With a successful 5-2 preseason now over and the regular season opener looming Thursday night in Boston, the Tampa Bay Lightning have less than 48 hours to decide who cracks their final roster and who’s sent back to the AHL. From the looks of things, it won’t be an easy decision either because many bubble players impressed the coaches throughout these past two weeks of training camp.
Brett Connolly got an early jump on the competition, scoring two scrimmage goals. He didn’t stop there though, notching three goals and adding a plus-4 rating in four of the Bolts’ seven preseason games. That’s quite an improvement from two seasons ago, where his 15 points and minus-9 rating had many wondering if he could survive the NHL‘s fast paced environment.
Another trio that stood out, especially recently, would be Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Richard Panik. Each of them put up three points, and Palat came up with a game winner earlier in the week. They also aren’t afraid to play hard-nosed hockey. Just ask Florida Panthers defenseman Erik Gudbranson, who unfortunately fell victim to Panik’s clean check during the team’s last matchup before beginning the regular season.
Then there’s Nikita Kucherov, J.T. Brown, Pierre-Cedric Labrie, Dana Tyrell and 2013 third overall draft pick, Jonathan Drouin. All of them played well, though Kucherov and Tyrell’s limited production, combined with minus ratings, could land both back in the AHL once everything’s said and done. So that leaves one spot for either Brown or Labrie, as Drouin is eligible to play nine regular season games before a decision must be made. Judging by statistics, Brown should get the last spot. But Labrie’s gritty style of play and willingness to battle for teammates could give him the edge, especially considering B.J. Crombeen‘s inability to win fights.
Defensively, there’s Radko Gudas, Mark Barberio, Andrej Sustr, Matt Taormina and JP Cote fighting for only two available spots. Most people expect Gudas to be in there, given his ability to land thundering hits on opponents. Taking that into account, there’s now four players battling for the final spot. Sustr’s minus-1 rating likely means he’ll spend a year in the minors–not too horrible since he just signed out of college less than six months ago. Among the others, Cote’s plus-1 rating was best, but he left Saturday night’s preseason finale early. If he’s injured, the choice could come down to Barberio or Taormina. Taormina’s defense is more polished, while Barberio has some offensive upside and isn’t totally horrible on the back end.
No matter how you look at it, Lightning GM Steve Yzerman, head coach Jon Cooper and the assistant coaches have more than a few difficult decisions looming. Ones that could easily play a huge role in the Lightning’s success (or failure) during the upcoming 2013-14′ season.