BRANDON - The time is now. It has to be. The place, Shane Willis hopes, is Tampa Bay. If it's not, well, he will worry about that when the time comes.
Willis never would have imagined his latest NHL camp would be filled with such trepidation, that at age 26 he would be one of seven fighting for three spots at right wing. He had, after all, produced 20 goals and 24 assists his first full season with Carolina in 2000-01, but the ensuing two seasons have been trying: two concussions in eight months, a broken foot and a trade that sent him and Chris Dingman to the Lightning for goaltender Kevin Weekes in March 2002. Then at training camp last year he failed to distinguish himself and was sent to Springfield. Finally settled, he said, he is ready to get on with what was a promising career.
"Last year I wasn't quite content but was sitting on the outside watching too much," Willis said. "I want to come in this year and make them watch me, make them notice I am trying to make things happen."
Coincidentally, that next stride will have to be taken tonight at the scene of his greatest success when the Lightning plays its fourth preseason game against Carolina at the RBC Center in Raleigh, N.C.
"After the trade I went back there one time, and you're really nervous," Willis said, "but I was able to get the jitterbugs out. This time going back I'm able to think about hockey when I step on the ice and I go up there with one thought and that's making this club."
Whether this game or the culmination of a strong camp earns Willis a spot on the Lightning roster, he has demonstrated to coach John Tortorella he wants one badly.
"He has stood out in my mind by trying to make a difference, and that's something he didn't do in last year's camp," Tortorella said. "He's being physical and trying to get involved in the offense. We realize he is doing everything he possibly can to try and make this hockey club."
Part of that is showing a willingness - despite the concussions - to play in what Tortorella calls "the areas," the perilous zones in front of the net and in the corners where contact is frequent and violent. Willis' suitability for only the top two lines demands he extend his play into "the areas."
"Both those concussions are almost two years ago, and I wish people would forget about them," he said. "You get labeled with that, and I don't feel they have any part of my game."
Tortorella agreed. What Willis needs, he said, is to find the illusive confidence that gives scorers positive or negative momentum.
"I think it's a mental thing," Tortorella said. "I think he needs to get into a groove or a streak where the puck is going in for him and he starts feeling better about himself in that aspect. It's been a long time."
After injuring his back and the second concussion at the beginning of the 2001-02 season, Willis struggled on the checking line until being traded to the Lightning. He missed time at Springfield with a broken foot last season before cobbling together a 16-goal, 16-assist effort in 56 games.
"When I came back (from the second concussion) I wasn't able to get back in that groove," Willis said. "But last year I thought I was playing very well with Springfield, kind of was back in that groove. I felt a lot more comfortable."
Willis seizing a roster spot would make things easier for the Lightning because he would have to clear the Oct.3 waiver draft before being reassigned to minor-league Hamilton. One of the final cuts of camp last season, Willis made it through that waiver draft but was playing under a one-way NHL deal worth $616,000. This summer he, like Sheldon Keefe, agreed to a two-way deal that will pay him a guaranteed $125,000. That could make him more attractive to another team.
"That's one thing I try to keep out of my mind right now," Willis said. "My focus is to try and make the Tampa Bay Lightning club. If things don't work out, and the day comes, that's when I start thinking about those things."