TAMPA — On an opening-night roster full of battle-tested veterans who drank from the Stanley Cup less than four months ago, there’s not much space for young blood.
But 22-year-old defenseman Cal Foote broke through by earning one of the team’s final roster spots. He will make his NHL debut Wednesday night when Tampa Bay opens the season against the Chicago Blackhawks at Amalie Arena.
Some salary-cap nuances also led to Foote opening the season on the active roster rather than the taxi squad. But the Lightning brass insists that the team’s first-round pick in 2017 earned his place, that he’s among the team’s top seven defensemen.
“It’s been a great couple of days,” Foote said Tuesday. “Finding out that I’ll be playing the first game has been very exciting. It’s something I’ve dreamed of my whole life, so I’m very excited and I’ll be ready to go.”
Lightning coach Jon Cooper said the most important things for a rookie making his NHL debut is to stay calm and maintain his emotions. Foote was paired with veterans Ryan McDonagh and Victor Hedman during training camp, and he likely will partner with McDonagh, who is entering his 11th NHL season.
“You tell him go have fun,” McDonagh said. “Most importantly, enjoy the moment. And you’ve got to find a way to just let your instincts and your strengths take over. Don’t try to do too much. For him, he’s just got to keep it real simple and keep the game in front of him and allow himself to get more confidence each and every shift.”
Foote’s confidence grew during the Lightning’s summer camp before the restart. Because training camp was shorter than normal entering this season, that momentum carried over.
“(Training camp) was way faster and about half the time with no games, so you have to be ready to go right from the get-go,” the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Foote said “It was a really small camp back in July, so it was nice to get to know the guys better, to know the staff better and just feel more comfortable this time around.”
Foote, the son of retired 19-year NHL veteran Adam Foote, pictured playing his first game in front of his family. But that won’t happen, because fans won’t be allowed Wednesday night (only three teams are allowing fans to open the season).
Still, Foote said he will get some pregame guidance from his father.
“He always has given me advice ever since I was a little kid and he was coaching me,” Foote said. “So I know I’ll probably talk to him (Tuesday night) one last time, and he’ll give me some tips.”
The Lightning did not formally announce their opening-night roster on Tuesday, because the league will reveal the rosters of all 31 teams on Wednesday. In addition to Foote, forward Boo Nieves — who signed a one-year, two-way contract with the team — will likely start the season on the roster.
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The team did announce its four-man taxi squad, which will consist of forwards Tyler Johnson and Gemel Smith, defenseman Luke Schenn and goaltender Christopher Gibson.
Johnson and Schenn, who were placed on waivers Monday to give the club salary-cap maneuverability (and cleared Tuesday), aren’t eligible to play in the opener but can join the active roster on Thursday.
With defensemen Andreas Borgman and Ben Thomas — who both cleared waivers — back on the ice with the team Tuesday, the Lightning’s current active roster stands at a full 23 players.
Note: The NHL announced Tuesday that 27 players (of the 1,200 tested) on nine teams tested positive during training camp, including 17 Dallas Stars. The league said most of the Dallas players were asymptomatic, and all are recovering without complication. The Lightning’s game against the Stars on Sunday has been postponed, and their game slated for Tuesday is in limbo.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieInTheYard.
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