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Finding perfect fit no easy task
With eight defensemen competing for seven spots, coach John Tortorella is challenged to achieve the right blend of talent.
By DAMIAN CRISTODERO
Published September 23, 2006
DETROIT - In a sense, Lightning coach John Tortorella is trying to push a square peg into a round hole.
Consider that with just four preseason games remaining, Tampa Bay has eight defensemen fighting to claim seven positions.
Four players are in their first year with the organization, meaning the coaching staff not only is evaluating talent but teaching its system from scratch to 50 percent of the group while hoping some kind of cohesion develops in the process.
"I'm just not sure where it all stands," Tortorella said before Friday night's game with the Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena. "There is so much different blood in there."
Back from last season are Dan Boyle, Nolan Pratt, Paul Ranger and Cory Sarich.
Trying to find a niche are Andy Delmore, Filip Kuba, Doug Janik and Luke Richardson.
All have a lot on their plate as they try to build a rapport and determine who plays best with whom. That can be especially difficult for new arrivals.
The Lightning plays an unconventional and aggressive system in which defensemen are expected to move the puck quickly up ice, then join the rush.
"You can tell them and you can show them but it does take a while," said associate coach Craig Ramsay, who runs the defense.
"Defensemen are really under the gun, so you are going to see some mistakes and see some miscommunication. This is where John and I have to have a lot of one-on-one meetings and two-on-one meetings and really get them to speak to each other."
Richardson knows the drill, having played under Ramsay in 2000, when he coached the Flyers.
"He's usually right there when you come off the ice, and that's the best time to learn," Richardson said. "And you've got to be able to take criticism in a positive way. That's what it's all about. It's all about making your team better."
The Lightning believes this group, overall, is better than last season's that included Pavel Kubina and Darryl Sydor.
Kubina signed with Toronto as a free agent. Sydor was traded to Dallas in a cost-cutting move.
The conventional wisdom says Kuba and Richardson are a wash. Truth is, they are more mobile. And Kuba, while not the offensive threat of Kubina, is more settled defensively.
Delmore and Janik also can skate, and Tortorella said one of the pluses from the back line during Wednesday's game with the Capitals was "just our ability to get the puck up the ice and skate the puck up the ice. That really helped our power-play breakout."
The question is, how will the jostling for positions play out?
Boyle, Kuba, Pratt, Ranger, Richardson and Sarich are safe.
The last spot seems up for grabs between Delmore, 29, a veteran of 283 NHL games, and Janik, 26, who has 10.
Janik is probably more responsible defensively. But Delmore is a beast on the power play, something Tampa Bay struggled with last season. He scored 25 power-play goals from 2001-03 with the Predators.
How to decide? Perhaps the Lightning doesn't need to.
With spots open on the third and fourth lines, Delmore could move to forward.
That would keep his offensive abilities in the lineup and Janik's mobility on the roster.
But that is just speculation.
One thing is for sure: "All our people came in ready to play," Ramsay said. "They want to learn. They're paying attention. They want to know where they fit."
(subject to change)
SUNDAY: Pregame skate, 10 a.m.
MONDAY: Practice, 11 a.m.
TUESDAY: Practice, 11 a.m.
WEDNESDAY: Off, camp moves to St. Pete Times Forum, Tampa.