It’s been a long five months for Lightning fans, but finally training camp has arrived. Here are two items of interest to me.
The Organizational Train Is Storming Down The Tracks
For the first time in recent memory, there are a number of slots up for grabs, particularly at the forward position. The number of players knocking at the door adds to the intrigue. Some of these forwards spent time with the Lightning last year – players like Tyler Johnson, Richard Panik, Ondrej Palat, P.C. Labrie and Brett Connolly. J.T. Brown played a handful of games with the Lightning at the end of the 2011-2012 season. Then there’s last summer’s number three overall pick Jonathan Drouin as well as any of the other recent draft picks who may make an impression over the next two weeks. Personally, I’m curious to see how 2011 draftees Vlad Namestinokov and Nikita Kucherov perform. Both had excellent performances at the recently completed prospects tournament in Coral Springs.
On defense, there are fewer spots open, but that doesn’t mean that the youngsters can’t make some noise. Mark Barberio and Andrej Sustr each got a few games with the Bolts last year. This camp is also an opportunity for Slater Koekkoek, Nikita Nestrov, Artem Sergeev, Luke Witkowski and others to show what they can do.
I don’t know how it’s going to play out in terms of which of these players will be on the Lightning’s opening night roster. But I do know that those who aren’t on that list are not being banished to the minors (or, in some instances, back to an amateur league), never to be heard from again.
When GM Steve Yzerman took over in the summer of 2010, he described how drafting and developing your own prospects is the best way to accumulate (and restock) talented players. The only problem with that approach is that it can take time. A player drafted at 18 may not be ready for the NHL until he’s 22 or 23. But last year, Lightning fans started to see the benefits of that approach. Those aforementioned young players came up from the minors and fit right in with the big club. Many of the players at this year’s camp won a Calder Cup with Norfolk in 2012. Even more played on the Syracuse club last year that reached the Calder Cup Finals. They’ve not only developed at the AHL level, they’ve experienced a winning culture.
Tampa Bay’s organizational locomotive is steaming down the tracks. We’ve heard the whistle blowing the last couple of years. This year, it’ll arrive in force, blowing past the “Welcome To The NHL” depot. And from all indications, the train is a very long one. So from a wider perspective, the question of which players begin the year with the Lightning really isn’t a be-all, end-all one. Those guys just happen to be in the first few cars of the train.
D-Zone, D-Zone And More D-Zone
After the first on-ice day of training camp, head coach Jon Cooper was asked how much time he’d be spending on defensive zone work before the regular season officially began. His answer: “A majority.”
The Lightning have struggled with their team GAA over the past two years and this is an area Cooper knows must be better. But the Lightning’s defensive zone woes aren’t exclusively related to actual “defending” (although that’s part of it). Many of Tampa Bay’s d-zone problems stemmed from when the Bolts had the puck and failed to execute a clean breakout.
These failed breakouts are the gifts to the opposition that keep on giving. Or, depending on your perspective, keep on taking. First, a team that gives away the puck in or close to its own zone is immediately under pressure. Second, it prevents that team from going on the attack. Third, it lengthens the shift for those five players on the ice, so if they do retrieve the puck, their best play is to simply chip the puck out and go to the bench for a change. Four, in such instances, the fresh players are coming on the ice without the puck and often begin their shift under siege from another opposition attack wave. The other club gains momentum from that sustained pressure and, even if it doesn’t score, it’s controlling flow of play.
Cooper knows the Lightning must have the puck more and executing cleaner breakouts will help in this regard immensely. That’s why taking care of the defensive zone will be a major point of emphasis during training camp. I’m excited to see the Lightning be better in this phrase of the game this season.
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