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Beginning of training camp marks end of busy week for Lightning

Photo Courtesy Wayne Masut | Senior Staff Photographer

Based on the whirlwind of activity surrounding the Tampa Bay Lightning this week, training camp came at a good time.

On Tuesday, the team announced that Steve Yzerman was stepping down as general manager in order to take an advisory role for the last year of his contract. The Lightning promptly promoted his assistant GM, Julien BriseBois, to take over as the new general manager. Based on BriseBois’s track record, the transition should be about as smooth as it gets. Since joining the team in 2010-11, he served as the GM of their AHL affiliates in both Norfolk and Syracuse. However, the Yzerman news wouldn’t be the first surprise for the Lightning going into training camp.

On Thursday, as players reported for camp for fitness testing and media day, an unexpected absence turned out to be the news of the day.

That absence? The news that the Lightning placed defenseman Jake Dotchin on unconditional waivers.

The last situation involving an NHL player over a material breach of contract occurred in 2015. During that instance, the Los Angeles Kings terminated the deal of former center Mike Richards, citing a “material breach of the requirements of his contract.” Richards was charged with illegal possession of a controlled substance while traveling from the U.S. to Canada, leading to his contract termination. Both parties eventually came to a settlement.

Although the words “material breach” were used in relation to both Richards and Dotchin, the reasons for the termination of their deals are vastly different. Reportedly, the Lightning were very unhappy with his conditioning level heading into training camp.

Dotchin cleared waivers and there are reports that his agent and the NHLPA plan to appeal the termination of his deal. During training camp a year ago, the Lightning suspended him for an unspecified violation of a team rule. He found himself a frequent healthy scratch in 2017-18, suiting up for only 48 regular season games and zero playoff contests.

With Dotchin gone, the spotlight shifts to young defenseman both already on the team and those looking to make an impression.

Over the course of the first couple of days of camp, Mikhail Sergachev has looked even more comfortable than he did a year ago at this time. Heading into his second season at the age of 20, Sergachev appears primed for a breakout season. During Saturday’s scrimmage, he looked poised and confident with the puck. Distributing it to his teammates and taking quality shots on net, he was a force. A year ago, Sergachev got off to an incredible start. However, he hit a midseason lull typical of young players adjusting to the NHL grind for the first time. The trade deadline acquisition of Ryan McDonagh allowed him to drop down to the third pairing, where he rediscovered his game in the playoffs.

With three Lightning defenseman becoming UFA’s next summer, it’s natural to take a look at the prospect pipeline and see which blue-liners could either make the club next year or earn a call-up this season. Cal Foote, the Bolts’ 2017 first round pick, could use a full year in Syracuse to adjust to the speed of pro hockey. While he has the pedigree, size, and ability, he has yet to truly stand out so far in camp.

On the other hand, Erik Cernak could be a guy that earns a call-up in case of injury. During Saturday’s scrimmage, the 21-year-old right-handed blue-liner just looked confident. While never known as an offensive-minded defenseman, he displayed some flair in the offensive zone and showed the look of a player who could one day be a two-way force in the NHL.

A year ago, the Lightning came into camp with a chip on their shoulder.

Coming off a year in which they missed the playoffs, the Bolts sought to establish a fast, competitive pace during camp. That atmosphere propelled them to a fast start and the top spot in the Eastern Conference. Despite falling to Washington in Game 7 of last season’s Eastern Conference Final, the Lightning’s pace to this camp has been equally fast and competitive as last year. There certainly hasn’t been a lack of hunger from this team so far in camp, and a fast start will be paramount in what should be a dogfight among the team’s in the upper half of the Atlantic Division.

“It’s definitely competitive, a lot of speed out there, a lot of skill. Guys are working hard, its been a good couple of days,” said Lightning center Brayden Point. “It’s been a pretty tough camp so far, lots of skating, just trying to get as close to game shape as possible. Focusing on a little bit of system stuff, but I think right now it’s just about putting in the work.”

While the Lightning endured few personnel changes, the coaching staff experienced some transition.

Former assistants Rick Bowness and Brad Lauer were not brought back after last season. In their place, head coach Jon Cooper brought in former Syracuse Crunch assistant Jeff Halpern and Derek Lalonde, the former head coach of the Minnesota Wild’s AHL affiliate, the Iowa Wild. During his tenure in Iowa, Lalonde led the Wild to the first winning season in their brief history. Lalonde stated that the transition to his role on the Lightning’s staff has been smooth while mentioning how inclusive the group is. While it’s unclear what his exact role will be so far, Lalonde appeared excited at the chance to contribute to what has become a winning culture in Tampa Bay.

“We spent a full week and change just talking systems. Hearing from Coop and Todd (Richards), it was a lot different having input, and Coop wanted that input,” said Lalonde. “So we spent a lot of time talking structure, systems, habits, and beliefs. Just interesting coming into an already established culture, just to talk of getting that extra five percent. Its been eye-opening, but its been very good so far. Its been an all-inclusive approach.”

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