DALLAS - He who plays, stays.
That's the bottom line when it comes to making roster decisions this time of year, as the Lightning brass will do this weekend to get below the maximum number of 23 - Tampa Bay is expected to carry 20 players on the active roster when the season opens Thursday against New Jersey.
And when the Lightning take the ice tonight in their final preseason game against Dallas, the players who suit up likely will be the 20 who start the season, barring injuries. And those 20 will have earned the opportunity based on their performance since camp opened Sept. 13.
It's a system of meritocracy that the team has proven is more than just lip service during the past several seasons. Draft status, contract status, salary cap hit - none of it comes into play when the decision-makers decide who is going to play.
'I said it last year and I said it again this year: You just go to camp, try your best and you know you are going to get a fair chance,' defenseman Doug Janik said. 'That's comforting for a player. Maybe it works out and maybe it doesn't, but at least you know you are going to get an honest look.'
Janik left the Buffalo Sabres organization after five years and signed with Tampa Bay before the 2006-07 season. Though he was on a two-way deal that paid him less money in the minor leagues, he beat out veteran Andy Delmore, who was on a one-way contract that paid him $450,000 no matter where he played. Delmore spent the entire season in the minors. Janik spent the whole year with the Lightning.
That was a major factor in Mathieu Darche signing as a free agent with Tampa Bay and why other players who are on the cusp between the NHL and AHL - such as defensemen Dan Jancevski and Jay Leach - listen intently when the Lightning call.
'We do believe that we have the reputation,' Lightning general manager Jay Feaster said. 'They've seen us send the one-way deals to the minors because they didn't make the hockey team, they see us send the third overall pick or the eighth overall to the minors because they didn't make the hockey team. And as a result, players talk about it, agents talk about it and when a guy says they believe they can play in this league but has never been given the opportunity, they know that if we come looking to sign them they will get that opportunity.'
Even for young players, the meritocracy works. Defenseman Andy Rogers nearly made the team as a 19-year-old in 2005; he was the last cut in camp. Also in 2005, Paul Ranger - who did not make the team out of camp - was called up in early October and has been with the team since.
As it relates to training camp 2007, take 23-year-old Mike Lundin, who arrived at camp just hoping to avoid tripping over himself and not getting star struck in his first professional season after a four-year career at Maine. Yet with one preseason game to go, the fact Lundin is still here speaks volumes.
'They definitely have been giving me a chance to prove myself and see if I can play at this level,' Lundin said. 'I think I've been doing all right, making the simple plays and stuff, but I haven't done anything special to stand out, really.'
But by keeping it simple, Lundin has stood out at a position where mistakes oftentimes can't be overcome.
'As far as the age he is, where he's coming from, the little experience that he does have, he has very quietly put himself in a position where we have to look at him,' Lightning coach John Tortorella said. 'And it's not rushing the puck up the ice, it's not blasting in a 55-foot slap shot; it's about positioning with and without the puck. I just think he has a good sense of the game. ... I think he has just progressed very well there.'
And that's a reason Lundin finds himself in a position he never imagined two weeks ago when he reported for camp.
'I still try not to get in anybody's way, know my role, pick up the pucks, I guess,' Lundin said. 'It was my goal obviously to make the team, but I didn't see myself still here at this point. I don't think too many others did, either. I fully expected to be in Norfolk right now, so it's been a pretty good surprise so far.'
Just another example of meritocracy at play.
Reporter Erik Erlendsson can be reached at (813) 259-7835 or