When Steve Yzerman took over the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2010, the organization had one of the weakest prospect pools in the NHL. Since then Yzerman and company have placed a focus on building a strong prospect pool that could support the franchise as cornerstone players were lost due to money, age or trading. While the Lightning may have issues with their first round picks during this time, the franchise has maintained a pool of talented players that were pulled from all sources.
The Lightning have assembled a group of prospects that represent both high-end franchise players and situational players that can fill specific, but desperately needed roles for the team. While the top four prospects will be discussed below, there are numerous players in the Lightning organization who could be contributing to the franchise in the near future. Given that Steve Yzerman has been making moves to shed salary over the last year, the utilization of affordable top prospects will become all the more important as players like Nikita Kucherov and Andrej Palat get their deserved raises.
Starting off the list will be the Lightning’s biggest prospect acquisition of the offseason.
When the Lightning traded Jonathan Drouin, the expectation was that they would receive a truly special player in return. By landing Mikhail Sergachev, they may have found that player worth the deep cost of Drouin.
What Sergachev brings to the Lightning’s prospect pool is something they have lacked since drafting Victor Hedman. He is a defenseman that has the speed, build and hockey IQ to grow into a top-pairing player taking on 20-plus minutes each night. Even if he is unable to reach those lofty expectations, he still should develop into a productive second pairing defenseman for the Lightning.
While expectations are that Sergachev will be on the Lightning’s roster, it is worth tempering expectations for the young blueliner this year. Even if he makes the team out of training camp, he still will go through the normal struggles all young defensemen have. The good news is that there is a clear light at the end of the tunnel with Sergachev.
Sometimes what an organization needs with a high draft pick is someone safe. A player that not only has high-end potential but a prospect that can fill an obvious need in the future. Cal Foote is about as close to a safe pick as the Lightning could have made in this year’s draft. He may not have been the sexy pick, but he was the right pick.
With Foote, the Lightning drafted a classic Yzerman-era player. He is big, smart and carries himself with a maturity above his age. He may not be setting any offensive records in the future, but you can easily see where he fits into the future of the organization. As defensemen like Anton Stralman and Braydon Coburn finish their contracts with the Lightning over the next few years, Foote should be poised to step into their role with the team.
This may even be underselling just how talented a defenseman Foote truly is. If he continues to develop as well as he has over the year prior to the draft, he could be fighting fellow prospects like Sergachev for starting time long before the start of the new decade.
When Anthony Cirelli was drafted in the third round of the 2015 draft, the general consensus was that the pick was simply okay. Since his selection, Cirelli has shown the world just how talented he truly is. In back to back seasons in the OHL he put up close to 60 points, with a fairly ridiculous 31 points this postseason for the Erie Otters.
Now the discussion around Cirelli has changed to include the words ‘roster darkhorse’ and ‘Brayden Point.’ Coming into training camp, Cirelli has the potential to become that next Lightning prospect to take hold of a roster spot for the start of the season. He is a responsible forward who is strong on the forecheck and will chip in to create scoring opportunities around the net. This willingness to work fits perfectly in Jon Cooper’s system, making Cirelli a prototypical Cooper forward.
Even if Cirelli is unable to make the Lightning at the start of this season, expect him to be called up to the big club as the season progresses. By the time he is given a spot on the roster, he may not ever let it go.
It can be easy to overlook just how solid of a player Brett Howden is. Since being selected in the first-round of the 2016 draft, Howden has been growing his skill and scoring abilities. While players like Cirelli have been getting a lot of spotlight in the Lightning’s prospect pool, Howden put up an 81 point season with the WHL’s Moose Jaw Warriors.
Howden features Yzerman’s favorite qualities in a prospect. A high hockey IQ, hard working two-way forward who brings leadership qualities to his tough game. While Howden likely has a few years left of development before he finds a permanent spot on the Lightning’s roster, he looks primed to take over third-line center duties in the coming years. Depending on how the next year of development goes, he could be fighting for a roster spot by the start of the 2018 season.