Whenever a team is competing for the Stanley Cup year in and year out, their prospect pool will inevitably start to suffer. Draft picks and prospects are often used as fodder to bring in talent that can help you win right now, and over the course of a few years, you can quickly empty out the cupboards in the pursuit of a championship.
No team exemplifies this situation better than the Tampa Bay Lightning. On the positive side, they’ve had a remarkable hit rate on their trades, where they picked up player after player who stepped into their lineup and immediately made an impact. On the negative side, however, is the fact that they paid a premium price for those players, which left their prospect pipeline a bit barren.
Now, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t talented players in the Lightning’s prospect pool. No, it’s just that they are lacking those high-end impact players. This isn’t the biggest concern for the franchise right now, as they have plenty of superstar talent, but need those low-cost options to fill out their lineup.
So, as we work through the 2022 offseason, let’s take a look at the Lightning’s best prospects to see who may be making an impact on the team in the coming years.
It’s rare for a fourth-round pick to develop into a starting player for the franchise that drafts them, yet Tampa Bay has a remarkable track record of doing just that. From Mathieu Joseph to Ross Colton, the fourth-round has been good for the Lightning in recent years, and they appear to have found their next fourth-round hit when they selected Dylan Duke back in 2021.
Over the last calendar year, Duke has shown great progress in his development that should excite Lightning fans. While playing for an absolutely stacked Michigan Wolverines team, he still made an impact as a freshman, posting 10 goals and 19 goals in 41 games. While these aren’t jaw-dropping numbers, he should see his opportunities greatly increase during the 2022-23 season, given the number of players leaving the Wolverines to play in the NHL.
This means that over the next year, Duke will be taking on more prime minutes with Michigan, and he will be able to showcase his full toolkit. This should do wonders for his development, and he still has three more years of NCAA eligibility to continue growing his game.
Clocking in at 6-foot-6 and 223-pounds, Jack Finley is easily one of the Lightning’s biggest prospects. However, as a big-bodied forward who produced at nearly a point per game in the two seasons prior to the 2020 Draft, Tampa Bay was well aware that he could be more than just size if given the time needed to develop.
Unfortunately, injury derailed his 2020-21 season, but he was able to get back on the ice in a regular capacity once again for 2021-22. With his return to the Western Hockey League (WHL), where he played for the Spokane Chiefs and the Winnipeg Ice, he once again produced at near a point-per-game in both the regular and postseason. Now, given his age and physical maturity, it was hoped the Finley would be more of a dominant force in the WHL, but his production was still impressive, especially when you consider that he changed teams halfway through the season and played on a loaded Winnipeg team that was deep with high-end talent.
So, Finley is one to keep an eye on in the coming years. He should be making the jump to the American Hockey League (AHL) to play with the Syracuse Crunch soon, and he is a player who could really blossom after taking on big minutes in order to refine his toolkit while learning how to fully utilize his size.
The 2022 NHL Draft was unique for the Lightning, purely because they still had their first-round pick. The team’s last first-round selection was made in 2019 and after the acquisition of Brandon Hagel, they likely won’t make a pick in the round again until 2026. Given this, they needed to make this pick count, and it appears that they got their perfect player in Isaac Howard.
While he may be cut from the undersized mold, Howard is an incredibly strong offensive forward who has an NHL-caliber toolkit. As said by Shawn Wilken in Howard’s Draft Profile:
Howard is fully capable of putting all the pieces together and becoming an effective player at the NHL level. His mixture of skating, accurate shot, and competitive nature make him a player that teams will target. While his trajectory predicts a few years before he makes a real impact, Howard possesses the tools that are a strong indication he’ll get there one day.
That is a lot to be excited about, as he is exactly what the Lightning wanted with their only first-round pick for nearly five years. Howard will bring needed excitement and energy to the team’s prospect pool, and eventually, to NHL ice.
Coming out of any draft, there will always be unknowns about what kind of impact a player will have on the team that drafted them. Normally if you aren’t a top selection, it takes years for this question to be answered. However, if you are an overage prospect, you can make the jump to the AHL sooner to prove yourself.
For the Lightning, they selected one such overage prospect in Lucas Edmonds during the 2022 Draft, and they signed him to a two-way entry-level contract shortly after being drafted. This means that Edmonds should be playing for the Crunch to start the 2022-23 season, or even with Tampa Bay should he really come out and impress. Sure, he isn’t a big prospect, but the Lightning have a history of getting the most out of undersized but highly skilled forwards.
As far as potential, Edmonds could be in a unique position. After going undrafted twice, he joined the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) for 2021-22, and exploded offensively, posting 34 goals and 113 points in 68 games played.
On one hand, there’s a chance that this was just a fluke season by Edmonds, and he could reach the AHL and look decidedly average. However, there’s also a chance that he will be the team leader in both goals and points while pushing for a roster spot by the 2023 Trade Deadline. Either way, the Lightning will know immediately what they have with their third-round pick, and there could be an exceptional ceiling for this overage prospect.
Lightning Lack Depth, but Have Solid Prospect Talents
It would be disingenuous of me to say that the Lightning have a great prospect pool. By all accounts, they are mortgaging their future to win now, and that is reflected by the lack of top-tier talent in their minor league and prospect farm.
Related: 2022 NHL Free Agent Signing Tracker
However, that doesn’t mean that Tampa Bay won’t have impactful prospects over the next few seasons. As these young players develop their game and look to take that next step in their career, it’s impossible to know what their ceiling could be. Not that long ago, Colton went from being an unknown fourth-round pick to scoring a Stanley Cup-winning goal, so you should never count out any prospect in the Lightning’s farm system.
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.