As the Tampa Bay Lightning continue to lock down star players to big contracts, they have come to rely on younger prospects to fill in the roster gaps. These prospects weren’t gifted their spots in the line-up by any means, but the Lightning are more than happy to see them make the step to play in the NHL.
The 2018-19 season saw three high-end prospects take over a full-time starting role with the Lightning. This included defenseman Erik Cernak along with forwards Anthony Cirelli and Mathieu Joseph.
While you can argue that these three players are still prospects, their starting role with the franchise moves them out of that category for the sake of this list.
Instead, we will look at the Lightning’s depth chart to see who are the top-four prospects with the franchise.
Heading into the 2019-20 season, the Lightning’s top prospect is far and away Cal Foote. This isn’t a slight to any other players, either. This is a compliment to Foote and a showcase of what he means to the franchise.
As the 14th-overall pick at the 2017 Draft, there were high expectations placed upon Foote from the moment he joined the Lightning. He seemed to have everything that the Tampa Bay wanted: size, a high hockey IQ and he filled an organizational need as a right-shooting defenseman.
After finishing a successful WHL career, Foote joined the Syracuse Crunch at the end of the 2017-18 season, before starting in 76 games throughout 2018-19. While his statistics may not have been eye-popping, he played a smart, solid game that should translate well to the NHL level.
Heading into the 2019-20 season, Foote will likely compete for a roster spot at training camp, but ultimately start the season with the Crunch. At the first opportunity for a call-up, though, he will be ready to take on the NHL. Once he gets a taste of the NHL, don’t expect him to relinquish his spot on the roster.
When the Lightning signed Alex Barre-Boulet as an undrafted free agent back in 2018, there was hope that he was going to be the next undrafted gem dug up by the franchise. As a highly-skilled yet undersized forward, he fit the bill of an ‘Yzerman-Era’ success story.
Throughout the 2018-19 season, Barre-Boulet lit up the AHL, tying for the league lead with 34 goals while posting 68 points, en route to the Dudley Garett Memorial Trophy as the AHL’s most outstanding rookie.
While Barre-Boulet may not be ready for the NHL yet, he is the type of player that looks destined to take over a spot on the Lightning’s third line. Should he receive a mid-season call-up, he could easily follow in the footsteps of Cirelli and refuse to let go of his spot on the roster.
Sometimes a seemingly small trade can have a meaningful impact on a franchise. When the Lightning traded struggling goaltender Krister Gudlevskis to the New York Islanders back in 2017, the return of Carter Verhaeghe didn’t move the hype needle.
At the time, Verhaeghe had bounced around the AHL and ECHL, failing to establish himself in the league. In his first season with the Crunch, he scored a respectable 17 goals and 48 points in 58 games.
In season two, though, he exploded onto the scene, scoring an AHL leading 34 goals and 82 points. His 2018-19 season established that he was not only ready to play at the AHL level but that he had his sights set on the NHL.
While Verhaeghe looks ready to dominate the AHL in the 2019-20 season, it would not be a surprise to see him force his way into the Lightning’s starting line-up out of training camp. He has the hot hand right now and he could be the next injection of youth that the team needs to keep their line-up fresh to start the season.
Of all the Lightning’s prospects, no player may be a bigger victim of the franchises’ depth than Mitchell Stephens. As Tampa Bay’s first selection at the 2015 Draft, Stephens has been developing nicely for the franchise.
When healthy, he is a solid offensive contributor who plays a bit of a leadership role for the Crunch. Even though he missed most of the 2018-19 season due to a broken foot, he is still widely seen as a player who could make the jump to the NHL sometime in 2019-20.
However, due to the Lightning’s bottom pairing depth and the number of young players fighting for one or two roster spots, Stephens will likely be stuck in Syracuse for at least one more season.
If he played for another franchise, he could easily see time as a third or fourth-liner this season. For now, though, he will have to just continue to showcase why he is, in fact, ready to take on the NHL.
Lightning Prospects Ready to Break Out
While the Lightning may not have a franchise face in their prospect pool, they do feature a number of high-ceiling players who could be playing meaningful minutes in Tampa Bay throughout the 2018-19 season.
Given their current cap crunch, this is exactly what the Lightning need. By having players like these top-four prospects, the team will have some much-needed flexibility. For a franchise already filled with stars, that is everything they can ask for.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.