Lightning Prospects Take Next Step Towards NHL

On May 13, the final Tampa Bay Lightning prospects playing in juniors wrapped up their seasons. Boris Katchouk and Taylor Raddysh of the Soo Greyhounds suffered defeat in the OHL Championship, while Alex Barre-Boulet of the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada was eliminated in the QMJHL Final. For these talented prospects, the losses were a somewhat disappointing end to their long and successful junior careers.

OHL, Taylor Raddysh, Erie Otters, Tampa Bay Lightning
Taylor Raddysh had a long and successful OHL career, setting the record for the most playoff games with 77. (Photo by Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

However, their future with the Lightning organization remains brighter than ever. As they graduate from juniors this year, they will likely be adding their talents to Tampa Bay’s AHL affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, for the 2018-19 season. This next youth movement, occurring just one season after the last youth movement, showcases how deep the Lightning’s prospect pool is, and how the Crunch are primed for another breakout season in 2018-19.

Lightning Reshaping Crunch for the Future

Just one year ago, the Crunch were competing in the 2017 Calder Cup Final against the Grand Rapids Griffins, with a team comprised mostly of AHL veterans and NHL tweeners. After losing to the Griffins in six games, Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman went about reshaping the Crunch’s roster due to a massive influx of young talent from juniors. When it was all said and done, the Crunch had at least 10 rookies starting their first week of the season.

This incredibly young roster struggled to find their footing at first, starting the season 4-10-1 before they made a goaltending change that helped to right the ship. With stable goaltending and a little bit of experience under their belt, the Crunch went on a run that led them to a hard-fought playoff birth and second place in the North Division.

As Erik Condra, the Crunch’s veteran captain told Lindsay Kramer of

This team’s a young team. I like the phrase young and dumb… They don’t know any better. They are just going out and playing and having fun.

This ‘young and dumb’ mentality held true for an overachieving Crunch squad in the playoffs as well, leading them to the second round before they were swept by a more experienced Toronto Marlies club. While this was a nightmarish end to an otherwise dream season in Syracuse, it shouldn’t detract from how impressive the team was this season.

Midseason Call-Ups Defining the Bolt’s Playoff Roster

Another way to look at how good the Crunch were this year, is by measuring the effect they had on their parent club. After Peter Budaj was injured towards the end of December, Crunch goaltender Louis Domingue took over the role of backup behind Andrei Vasilevskiy and has yet to relinquish the position. Standout Crunch rookie, Anthony Cirelli, received an emergency call-up in March to fill in for an injured Nikita Kucherov and proceeded to score a goal and two points in his NHL debut before going on to post 11 points in 18 games.

Lightning center Anthony Cirelli
With his fantastic first game in the NHL, Anthony Cirelli took over a roster spot with the Lightning and refused to let go. (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

The Lightning also brought up AHL veterans Adam Erne and Cory Conacher to stay with the big club for the majority of the season after they impressed in Syracuse early on. While these call-ups hurt the Crunch’s roster heading into their playoffs, they helped contribute to Tampa Bay’s postseason success. Cirelli has played around 12 minutes of hard-nosed hockey each night on the Lightning’s third-line, while Domingue has been Vasilevskiy’s back-up throughout the playoffs.

Where Do the Lightning Take the Crunch Now?

After their unexpected success in the 2017-18 season, it seems likely that the Crunch will only have minor roster adjustments before the 2018-19 season compared to the last offseason. By injecting new high-end scoring talent from junior prospects like Katchouk, Raddysh and Barre-Boulet into the roster, they should be able to replace the talent lost to the NHL without the growing pains suffered this season.

Matthew Peca Tampa Bay Lightning
Veteran AHLer Matthew Peca is likely to be forced out of his role with the Lightning organization after the next wave of young talent hits the Crunch in 2018. (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

With this in mind, the Tampa Bay faithful have to be excited about the future. Even as the Lightning struggle in the Eastern Conference Finals, they still have a loaded roster signed through the 2018-19 season, along with an AHL affiliate that is not only incredibly young but incredibly talented. In many ways, the 2018-19 season could be even better for both teams, especially as this young talent continues to improve and bleed into the NHL roster.