BRANDON — The Lightning team that took the ice for practice Tuesday morning at TGH IcePlex looked very much like the one that could make up the team’s opening-night roster when the regular season begins a week from now in New York against the Rangers.
The camp roster was down to 26 players Tuesday after the Lightning sent forwards Alex Barre-Boulet, Gemel Smith and defenseman Sean Day to AHL Syracuse. Barre-Boulet and Smith cleared waivers earlier Tuesday before being reassigned.
The players still battling for the remaining roster spots — forwards Cole Koepke and Gabriel Fortier and defenseman Nick Perbix — are waiver-exempt, meaning they can be sent to Syracuse without the risk of being lost.
By exposing Barre-Boulet and Smith to waivers, the Lightning risked losing them and depleting their NHL-ready forward depth. Expansion Seattle claimed Barre-Boulet last season, but Tampa Bay re-acquired him through waivers later in the year.
Tuesday’s moves provide the Lightning with additional flexibility as they hone in on their opening-night roster.
Injured forward Anthony Cirelli and defenseman Zach Bogosian, both recovering from shoulder surgery, will open the season on long-term injured reserve. That will provide some added cap space, potentially allowing the Lightning to keep Koepke, Fortier and Perbix on the 23-man roster to open the season.
Forward Pierre-Cedric Labrie, who is on an AHL contract, remains on the camp roster for now but hasn’t been around the team since it returned from Nashville on Saturday and is not expected to make the opening-night roster.
Both Barre-Boulet and Smith had their moments during the preseason. Though Smith showed a heavier game that could fill a bottom-six role that the Lightning need, coach Jon Cooper said the compete level of the players vying for the final roster spots will be the most important factor.
“You better have a huge high compete level, and that’s the No. 1 thing,” Cooper said. “I don’t care what size you are. You don’t have that, you’re not willing to go through a wall for the player next to you, then that’ll be hard for you to stay here. We’ll sniff that out right away.
“So, that’s paramount for us. And then we can fix all the other stuff that needs to be done. There’s going to be a fit for us, where we want to put guys, but if you’re not going to compete, you won’t get that spot.”
Other than players getting their timing back, the Lightning will tinker with their lines and pairings in the final two preseason games. This week in practice, they’ve experimented with moving Brayden Point to the second-line center spot between Alex Killorn and Brandon Hagel, and skating Vladislav Namestnikov on the first line centered by Steven Stamkos, with Nikita Kucherov on the wing.
The Lightning play at Florida Thursday and host the Panthers Saturday to round out their preseason schedule before opening the season Tuesday at Madison Square Garden.
Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene
Subscribe to our free Sports Today newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
“We haven’t gotten a ton of reps, but with these next few games we’re going to be more than ready to to play in New York,” Killorn said. “We got a lot of good work in, three, four days of practice, and hard practices. It was great. ... You get your legs and play a little more physical. We’re not trying to hurt anyone, but just the battles and stuff like that. I think this week has been our best week of training camp, for sure.”
Koepke has remained on the the regular lines in practice, skating Tuesday on a wing with Ross Colton and Nick Paul.
“Cole, he’s got the size,” Cooper said. “He’s got the strength, he can shoot the puck, he can skate. Now it’s whether he can throw it all together. And so so far he has. He’s got to make sure there’s some consistency to his game.
“I really liked his first exhibition game. I thought he showed some great signs. Second one, he didn’t show as much. But I’m sure he’ll get in at least one of these next ones here and he’ll be playing against the big boys and with the big boys, and so let’s see where you fit in there.”
• • •
Sign up for Lightning Strikes, a weekly newsletter from Bolts beat writer Eduardo A. Encina that brings you closer to the ice.