Lightning’s Alnefelt Developing Smoothly with Crunch

When you talk about the Tampa Bay Lightning’s recent goaltending situation, the conversation starts and stops with Andrei Vasilevskiy. He is widely considered to be one of the best goaltenders in the world, after all, who can take on 50-plus starts each season when healthy and is still under thirty years old. Due to this, there really isn’t much of a concern about depth. Sure, you need a consistent backup to prevent overworking Vasilevskiy, but in recent years Tampa Bay has done a good job keeping a veteran around who can play well enough when called upon.

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However, in their minor league systems, depth has become an issue for the Lightning. Despite investing a draft pick almost every year in a goalie, the team just hasn’t been able to develop a consistent starter for their American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch. This has created a carousel of starters for the Crunch in recent years, with multiple new names coming and going each offseason.

Lightning Invest in Alnefelt at the 2019 Draft

At the 2019 Draft, the Lightning once again invested a high-value third-round pick in goaltending. This time they selected Swedish goaltender Hugo Alnefelt, who was considered one of the best goalies available that year. While playing in the Swedish Junior Leagues, Alnefelt put together respectable numbers against players that were older and more developed than he was. However, it was his play at the World Junior Championship that really increased his stock. In the 2018 tournament, he put together a 4-1-0 record with an impressive .921 save percentage (SV%).

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With this selection, the Lightning added exactly what they needed to their prospect pool. Since they already had their starter locked down, they had nothing but time to allow Alnefelt to develop his game over the course of years. If everything went right, then he could finish out another season or two in his home country before making the leap to the Crunch.

Hugo Alnefelt Tampa Bay Lightning
As a third-round pick by the Tampa Bay Lightning at the 2019 NHL Draft, many believed that Hugo Alnefelt would be part of the team’s future in net. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Things did not go well, though, as the 2020 Pandemic changed the development path for many young hockey players. Alnefelt is another example of a prospect who lost valuable time on the ice during some of his most formative years, even if he was still able to play hockey against men in the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) while many of his peers in North America lost entire seasons.

Alnefelt Struggled in his Transition to North American Hockey

By the start of the 2021-22 NHL season, the world was opening up once again, and Alnefelt took the opportunity to join the Crunch. Given his draft status, many expected him to take over their net immediately, but the Lightning also brought over 2020 draft pick Amir Miftakov to compete for the role of starter.

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Things started shaky for Alnefelt with Syracuse. Many nights he looked off in his net, letting in uncharacteristic goals while appearing to struggle in his transition to North American hockey. Miftakov, on the other hand, played well and earned more ice time as a result. By December, it appeared that he might be the better player of the two and have a brighter future with the franchise.

As the season progressed, things started to change. Miftakov regressed from his strong start, whereas Alnefelt leveled off. He still wasn’t playing exceptional hockey, but he was starting to find his some consistency in his game. However, neither player managed to secure the net, as journeyman Maxime Legace became the defacto starter, taking on 36 games while the other prospects split the remaining time with roughly 22 starts each.

Related: The NHL Blueprint for Goaltending Success in 2022-23

Following the 2022 postseason, where Alnefelt saw playing time in just one game, Miftakov decided to depart the franchise to return home to Russia, leaving Legace and Alnefelt to share the net in 2022-23.

Crunch are Seeing Alnefelt’s Potential

As the 2022-23 season kicked off, we are seeing a reversal in net for the Crunch. While the two goaltenders have split playing time roughly 50/50 so far, Alnefelt has been the far superior of the two, posting a 2.63 GAA along with a .911 SV%. While these numbers aren’t exceptional, they are a meaningful improvement year-over-year.

If this continues, Alnefelt could grab the full-time starting role for the Crunch by the end of this season, which would allow him to show what he’s made of should the team qualify for the postseason. If things go really well, he could potentially replace Brian Elliott on the Lightning’s roster for the 2023-24 season, as the veteran backup’s contract expires this offseason.

Brian Elliott Tampa Bay Lightning
As a serviceable backup, Brian Elliott’s solid play during the 2022-23 season may allow the Lightning more time to develop a young goaltender like Alnefelt. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

When it comes down to his development, this would not be the right choice. Alnefelt is still just 21 years old, and he will likely need at least one or two full seasons as the starter in Syracuse before he will be ready to take on a backup role in Tampa Bay.

With Time, Lightning Will Have a Winner With Alnefelt

This is fine, though, as the Lightning have no need to rush him to the NHL. With Vasilevekiy as their starter, they can find a low-cost veteran to take on the backup role, or they can re-sign Elliott for one more season, as he has played well so far in 2022-23.

What this means is that Tampa Bay needs to stay patient with their top goaltending prospect. While it would have been easy to write him off as a lost cause after his first season in North America, Alnefelt is showing that he still has a lot to prove with the organization. And while it feels like he’s been around for a long time, he is still in the early years of his development, as goaltenders rarely make it to the NHL in any capacity before age 23.

Related: Lightning Who Missed the Stanley Cup: J.T. Miller

So, there are reasons to be excited about Alnefelt’s future with the Lightning and the Crunch. He is starting to show some confidence in his game and is flashing the talent that made him one of the top goaltending prospects at the 2019 Draft. If this development continues, Tampa Bay will be in an incredible spot in the net, as they will have a sure-fire starter in both the NHL and the AHL for the next few seasons.