TAMPA — The Lightning have until today to finalize their opening-night roster, but their group is essentially set for Tuesday’s season opener against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
The Lightning will open the season with 22 active players, one shy of the league limit, as rookie forwards Cole Koepke and Gabriel Fortier earned the final spots, both making their first opening-night NHL rosters.
“We like this group that we have here right now,” coach Jon Cooper said after Saturday’s 5-2 preseason-finale win over the Panthers at Amalie Arena. “So when we hit the road, this should be the group.”
As has been the case entering recent seasons, the Lightning had to perform some salary-cap gymnastics to become compliant entering the season.
The Lightning placed defenseman Philippe Myers on waivers, hoping his $3.95 million cap hit over the next two seasons will prevent teams from claiming him by 2 p.m. today. General manager Julien BriseBois said the move was not performance related and the team is high on Myers’ potential.
The Lightning will also reassign Koepke to AHL Syracuse temporarily, and after submitting their initial roster, they plan to recall him. He is waiver exempt, meaning he can be reassigned to the minors without having to clear waivers.
The Lightning also signed forward Pierre-Cedric Labrie, 36, who hasn’t been with the team in nearly two weeks, to a two-way contract that includes an incentive package that will allow the Lightning to accommodate the bonuses for some of their entry-level prospects if they are needed.
The Lightning will also gain a long-term injury exemption for retired defenseman Brent Seabrook ($6.875 million) and a prorated exemption for center Anthony Cirelli’s $4.8 million contract ($25,900 a day) while he is on long-term injured reserve after July shoulder surgery. Cirelli is expected to return in mid-December.
The Lightning did not request a long-term injury exemption for defenseman Zach Bogosian, out until late November after offseason shoulder surgery, but could get prorated relief for his $850,000 contract for this season if they need it later.
All those moves put the Lightning $33 under the $82.5 million cap for this season. By comparison, the Lightning were $712 under the cap last season to open the year and $333 under two seasons ago.
“Every year, we’re trying to make sure that we at least have the option to use as much cap space as possible and put it on the ice and be as competitive as possible in NHL action,” BriseBois said.
Forward Steven Stamkos did not play Saturday (undisclosed issue), and defenseman Mikhail Sergachev (lower-body injury) also rested. Cooper said both should be available for the opener.
Several newcomers, particularly young defensemen such as Myers and Haydn Fleury, appeared more comfortable as the preseason progressed, though the defense restructuring will be a work in progress.
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“We do have a bunch of new guys playing for us right now,” Cooper said. “You want to make sure that they’re feeling comfortable, that veteran guys here, they’re feeling comfortable. Everybody’s different, but our team took some good strides (Saturday).
“We’ve got a ways to go, but like health, confidence in the players making plays, some of our big guys were really making plays, and that’s what you want. So I think everybody starts feeling good about themselves.”
Koepke, a 24-year-old who played his first full pro season in Syracuse last year, always had an inside track to a roster spot. The organization likes his game and believes he can develop into a top-six forward. For now, he’ll likely be a regular on the third or fourth line. Fortier, who played 10 games for the Lightning in the middle of last season, will start out serving as the 13th forward.
“I think I’ve shown a lot of flashes in potential that I can play at this level,” Koepke said.”It’s just a matter of getting everything down and doing it in a consistent manner. … That’s going to be my best chance to stick around and play here.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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