Sometimes it can be difficult to define when a young player is no longer considered a prospect. This is the current situation for Anthony Cirelli of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who is, by all accounts, still a prospect for the team. However, after an impressive debut with the franchise and extended playing time in the 2018 playoffs, Cirelli has largely cemented himself into a starting role for the upcoming season.
With this in mind, Cirelli isn’tconsidered a prospect for the sake of this ranking. This doesn’t mean that the Lightning are lacking in prospect depth, though. Even without Cirelli, they still have a strong stockpile of young players who will all be looking to make their mark on the franchise in the coming years.
Since drafting Cal Foote with the 14th overall pick in the 2017 draft, he quickly established himself as one of the top prospects for the team. Foote is the type of defensive prospect that has the entire toolbox, including scoring ability and a high hockey IQ that allows him to make the right plays. In the 2017-18 season, he really hit his stride, scoring 19 goals and tallying 70 points with the Kelowna Rockets, while earning a spot with Team Canada in the 2017 WJC.
After this impressive final year playing in the WHL, Foote signed a three-year entry-level deal with the Lightning and immediately joined the Syracuse Crunch to play some meaningful playoff minutes. In seven games he earned a goal and two points, looking impressive despite being so new to the team.
As said by Crunch defenseman Jamie McBain in an interview with Mike Ashmore of The Trentonian:
On the defensive side of the puck, to come in with this speed and environment and be able to do things at a high level the way he does is pretty incredible.
With a full offseason to adapt to the speed of the AHL and the expectation of big minutes in Syracuse, one can only expect Foote to make that next stride forward in his development this season. By the 2019-20 season, he may be knocking on the door of NHL ice time.
No prospect had a more impressive year with the Crunch than Mathieu Joseph in the 2017-18 season. A fourth-round pick back in the 2015 draft, Joseph broke out during his rookie season, leading the Crunch with 53 points during the regular season while scoring three goals and posting seven points in the playoffs.
As best said by Allokago of rawcharge:
He turned in one of the best rookie performances in Syracuse in recent memory, capping it off with being named the named CCM/AHL Rookie of the Month in March.
It’s difficult to know just how high of a ceiling Joseph has right now. Like much of the current Crunch roster, he overachieved in his rookie season and could very likely see a decrease in productivity this season. However, it’s just as likely that this was not a fluke year for the winger. Come March, he may very well have played his way into a permanent starting role with the Lightning.
Of all the young players found in the Lightning’s prospect system, Mitchell Stephens may be the most important. Right now, Stephens represents the future heart and soul of the franchise, often being compared to a young Ryan Callahan. No, he wasn’t an offensive juggernaut during his rooking season with the Crunch, putting up a respectable 41 points in 70 games, but that isn’t what makes him unique in the Tampa Bay’s prospect pipeline.
The Lightning have plenty of young, scoring talent currently with the franchise, but they need a true leader like Stephens to act as the glue to hold them all together. If he can continue to improve his game while growing into a leadership role with the Crunch, the 40 to 50 points he will likely score during the 2018-19 season will just be gravy.
In fact, with Callahan out for the beginning of the 2018-19 season, there is a chance Stephens could take his role on the fourth line to gain some valuable NHL experience. Even if this doesn’t occur, he will likely be a top call-up for the Lightning when they inevitably need a player throughout the year.
When the Lightning selected Alexander Volkov with the 48th overall pick in the 2017 draft, the general consensus was… What? As said by Alessandro Seren Rosso of THW after his selection:
One of the biggest surprises of the draft was the second-round pick spent on 20-year-old Alexander Volkov by the Tampa Bay Lightning. The native of Moscow, Russia, didn’t have much exposure last year because of an injury…
However, one year after his selection, Volkov is making the Lightning look like draft-day geniuses once again. As an overager selection, Volkov was able to join the Crunch for the 2017-18 season and went on to lead the team with 23 goals.
With his first full professional season under his belt, one can expect Volkov to continue to improve his play along with the rest of the Crunch. While it seems unlikely that he will be breaking into the NHL this year, he could very well be fighting bottom-line ice-time come the 2019-20 season. With a high-talent ceiling, there is a lot to be excited about for the future of this young Russian winger.
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.