ESTERO — The race for spots on the Tampa Bay Lightning roster enters the final stage starting Thursday night.
Tampa Bay has two preseason games remaining and decision-day looms for team management and the coaching staff to determine the 23 players that will make up the opening-night roster in Boston on Oct. 3. For players on the bubble, the last chance to make a final impression starts now.
“Most of us have had a pretty good training camp,’’ said right wing Brett Connolly, who will play center Thursday night against Florida at Germain Arena and has three goals in three preseason games. “Decisions have to be made and you just want to put your best foot forward and that’s what I’m trying to do.’’
Heading into the preseason, the seven or so players jockeying for roster spots figured to separate themselves. That has not really happened, which is not necessarily a bad situation.
“All the guys competing for jobs have played pretty well, and as far as separation — marginally maybe ... in a good way,’’ Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said. “I think they’ve all played pretty well and we have been generally please with all the young guys fighting for a spot.’’
Final rosters are due to the league by 3 p.m. Monday, but Yzerman said their decision will likely be made by Sunday morning. And though it would seem to be an agonizing situation for the decision makers, it might not be.
A majority of those in contention for one of the available forward spots do not require waivers to be sent down to the American Hockey League, including Tyler Johnson, Richard Panik, Ondrej Palat, J.T. Brown and Connolly.
Jonathan Drouin, the third overall pick in the 2013 draft, does not require waivers, but is eligible to play with only the Lightning or his junior team in Halifax, though Tampa Bay has nine regular season games to make that decision. But once he is sent to junior, he must remain there for the rest of the season.
Only Dana Tyrell and Tom Pyatt would need to go through waivers among the group vying for one of the open roster spots.
“The good thing is with a lot of them in worst-case scenario ... if we have to send them to Syracuse to start (the season) they’re only a phone call away,’’ Yzerman said. “So, it doesn’t make it that difficult.’’
With that in mind, head coach Jon Cooper said the lineup for the preseason finale on Saturday at Florida will be a balancing act between the opening-night lineup and giving one last shot to those on the bubble.
“After (Thursday’s) game things will start becoming a little more clear in what we are going to do because partially Saturday’s game we have to start putting in some guys we think are going to be in opening night,’’ Cooper said.
Thursday’s lineup vs. Florida
Forward line: Drouin-Connolly-Marty St. Louis; Ryan Malone-Pyatt-Nikita Kucherov; Palat-Johnson-Panik; Pierre-Cedric Labrie-Nate Thompson-B.J. Crombeen
Defense: Eric Brewer-Mark Barberio; Keith Aulie-Dmitry Korobov; J.P. Cote; Matt Taormina
Goaltenders: Ben Bishop, Kristers Gudlevskis