Top candidates to fill out Lightning’s roster at forward

Anthony Cirelli’s injury presents an opening night spot. A look at the contenders.
Cole Koepke excelled with the Crunch last season and appears to be the front-runner to fill in while Anthony Cirelli is out.
Cole Koepke excelled with the Crunch last season and appears to be the front-runner to fill in while Anthony Cirelli is out. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Sept. 24, 2022|Updated Sept. 24, 2022

BRANDON — With center Anthony Cirelli sidelined for the first six to eight weeks of the season while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, the Lightning has one forward spot to fill for opening night.

Chances to earn that spot dry up quickly if players don’t make a quick impression. The Lightning’s first preseason game is Tuesday.

Last year, rookies Taylor Raddysh and Boris Katchouk used training camp to earn roster spots. Even if players don’t crack the opening-night roster, they could get a chance later in the season with a strong preseason showing, as Ross Colton did two years ago, earning a midseason callup.

“There are opportunities for some of our younger players, up-and-coming players to earn those spots to start the year, and who knows where that leads them afterwards,” general manager Julien BriseBois said.

Here are five forwards to watch:

Front-runner: Cole Koepke

Cole Koepke
Cole Koepke [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

In many ways, it seems that the opening-spot is Koepke’s to lose. The 2018 sixth-round pick took tremendous strides last season in his first full year in the AHL, and the Lightning’s development people said he was one of the top players at Syracuse by the end of the season.

After a 39-point (20 goals) showing in 69 games with the Crunch, Koepke trained with the Lightning in their postseason. Though he never played in a playoff game, his time with the team was instrumental for him to learn what it takes to prepare for the NHL. He is a quick study; in college, he stepped in as a freshman and contributed on a national championship team at Minnesota Duluth. The 24-year-old scored in the Lightning’s first training camp scrimmage and is standing out on the forecheck, a skill he will need in a bottom-six role.

Blue-collar guy: Gabriel Fortier

Gabriel Fortier
Gabriel Fortier [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

When the Lightning needed to pluck from their organizational depth early last season, they reached for Fortier, who was called up in late November when Mathieu Joseph was sidelined with an injury. Fortier, 22, a second-round pick of the Lightning in 2018, was recalled after producing 11 points in his first 17 games with the Crunch. He played 10 games with the Lightning, averaging 9:17 of ice time a game, and scored his first NHL goal.

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His game isn’t flashy, but the Lightning love his compete level and given his size (5-10) that has to be a big part of his game. He reminds you a little bit of Yanni Gourde in that way, but is still working on his play away from the puck. If he can show he can be responsible on both ends, he could earn a roster spot.

Familiar face: Alex Barre-Boulet

Alex Barre-Boulet
Alex Barre-Boulet [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Barre-Boulet has had time on the Lightning’s roster in each of the past two seasons, but they are still is trying to figure out what kind of player he is at the NHL level. He has proven to be a bona fide scorer in the AHL, leading Syracuse with 63 points in 58 games last season.

The Lightning have given Barre-Boulet a shot to play a top-six role and on the power play, but he has been somewhat snakebitten on his scoring chances. He has a fast, hard shot, but to stick with the Lightning, he has to show he can be consistent in his all-around game.

Newcomer: Grant Mismash

Grant Mismash
Grant Mismash [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Mismash, acquired in the offseason from Nashville in the Ryan McDonagh trade, would have to have an incredible camp to charge past some of the organization’s known commodities. Taken in the second round of the 2017 draft, the 23-year-old is an intriguing player. His numbers don’t wow you — just 12 points in 57 games in his first AHL season last year — but he has the makings of a player who can skate and score.

In the Lightning’s first scrimmage in this camp, he scored by crashing the net on a 2-on-1 breakaway. The Lightning likely will give him a long look in the preseason to gauge his all-around game.

Dark horse: Simon Ryfors

Simon Ryfors
Simon Ryfors [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Ryfors had a strong training camp last season and was one of the best players in last year’s prospect showcase while transitioning to a smaller ice surface after playing professionally in Sweden. Though he didn’t make the team out of camp, he seemed to be on the short list of players who could get a callup in his first AHL season.

But he had a slow start in Syracuse, going through some long scoring droughts. It took time for Ryfors, 25, to adjust to the tempo and physicality of the league. But he finished strong, tallying seven points in his last six games (he had 35 points, including 11 goals, in 72 games with Syracuse in all). Ryfors still needs to show he can handle the NHL game, and his skill set might not fit the bottom-six role needed for the roster spot.

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at Follow @EddieintheYard.

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