ORLANDO — When the Lightning took the ice for practice Monday morning at Amway Center in Orlando, it had a decidedly different feel.
The team had whittled its training camp roster to 28 players, needing to make just five more cuts. After spending camp on two sheets of ice at TGH Ice Plex in Brandon, the numbers finally were small enough for one rink.
“It’s just different, because a lot of the guys know our system, they know how we play,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “When you have just the numbers alone, there’s a lot of teaching going on. Here, it’s more about getting us back into our mindset of how we manage our game, so it’s good to get it to where we are now.”
Monday marked the first time lines weren’t mixed with prospects and roster hopefuls. Those who remain — with the exception of third goaltender Amir Miftakhov, who eventually will go to the minors — have a shot at making the roster for the Oct. 12 opener against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
But for the most, the practice turned the page from preseason tryouts to season preparation.
“Whenever you get to training camps, obviously the first couple of games, there’s a lot of young guys that the training staff and management want to see,” Lightning forward Alex Killorn said. “It seemed like (Monday), it was more of what the team is going to resemble.
“We did drills with some power play. So it’s more of a realistic practice, whereas before guys were kind of playing with whoever and now it seems like it’s kind of becoming more serious.”
There are still positions to be won and decisions to be made regarding team’s forward lines after the departures of the entire third line — Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow — as well as long-time contributor Tyler Johnson. Newcomers Corey Perry and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare will fill two of those spots.
With three exhibition games left, the Lightning essentially enter Tuesday’s contest in Orlando with four forwards fighting for one or two spots, depending on whether the team decides to dress six or seven defensemen. Cooper said his team probably won’t play its full lineup until the final preseason game on Saturday, so there are still two games remaining for bubble players to make their case.
“For me, the way I look at it, guys are going to create their spots,” Cooper said. “It’s up to them. You can look it down and say, ‘Well this guy’s here and this guy’s here.’ Sure, but guys get outplayed. Guys are going to play themselves in and play themselves out. So that’s why this is obviously a big last week.”
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So far, it’s been a mixed-bag performance from the four — Alex Barre-Boulet, Boris Katchouk, Taylor Raddysh and Simon Ryfors — competing for the available spots.
Ryfors played five seasons of pro hockey in Sweden, so he might be the most polished of the four, though he has to adjust to North America’s smaller rinks. Barre-Boulet has the most NHL experience, having played 15 games last season. The organization loves both Raddysh and Katchouk and the consistency they showed last season at AHL Syracuse.
Whoever emerges from the competition won’t necessarily be the ones who show the top skill set, but those who fill the Lightning’s need for responsible two-way contributors.
“It’s kind of in the back of your mind that you’ve got to show what you’re able to and try to fit in,” Katchouk said. “But other than that, the outside noise can’t stop me from what I’m trying to do, and I’m just being myself and have confidence with it.”
From the outside, Katchouk, who scored a goal last week, would seem to have an edge going into the final stretch of games. He has shown hustle at both ends of the ice and was singled out after Saturday’s game by assistant coach Rob Zettler.
But the competition still appears to be wide open.
“(Katchouk) competes, he gets in the way of people,” Cooper said. “He scored a really nice goal the other night. He’s progressively getting better through camp, and it’s been great to watch his progression the last few years and what he’s done.
“But now you’re up here with the big boys, he’s got to take it to another level, and so we’re hoping to see that here in the next week or so.”
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