TAMPA — Putting together a lineup is like doing a jigsaw puzzle, except it’s a puzzle in which the pieces are in flux and there are multiple solutions.
The Lightning don’t often overhaul their lineup, but they make many little changes throughout a season. Early August is too early to determine a depth chart for this season, and offseason theories about it will change. But we can put together a lineup.
The front end
Tampa Bay’s 23-man roster right now doesn’t look too different at forward from last season. Ryan Callahan (back disease) and J.T. Miller (trade) are gone, but the former was in and out of the lineup last season. The Lightning hasn’t signed an NHL forward since free agency began.
They haven’t re-signed restricted free agents Brayden Point and Adam Erne yet, but those contracts will likely be in place by the time training camp begins in September (prospects camp starts Sept. 6; the first preseason game is Sept. 17).
The Lightning have resisted the temptation to rush prospects, a mistake other teams have made.
Carter Verhaeghe, 24, re-signed on a one-year, two-way contract in July. After two years of leading AHL Syracuse in points per game, he has earned a chance to make the Lightning roster. He could make it out of camp, like Mathieu Joseph did a year ago. Verhaeghe must clear waivers if the Lightning don’t think he’s ready and send him to Syracuse. His offensive talent could tempt a team with less depth.
Cory Conacher, 29, was buried in the AHL last year and has never played a full season in the NHL. Bouncing back and forth has meant little consistency for Conacher. With a season spent mostly with Syracuse last year, he trailed only Verhaeghe in assists with the Crunch.
Danick Martel spent most of last season with the Lightning after being claimed on waivers in September but played only nine games. Coach Jon Cooper praised Martel when he did play, particularly the energy he brought to the fourth line.
The departures of Callahan and Miller leave two spots open, but if the Lightning carry eight defensemen, that could leave Conacher, Verhaeghe and Martel battling for one spot.
The blue line
The Lightning have a log jam among defensemen. Unrestricted free agents Dan Girardi and Anton Stralman won’t be back. Tampa Bay has brought in Kevin Shattenkirk and Luke Schenn in free agency, and re-signed Jan Rutta and Braydon Coburn.
Given the four core defensemen returning — Erik Cernak, Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh and Mikhail Sergachev — that gives the Lightning eight NHL defensemen. They also re-signed Dominik Masin, who must clear waivers to return to the AHL.
General manager Julien BriseBois wouldn’t mind carrying eight defensemen, but that would mean only one forward scratch; most teams like to have two.
Cernak, Hedman, McDonagh and Sergachev aren’t going anywhere. Their pairings could change, but that’s the likely Lightning top four. Coburn and Shattenkirk also will be in the NHL.
Schenn and Rutta could compete for the No. 7 role if the Lightning don’t want to keep eight. Schenn is a veteran who has played for five teams in the past four seasons and spent time in the AHL last season while with the Ducks and Canucks. Rutta joined the Lightning midway through the 2018-19 season after playing in 23 games for the Blackhawks. He saw action in 14 games with Tampa Bay and played in all four Lightning playoff games.
Contact Lightning beat writer Diana C. Nearhos at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow @dianacnearhos.