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For a rookie defenseman, no better mentors than Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh

The Lightning plan to groom Cal Foote by putting the accomplished veterans around him, even if playing time becomes lighter.
Lightning defenseman Cal Foote takes a shot as he moves the puck against the Blackhawks during third-period action of Wednesday's season opener at Amalie Arena.
Lightning defenseman Cal Foote takes a shot as he moves the puck against the Blackhawks during third-period action of Wednesday's season opener at Amalie Arena. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jan. 15

TTAMPA — Following Cal Foote’s first NHL shift Wednesday night, Lightning coach Jon Cooper leaned in to ask his rookie defenseman a question.

“How’d that feel?” Cooper queried early in the 5-1 season- opening win over the Blackhawks at Amalie Arena.

Foote responded, “I feel great,” Cooper said. “And I said, ‘Well, it’s over with now, so now just take your breath and go have a heck of a game.’ "

Foote, 22, the Lightning’s first-round draft pick in 2017, skated for 10:59 in his debut and was on the ice for two of Tampa Bay’s three even-strength goals while pairing with all three of the Lightning’s veteran left-side defensemen, Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh and Mikhail Sergachev.

Foote’s parents, former NHL standout defenseman Adam and mother Jennifer, were among the few family members allowed in the arena to watch, able to hop on a flight from Colorado on short notice.

“It’s just an overall amazing experience,” Cal said. “It was too bad there’s no fans. But it was nice to have my parents there. … There’s definitely a bunch of nerves, but the thing I heard the most was go have fun, enjoy the experience and just play with your instincts.”

Cooper said it spoke well of Foote that he had a quiet game.

“Honestly, when you look back on the (defensive) side and you really don’t notice them, it’s probably a good night for him,” Cooper said. “(Foote) made the simple plays he needed to. He never really got himself in trouble. If you want to bottle up a first game as a defenseman in this league, that’s pretty much how you do it, so good for him, and now it’s past. You’ve made your NHL debut, and now let’s go have a career.”

Foote is part of the Lightning’s future. How much he is part of their present remains to be seen. The team has said he is one of its top seven defensemen. He made the opening-night roster in favor of veteran defenseman Luke Schenn because carrying him for the first game created a lower salary-cap hit, and it allowed the Lightning to move him between the active roster and the new taxi squad after the first game.

Cooper said Schenn, who was a contributor on the Stanley Cup team last season, and 25-year-old defenseman Andreas Borgman, currently on the taxi squad, will be worked into the rotation as well.

Cooper said Schenn, who was a contributor on the Lightning’s Stanley Cup team last season, and 25-year-old defenseman Andreas Borgman, currently on the taxi squad, will be worked into the blue line rotation as well.

Lightning defenseman Cal Foote (52), left, defenseman Ryan McDonagh (27), and center Steven Stamkos (91) work to get in front of the net against the Blackhawks during first-period action on opening night.
Lightning defenseman Cal Foote (52), left, defenseman Ryan McDonagh (27), and center Steven Stamkos (91) work to get in front of the net against the Blackhawks during first-period action on opening night. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

“Guys are going to play their way in, and they’re going to play their way out,” Cooper said. “Part of this whole process is also development, and it’s being able to practice with our group on a daily basis. But are we going to sit here and bury guys on the bench? That is not the plan.”

Whether he’s on the active roster or the taxi squad, Foote will be able to learn from the veteran defensemen around him. Cooper said it’s like three seasons ago, when 19-year-old rookie Sergachev could lean on players such as Hedman and McDonagh to show him the way and help him adjust to the NHL game.

“There’s some growing pains,” Cooper said. “That’s a tough position to play coming into the league, especially in the NHL. So there’s no reason to rush anything. ‘Heddy’ and McDonagh, they’re unbelievable human beings, so giving their time, their knowledge, their wisdom, they’ll gladly do it. So if you’re coming into an organization, it’s a pretty good one to come in with those two guys in the room.”

If Foote still had a lot to learn, he’d be sent back to AHL Syracuse to get ice time. But the Lightning believe it’s best for his development now to be learning in the NHL. And part of having a championship team is having leaders young players can depend on to bring them along.

“They’re good leaders, and they’re taking me under their wing, for sure, and they’re awesome,” Foote said. “Those guys have played a number of years, and they’ve been through a lot. They’ve all won a Stanley Cup, so they know what it takes to win. … It’s just going to be fun for me to learn from them and lean on them.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.