TAMPA — The puck drops on the Lightning preseason schedule tonight, and though the game does not count, it has plenty of meaning.
After five days of practices and two scrimmages, those competing for the few spots at forward begin the process of showing what they can do against an opposing team in order to catch the attention of management and the coaching staff.
Tonight’s preseason game at the Amway Center in Orlando against St. Louis starts a run of four consecutive preseason games that ends Saturday at home. By the end of those four games, the Lightning are expected to make a majority of roster cuts and take about 30 players to Estero for the last week of camp and the final three preseason games.
The first step to get to next week is to show they are ready this week.
“I know the guys are kind of itching for the games to start (because) big-boy hockey is going to start (tonight) and I think you will see guys will start to separate themselves after (tonight),’’ Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
The competition will be close, and the decisions will be difficult to make.
With an abundance of talented prospects in training camp capable of playing in the NHL right now, when final roster decisions are made ahead of the Sept. 30 deadline, there will be a handful of players considered NHL ready who will start in the American Hockey League.
Among those competing for roster spots at forward include a pair of top-10 draft picks, the reigning AHL MVP, two NHL veterans who have been through this before and a highly sought-after former college free agent.
Deciding who stays and who goes will be difficult.
So, what do those in the midst of the roster battle have to do to be one of those chosen to be on the opening-night roster?
“You have to play the way you are supposed to play and maybe not try to do too much to fit a certain style,’’ said J.T. Brown, who appeared in five games with Tampa Bay after signing as a free agent at the end of the 2011-12 season. “You just have to go out there and play the way you know how to play and play your game.’’
It would be easy for those in contention for one of those spots to overthink the situation by trying to be something they are not. There are things the coaching staff wants to see, specifically when it comes to being defensively responsible.
But for the most part, the message from Cooper entering camp has been pretty straightforward.
“Don’t come to this camp or don’t jump into a game and do something that pulls you out of your comfort zone,’’ Cooper said. “We are trying to piece a puzzle together, and we want to see the guys at their best doing their best at what they do best. And when you do that it helps us fill in the blanks.’’
Most of the top candidates have come up through the system and made up the core of the successful two-year run of Tampa Bay’s AHL affiliate, which earned a Calder Cup championship two seasons ago and was the runner-up last year. Those younger players — Tyler Johnson, Brett Connolly, Ondrej Palat, Pierre-Cedric Labrie, Richard Panik and Brown — also have NHL experience of varying degrees.
Having that experience can only help heading into preseason action.
“I thought those (14 NHL games) were huge for me. Just confidence and knowing you can play against those players and have success, that is huge,’’ said Johnson, who scored 37 goals while winning AHL MVP last season and had three goals with Tampa Bay.
“Coming in to camp, I now have a little bit more of an idea on what to expect heading into games.’’
Palat, who led all playoff scorers in the AHL last season with 26 points in 18 games, also has appeared in the NHL, playing 14 games and scoring twice and adding two assists. But the former seventh-round pick knows what is ahead of him during the preseason games.
“Everyone knows there are a lot of prospects and a lot of high draft picks and only three or four spots,’’ Palat said. “So it’s going to be tough. It’s going to be important to show everything in these games.’’