TAMPA — For the past three weeks, Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh has looked around his near-empty Tampa house watching the days crawl by as the team’s trip to Toronto for the playoffs inched closer. He had to leave his family in their Minnesota home, but at least he had fellow defenseman Zach Bogosian as a temporary roommate.
Those three weeks might have been a preview of what the two fathers will go through in Toronto, where they could spend the next two months away from their families while the Lightning compete for the Stanley Cup.
“It’s definitely hard,” McDonagh said. “About three, four days in, we’re both just kind of staring at each other, kind of lost in the silence around the house. It’s tough. It definitely hits you a few days in when you miss hearing the noise and the giggling from the kids, and seeing your family.”
The Lightning departed from Tampa Bay on Sunday — minus defenseman Victor Hedman, who stayed behind due to what was called a personal matter — after two weeks of training camp and headed to Toronto.
“I would not want to start the playoffs today,” coach Jon Cooper said. “But I am happy with where we are. We’re where we expected to be, but probably a little bit better.”
During training camp, the Lightning were able to work on what-if situations and experiment with lineups. They had time to work on those more so they would have during a normal season, which usually has quick turnarounds between games.
“It’s been great to try some new things,” Cooper said. “We still have a few weeks here in Toronto to take our game to another level.”
The Lightning, automatic qualifiers for the 16-team playoff field, play the first of three seeding games Aug. 3 before starting the first round at a date not set.
They have worked on playing with and without Steven Stamkos in the lineup on the first line and the power play. Stamkos is recovering from a leg injury suffered in voluntary workouts during the league’s almost four-month coronavirus shutdown.
Alex Killorn has moved his way up to the top line with center Brayden Point and right wing Nikita Kucherov, and Tyler Johnson has worked on the top power-play unit in Stamkos’ absence.
Stamkos skated with the AHL call-ups during portions of the first practice. Cooper said the captain will not play in Wednesday’s exhibition game against the Panthers.
“With Stamkos, we’re hopeful he’s going to progress here once we get to Toronto,” Cooper said. “We still have a little bit of time left, and so it’s kind of still in our window of time to have him back.”
Stamkos hasn’t played in a game since Feb. 25, when he logged the second-lowest ice time of the season at 12:30, after which he had core muscle surgery. He went the entire training camp without skating a full session.
Cooper said he believes it’s vital that Stamkos play in a seeding game. But, he pointed out, Stamkos has been in this situation before, having played in just one game in the 2016 playoff run — the Game 7 loss to the Penguins in the Eastern Conference final — because of a blood clot.
“I’d love to get him in one (seeding game). It’d be better to get him in two. And it’d be awesome to get him in all three. But we’ll take one at a time, and one is better than none,” Cooper said.
“It’s hard to jump into these games, so if you can get him in one or two beforehand, I think that’ll be a big step for our team, but more importantly, him.”
Lightning set roster at 28 players
The Lightning took 28 players to the bubble in Toronto, three fewer than what the league is allowing.
The roster is basically the same as it was before the shutdown, with the addition of AHL call-ups forwards Alex Volkov and Mathieu Joseph, and goaltender Scott Wedgewood.
Bogosian, one of the nine defensemen on the roster, will get his first shot at the playoffs in his 12-year career.
“I think the pause … has done wonders for the new guys,” Cooper said. “We’re looking for him to have a positive impact on our team.”
The Lightning signed Bogosian on Feb. 23 after his contract was bought out by the Sabres. They initially thought he would be a good fit and add depth to the blue line, but they weren’t sure what was in store beyond that, especially because he played only 27 games in the regular season (19 in Buffalo, eight in Tampa Bay).
Not selected for the roster from training camp were forwards Alex Barre-Boulet, Gemel Smith and Luke Witkowski; goaltender Spencer Martin; and defenseman Cal Foote.
“We don’t expect that we will be needing them,” general manager Julien BriseBois said.
A significant number of injuries (and league approval) would be the only way any of those players would make their way to Toronto, BriseBois said.
BriseBois said that over the past 10 years, no team has needed more than nine defensemen. Only one team has used more than 16 forwards, too, he said. With that, he and the staff felt comfortable keeping the roster at 28.
“Every decision that we’ve been making, we’ve been focusing on making sure that the players that are going to be playing games for us are ready to put their best foot forward come playoff time,” he said.
Alex Killorn-Brayden Point-Nikita Kucherov
Ondrej Palat-Anthony Cirelli-Tyler Johnson
Blake Coleman-Yanni Gourde-Barclay Goodrow
Pat Maroon-Cedric Paquette-Mitchell Stephens
Victor Hedman-Zach Bogosian
Ryan McDonagh-Erik Cernak
Mikhail Sergachev-Kevin Shattenkirk
Braydon Coburn-Jan Rutta
Other players on Toronto roster:
Steven Stamkos (F)
Alexander Volkov (F)
Carter Verhaeghe (F)
Mathieu Joseph (F)
Luke Schenn (D)
Scott Wedgewood (G)