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STRONG PRESEASON COMPETITION COMPLICATES CUTS

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

Namestnikov, 21, made a strong impression during Lightning training camp, but he won't know until today 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 toughest part of the year. Sensing how strong the competition was during the preseason, he dreads sending as many as five players down to AHL Syracuse by Tuesday's 5 p.m. deadline. "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 on Sept. 27 - along with D Luke Witkowski, C Cedric Paquette and C Jonathan Marchessault. That gave them an extra week to show the team they could play in the NHL - when it's their turn.

"I think when I look back at being in the (AHL as Syracuse coach), 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 callups, and we're really excited about that.'"

It has been GM Steve Yzerman's vision since he took over in 2010 to build this type of organizational depth. The issue for Namestnikov and company is that though 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 an 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 LWBrenden Morrowmissed 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 team could make its decisions today, 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.

KEEP IT UP: Though Kucherov was the team's top goal scorer in the preseason, Cooper wants him to carry over his play - including improvement on the defensive end - to the regular season.

"What he has to do now is not hang his (hat) on this preseason, 'While I've got a taste of some goals and getting some points and everything is great, it's just going to roll into the regular season,' " Cooper said. "You know how it is. These guys are on cruise control. When Thursday night starts for us, it'll be a whole different compete level, and that's what he's got to be ready for."

Contact Joe Smith at joesmith@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.

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Season opener

Lightning vs. Panthers, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Amalie Arena

TV/radio: Sun Sports; 970-AM

Up next:WORST LOSS

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