TAMPA — The Lightning were back on the ice in Tampa for the first time in a week Sunday after relocating their training camp to Nashville ahead of Hurricane Ian.
Their late-morning practice at Amalie Arena marked a return to normalcy after they made late-minute preparations to their homes, fearing the worst and flying north with their families and pets accompanying them to resume preparation for the season.
“We were very fortunate to get out,” defenseman Victor Hedman said. “I think us here in Tampa, we dodged a bullet. I’m thinking about the people down south and everyone affected by the storm. We were safe up there in Nashville. … Just very grateful to be back and I haven’t been so happy in my life, I think, to see my house and get home.”
Many last-minute adjustments had to be made over the past week, and the Predators were gracious hosts in providing the Lightning ice time in Nashville. The team stayed at the colossal Gaylord Opryland Resort, which has numerous restaurants and a waterpark onsite, helping the families adjust to an unfamiliar place.
“I wouldn’t have left without (family and pets); that was the bottom line,” Hedman said. “I think for every single one of us, it was to bring everyone. That’s what’s most important in life. The material stuff, I was able to bring a few things that you can’t really replace like the (Stanley Cup) rings and stuff like that. But furniture and stuff like, it’s material. It can easily be replaced. So to get the family out and be together with them during this time was obviously the only important thing.”
They watched from afar as Ian, which was originally projected to hit Tampa Bay, demolished parts of southwest Florida upon landfall as a Category 4 storm.
“We’re all extremely fortunate,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “It’s upsetting to see what’s going on just south of us, what could have happened to us, but what’s actually gone on down there. It’s still in everybody’s minds, but we somehow have to find a way to focus on our jobs.
“We’re in a different situation than everybody else in the league, but this is part of who we are and where we live and the community we’re in and we’re going to do everything we can on the ice to help everybody and off the ice as well.”
Even though two preseason home games were canceled, the Lightning were able to play two games in Nashville against the Predators, picking up an additional game at Bridgestone Arena last Thursday when they were initially slated to play at Amalie. The results on the ice were not what they wanted — three preseason losses by a combined 14-2 score — and the loss of a game hurt players hoping to contend for a roster spot.
“It was different,” Cooper said. “We lost an exhibition game, so that had to shuffle guys around. But in the end, I know the scores didn’t kind of sit great with us, but we did get a lot of what we needed to see out of some players and now it’s time to really focus.”
On Sunday, the Lightning roster was trimmed to 29. Most of the cuts were sent to AHL Syracuse’s camp, which opens Monday, with a few others released to their junior leagues. After camp began with three practice groups and jumbled lines mixing regulars and hopefuls, the regular-season roster is now starting to take shape.
The Lightning have two more preseason games, Thursday in Sunrise and Saturday at home against the Panthers, to decide the last few roster spots. If the blue jersey that forward Cole Koepke was wearing Sunday was any indication, he is in line to earn a roster spot. And the final forward positions could come from the group of Alex Barre-Boulet, Gabriel Fortier and Gemel Smith — all wearing gray jerseys Sunday — depending on how many forwards the team is able to carry given the salary cap. Defenseman Nick Perbix also remains on the roster.
The remaining preseason games are valuable for the veterans to get their timing, speed and physicality back.
“We’re down to one group now and getting closer to the opening-night roster so that definitely elevates camp,” said forward Brayden Point. “... Another good week of practice here, two exhibition game against Florida, who’s a heck of a team, so that’ll be a good test.”
Added Cooper: “We’ve got a couple big games here left and we’ll see how this all plays out. But the guys should start taking advantage of every time they’re on the ice. … Everybody’s getting something different out of it. We as coaches have just got to make sure, is our compete level high? Are guys working and they are. Now it’s about getting our systems in play and making sure everybody’s getting the rust off here.”
• • •
Sign up for Lightning Strikes, a weekly newsletter from Bolts beat writer Eduardo A. Encina that brings you closer to the ice.