BRANDON — Cristoval “Boo” Nieves knew that entering the offseason as an unrestricted free agent wouldn’t be easy, given the challenges the coronavirus pandemic has presented.
Still, what the 26-year-old former Rangers center hoped would be an exciting experience finding a place to play and contributing to a new organization wound up being even more stressful than he expected.
He signed a professional tryout contract with the Lightning last week.
Nieves spent most of the past four seasons shuttling between the NHL and the AHL.
He played 76 games over those seasons with the Rangers, with five goals and 14 assists. He spent more time with the Rangers’ AHL affiliate in Hartford, Conn., getting 24 goals and 55 assists in 147 games over five seasons.
Nieves said there were days in the offseason he felt confident about his opportunities and expected a team to call. Then he’d hear rumors about the uncertainty surrounding the season, and those feelings would disappear.
“Finances were tight, spots are limited, especially with the AHL not being able to run their full season (this year),” Nieves said. “I feel like everything kind of came in waves. We kind of heard something different every single day.”
For players such as Nieves, every day matters, especially in a shortened training camp with only 23 roster spots available. He has little time to make an impression with the Lightning, particularly on a team that returns the core of its Stanley Cup championship squad.
Still, he thinks he can make an impact. And the recent trade of rugged depth center Cedric Paquette to the Senators might have created an opportunity.
“You obviously want to make an impression quick and early, and make a good one, then try to just kind of keep your foot on the gas and just try to make yourself noticeable in any way you can,” Nieves said. “Because, again, there are limited spots, so the things you do right, you have to do really well.”
If Nieves doesn’t land a roster spot with the Lightning, he thinks he’s still in a good place to get a spot with their AHL team in Syracuse.
He believes the physicality and speed he brings is a nice complement to what he has seen from the Lightning the first few days of camp this week.
“I feel like I could be a really good support guy, a good depth guy for these guys, because clearly they needed those guys in the long run (of their Cup run last season),” Nieves said. “I definitely see myself kind of sliding in for one of those guys they lost.”