m. deadline is something he dreads.

"These guys, you know what they've done all summer, they came in with a goal to make this hockey team," Cooper said. "It's really, really hard. Because you've got to look these guys in the eye and say, 'You've got to wait your turn,' and that part is really tough."

But Cooper said it's a good problem to have, so much depth to chose from. Namestnikov, who had seven assists in the preseason, survived the first big cut down to 28 Sept. 27, along with D Luke Witkowski, C Cedric Paquette, C Jonathan Marchessault. That gave them an extra week to show the Lightning they can play in the NHL - when it's their turn.

"I think when I look back at being in the (AHL), we were sitting there thinking, 'Gosh, how are we going to even field a competitive enough team?' Cooper said. "And now we're sitting here saying, 'Wow, look at these guys. We've got legitimate call-ups and we're really excited about that."

It's been general manager Steve Yzerman's vision since he took over in 2010 to build this type of organizational depth. The issue for Namestnikov & Co is that while they played well, so did the others who were expected to have spots. Wings Brett Connolly and Richard Panik, who both must clear waivers to get sent down, had their best camps.

Wing Nikita Kucherov racked up six preseason goals, seizing the opportunity with touted prospect Jonathan Drouin out with a right thumb fracture.

If Drouin, as expected, starts the season on injured reserve, it could open a spot for Namestnikov, who has had great chemistry with Kucherov. Veteran left wing Brenden Morrow has missed the last three preseason games with a stiff back, and though he feels better and participated in the past two morning skates, Tampa Bay still has to evaluate his availability with the season opener Thursday.

Cooper said the Lightning could make their decisions as early as Monday, when it returns to practice at Amalie Arena. The first clue would be if a player is placed on waivers.

"We've got to hash it all out," Cooper said.

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