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As Lightning begin training camp practices, opportunities abound

Departures and injuries have opened up roster spots. The competition got underway Thursday.
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper huddles with his team on the ice during training camp Thursday at TGH Ice Plex in Brandon.
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper huddles with his team on the ice during training camp Thursday at TGH Ice Plex in Brandon. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Sep. 23|Updated Sep. 23

BRANDON — When the Lightning held their first practice of training camp Thursday morning at TGH IcePlex, it was their first time back on the ice as a group since they fell two wins short of their goal of winning a third straight Stanley Cup championship.

It marked 88 days since they dropped Game 6 of the final, their reign ended by the Avalanche, who paraded around Amalie Arena with the Cup over their heads.

“It feels like eight (days),” coach Jon Cooper said. “Boy, does it sting when we get that far and don’t win. The great thing is that 88 days later, these players are as hungry as they were the day the season ended, and that’s a good sign for us.”

As the Lightning officially began preparations for what they hope will be another championship run, some familiar faces were missing. Defenseman Ryan McDonagh was traded to Nashville in the offseason, and forward Ondrej Palat and defenseman Jan Rutta departed via free agency. Those players were integral pieces to Tampa Bay’s back-to-back Cup-winning teams.

With center Anthony Cirelli and defenseman Zach Bogosian wearing red non-contact jerseys and unavailable until late November at the earliest after shoulder surgery, the Lightning opened camp with more opening-night roster spots to be won than normal, especially on a defense corps that will be without three players who were part of last year’s lineup.

Lightning defenseman Cal Foote skates during training camp Thursday at TGH IcePlex in Brandon.
Lightning defenseman Cal Foote skates during training camp Thursday at TGH IcePlex in Brandon. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

“Guys get chances,” Cooper said. “And we’ve still got a lot of regulars back there that played a ton of minutes in important games for us, and we’ve got some guys that are now going to have to step into bigger roles. But they have been groomed for this.

“You just don’t jump into the limelight right away. You’ve got to kind of mold your way into it and learn as you go on, and we have guys that have done that. And so we’ve got players ready to take the next step, and also we brought in some veterans here.”

The Lightning signed defenseman Ian Cole, who has championship pedigree after winning back-to-back Cups in Pittsburgh in 2016 and ‘17, and he likely will slot into the third pair. Defensemen Philippe Myers, acquired in the McDonagh trade, and free-agent signee Haydn Fleury are looking to establish themselves as NHL regulars.

So is 2017 first-round draft pick Cal Foote, who is entering his third NHL season and was the pick Thursday to join defenseman Victor Hedman in the top pair, replacing Rutta. Rookie Nick Perbix also is in the mix for a blue-line spot, as are depth pieces Darren Raddysh, Sean Day and Trevor Carrick, general manager Julien BriseBois said.

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Lightning forward Vladislav Namestnikov, left, talks with center Brayden Point, right, during Thursday's practice.
Lightning forward Vladislav Namestnikov, left, talks with center Brayden Point, right, during Thursday's practice. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Cirelli being sidelined opens up a forward spot, and Palat’s absence gives someone a chance to crack the top six. Vladislav Namestnikov, a 2011 Lightning draft pick who was traded in 2018, was brought back in free agency and opened camp as the third-line center. Rookie Cole Koepke, who was with the Lightning during the postseason as a practice/depth player, appears to have the inside track to a roster spot, playing on the third line. But Alex Barre-Boulet, Gabriel Fortier and Simon Ryfors could crash the roster with strong camps.

Opportunities to make an impression will dry up quickly. Preseason games start Wednesday, and by the end of next week, the Lightning will have played four of their six.

“They’ve got to get a feel for myself and our coaching staff and what we expect,” Cooper said. “We’ve got a leadership group and veterans here that there’s a standard set in how we are, so I think that is taking care of itself. It not only is the players getting used our system, but it’s the coaches trying to learn about these players. That’s probably a big part of it as well. So it’s going to take more than one day, and we’ll just see how this plays out.”

BriseBois wants to have to make tough roster choices.

“I’d like someone to force our hand, earn their way onto the team,” BriseBois said. “That’s what we’re looking for. You don’t want to win a spot on our opening-night roster by default. You want to earn it, and we have a number of players who are going to be given opportunities to showcase themselves because based on what they’ve done up until now, they’ve earned the opportunity to get a little more of a chance to showcase themselves.

“And I’m hoping that some of those players grab the bull by the horns and force their way onto the team.”

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

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