The competition to play right wing on the Lightning's second line is wide open, and a healthy Shane Willis wants the job.
By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 24, 2002
BRANDON -- Compared with last season, the biggest difference in Lightning forward Shane Willis is that nothing aches.
Not his head. Not his back. And not his heart.
Eager to move beyond the stigma of two concussions and the shock of his first trade, Willis wants to prove his worth by earning the right wing position on Tampa Bay's second scoring line. His fog appears to be lifting.
"I know last year wasn't the kind of year I can have," said Willis, 25, acquired late last season in a trade with Carolina. "I have a little bit to prove to myself, but I definitely have some things to prove to the coaching staff and management here, show them that it was a good idea to get me in the trade."
It won't be easy.
Nearing the Lightning's third week of training camp, competition is fierce at every position. Coach John Tortorella is trying different wing combinations with center Vinny Lecavalier in an effort to generate goals. Offseason acquisition Ruslan Fedotenko is comfortable on either wing, putting Willis and others in a battle to play the opposite side.
"It's a huge camp for Shane Willis because that position is wide open," Tortorella said. "He needs to show some mental toughness and realize that to be put in situations as a goal scorer, he's going to have to earn it. And I think he's ready for that."
Two years ago, Willis scored 20 goals with Carolina, second only to Tampa Bay's Brad Richards among rookies. But a crushing hit by New Jersey's Scott Stevens in the playoffs sidelined Willis with a concussion. He hasn't been the same since.
Willis began the next season nursing a sore back, and in November sustained his second concussion in eight months on a hit by San Jose's Bryan Marchment.
"You just don't feel like yourself," Willis said of the lingering effects. "You're not thinking like you usually do. It's frustrating because you know there's times when you see things happen and normally your body can react and you're there. But it's that one half-second in the NHL that is going to cost you getting to that puck or scoring that goal."
When he returned, Willis found himself on the Hurricanes' third line, struggling in a checking role to which the gifted scorer was unaccustomed. In March, Carolina traded Willis and wing Chris Dingman to Tampa Bay for reserve goaltender Kevin Weekes.
Willis, who developed several close friendships with his Carolina teammates, was crushed. Acquired to jump-start the Lightning's second line and Lecavalier, Willis played in a funk, adjusting poorly to his new teammates, team and city.
"It's never easy when you get traded as a young guy and have to adapt to new surroundings," captain Dave Andreychuk said. "But that's the nature of the business and he's learned it's time to move on, that you have a career with somebody else. I think he's ready to prove to himself that he's a top-line player."
Willis finished the season with 11 goals and 13 assists, including seven points in 21 games with the Lightning. Tampa Bay expects him to be a 20-goal scorer this season.
"Whenever you come into a new situation you feel pressure to blend in with the other guys and try and prove something to the fans and media, which just builds the pressure on yourself," said Willis, a 6-foot, 193-pound native of Edmonton. "Hopefully, this year I've gotten all that out of my system. I've trained hard this summer and I definitely want a shot to play with Vinny again this year."
Willis said he is completely recovered from the concussions. He played well in the final two weeks last season, an encouraging sign to Lightning coaches who are looking for consistent offensive production. If Willis can pick up where he left off, the coveted second-line job could be his to keep.
"At the end of last year he started coming on," Tortorella said. "He's a great kid, but it's a big, big camp for him with the Tampa Bay Lightning and his career."