With training camp over and the season set to begin tomorrow night at home versus the Washington Capitals for the Tampa Bay Lightning, it was decision time for Guy Boucher and the coaching staff in regards to which players from their AHL affiliate would make the jump to the big club this season.
For much of the offseason, the blue line for the Lightning has been set, with eight NHL defensemen available in Hedman, Brewer, Carle, Salo, Mikkelson, Bergeron, Lee and Aulie.
With Boucher's tendency to dress seven defensemen, carrying eight makes sense in the event of an injury. Mark Barberio and Radko Gudas were both sent back to Syracuse to continue their development, but are available for call-up if needed this year.
The question marks remained at the forward spots. Prior to his injury in the AHL, JT Brown appeared to have an inside track to a "tweener" (2nd/3rd line) wing spot, perhaps alongside captain Vincent Lecavalier.
However, with Brown still recovering from a broken collarbone, the door opened up for other Crunch forwards to earn spots with the Lightning.
Cory Conacher made a strong impression at training camp last year and very nearly made the club seemingly out of nowhere.
Boucher's comments yesterday indicated the only reason the Bolts didn't keep Conacher last season was the grind of a long NHL season.
"He was already good last year in camp but the reality was he'd only played 30-some games a year, college, and to play 80-some games is quite a different story, and he's a smaller player…And so to get him used to playing that many games was what we wanted to do last year, which he's accomplished extremely well."
After leading the AHL in scoring during the regular season, winning the league's MVP award and the championship with the Norfolk Admirals last season, Boucher believes Conacher is ready to contribute at the NHL level, and not in limited, protected minutes on the bottom lines.
Conacher has been skating with captain Vincent Lecavalier and winger Teddy Purcell on the second line and is poised to earn power play minutes as well.
Recently, Conacher has become a trendy prediction pick for the Calder Trophy in this shortened season.
…Such as Cory Conacher in TB, Marcus Foligno in BUF and STL tandem of Vlad Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz. Really interesting rookie race.
— Bob McKenzie (@TSNBobMcKenzie) January 17, 2013
— Joe Yerdon (@JoeYerdonPHT) January 16, 2013
The Lightning also announced they are keeping fan-favorite Pierre-Cedric Labrie with the big club, which may not be as exciting news but may end up being more important for the success of the club this season.
After the trade that sent Steve Downie to the Colorado Avalanche last year, the Bolts were seriously lacking size, grit, and to be blunt, players that were willing to drop the gloves and protect their teammates. They were often pushed around by stronger, more aggressive teams.
Steve Yzerman has addressed that issue by acquiring BJ Crombeen from the St. Louis Blues, and the Bolts will look to be bigger and tougher up front with the addition of Labrie to the line-up as well.
Boucher said this of Labrie:
"…such a character person, brings unbelievable intangibles. [...] We want to get ourselves bigger, we want to be better on the road…we felts he was bringing some of the things we were lacking."
The Lightning were an abysmal 13-22-6 on the road last season.
Hopefully, the additions of Conacher and Labrie will have the Bolts poised to reclaim a playoff spot in the 48 game season set to begin tomorrow night at home.
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