Lightning expect forward Rudolfs Balcers to push for ice time

With Tampa Bay needing more contributions from its bottom six, its newest acquisition could supplant players, Jon Cooper indicates.
Forward Rudolfs Balcers, left, playing for the Florida Panthers, controls the puck against Anaheim Ducks defenseman Simon Benoit during a game earlier this month in Anaheim.
Forward Rudolfs Balcers, left, playing for the Florida Panthers, controls the puck against Anaheim Ducks defenseman Simon Benoit during a game earlier this month in Anaheim. [ ALEX GALLARDO | AP ]
Published Nov. 13, 2022

TAMPA — Newly acquired forward Rudolfs Balcers won’t play in today’s home game against the Capitals, but the Lightning hope he will push the bottom six forwards for ice time.

He’s been brought in to compete, and maybe remind some of the other forwards that their place in the lineup will have to be earned.

Balcers, claimed off waivers from the Panthers on Saturday, made the cross-state drive that night and participated in this morning skate at Amalie Arena.

Asked whether he would push rookie Cole Koepke, the only waiver-exempt forward on the roster and the odd man out when the team went to 11 forwards, Lightning coach Jon Cooper cautioned against singling him out.

“I would single a lot of guys out,” Cooper said. “He might be one of them. Listen, the general manager is trying to improve the team any way he can when he sees the opportunity. And when something like this happens, the tentacles of a few players have probably gone up. So, I wouldn’t just single him out.”

The Lightning haven’t received much offensive contribution from their bottom six forwards, with the team’s bottom two lines scoring just two even-strength goals all season. Vladislav Namestnikov, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Pat Maroon and Koepke continue to seek their first goals of the season.

Balcers had a 23-point campaign that included 11 goals while averaging 15:02 of ice time — all career highs — a year ago with San Jose. He had two goals and two assists in 14 games with Florida this season. He didn’t play much on special teams for the Panthers but was a penalty kill contributor with the Sharks.

“I’d say, pretty much, I’m a flexible player overall,” Balcers said. “I can play every situation, I’d say. Wherever Coach wants me, he can put me in there and I’ll use my speed. I think my shot’s pretty good. So I’ll just compete and play hard.”

The Panthers, cap-strapped like the Lightning, had to run Balcers through waivers in order to activate top defenseman Aaron Ekblad. Balcers, 25, is making the league minimum $750,000. The Lightning have gained cap space through long-term injury exemptions as Anthony Cirelli and Zach Bogosion recover from offseason shoulder surgery.

“(Balcers) has produced in this league, and I don’t think Florida wanted to put him on waivers,” Cooper said. “We were fortunate to get him.”

Balcers arrived in a new locker room that included a couple of familiar faces. He played with Namestnikov and Nick Paul in Ottawa.

“He’s good,” said Paul, who played with Balcers on the Senators’ AHL team in Belleville. “He can definitely put the puck in the net. He’s fast. He can make plays. He has poise with the puck. He’s a great player, a good pickup for us.”

Foote, Cernak out

Lightning defensemen Cal Foote and Erik Cernak will not play against the Capitals. Neither took part in the morning skate, and Cooper called both players day-to-day.

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Foote was taken out by a blindside hit to the side of the head from Nicolas Aube-Kubel in the second period of Friday’s 5-1 loss in Washington. Cernak was hit on the back of his right leg by a third-period shot. Neither returned to the game.

Aube-Kubel on Saturday received a three-game suspension from the NHL’s department of player safety.

Defenseman Mikhail Sergachev also left the game after being hit with a shot in his right elbow area, but he skated this morning and is expected to play.

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