While the Tampa Bay Lightning may have won the 2020 Stanley Cup, assembling a roster capable of this feat was no easy task. Of course, most players came from within through the draft or were lured to the franchise in free agency, but Tampa Bay still made some major deals on the trade market, giving up important future assets to bring back key figures for their postseason run.
Sure, these swings paid off in the end, but it has left the Lightning’s prospect pool a bit barren. This doesn’t mean that Tampa Bay lacks in great, young talent, but they just don’t have the pop of an elite player.
So, as we approach an uncertain 2020-21 season, who are the Lightning’s top-four prospects?
The top of the Lightning’s prospect pool is an easy choice. Without a doubt, defenseman Cal Foote is the best prospect in Tampa Bay’s system, a title he has held for what feels like years now.
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Even after he started slow while playing for the Syracuse Crunch, the Lightning’s AHL affiliate, Foote started looking like the top-end defenseman the franchise needed by the sudden end of the season.
Has he always been perfect in Syracuse? No. At times he has looked a bit shaky on defense and his offensive production likely won’t turn any heads. But, this doesn’t mean that he isn’t ready to take on some sheltered playing time in the NHL as soon as the eventual start of the 2020-21 season.
If things go well, Foote could become that big, right-shot defenseman that the Lightning desperately need in their nightly line-up. However, he will likely spend the majority of the season on the third-pairing, honing his craft behind some of the best defensemn in the entire NHL.
As an undersized, undrafted forward signing with the Lightning back in 2018, Alex Barre-Boulet continued the franchise’s legacy of finding diamonds in overlooked players.
In his first season playing with the Crunch, Barre-Boulet posted 34 goals and 68 points in 74 games then following that up with a 27 goal, 56 point campaign in 2019-20. Had the season gone full-term, he easily could have broken 30 goals and 60 points for the second time in his young professional career.
Given his scoring acumen, Barre-Boulet established himself not only as one of the Lightning’s top prospects but as a legitimate starting option for the cap-strapped franchise in 2020-21. Sure, he could use more time in Syracuse to round out his game, but given where they are at, he could add a valuable scoring option to Tampa Bay’s bottom-six immediately.
While that may expose some of the deficiencies in his overall game, he has, at the least, earned a shot at NHL playing time. If all goes well, the Lightning will have found their next undrafted sensation.
Keeping on the Lightning’s tradition of valuing raw skill and hockey IQ over size, Gabriel Fortier has been rounding out his game in the QMJHL ever since he was selected in the second-round of the 2018 Draft. At the moment the selection was seen as a slight reach, but Fortier has proven his potential with 83 points in 2018-19 along with a 63 point campaign split between two teams in 2019-20.
What makes Fortier such an important prospect for the Lightning is his overall compete level. Despite being small, he fights for every inch on the ice, using his impressive instincts and skating to be a threat in both zones
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Fortier plays a lot of time on the penalty kill, meaning that he already has those defensive tendencies that Tampa Bay looks for in a small forward. He has also acted as captain for his teams in the QMJHL, showing leadership potential that any franchise would love to have in their prospect pool.
So, while he is still likely a few years away from making an impact in the NHL, everything is in place for Fortier to find a role with the Lightning in the coming years.
Alexander Volkov is the perfect microcosm of what makes the Lightning’s prospect pool so difficult to judge right now. He has been consistently good while playing for the Crunch, posting 23 goals and at least 45 points in his first two seasons with the team. He also played in nine NHL games and even got his name on the Stanley Cup after starting in Game 6 of the Final.
However, in his nine NHL starts, Volkov often looked a few steps behind play, as if he was struggling to keep up with the speed of the league. This was part of the reason why he bounced between the NHL and AHL for most of the 2019-20 season.
At only 23 years old, there’s still a lot of room for Volkov to grow his game. He has the toolkit of a bottom-six winger, and should be fighting for a starting role out of training camp.
So, Volkov is a true unknown. If things go well, he could be an important middle-six piece in Tampa Bay’s line-up for years to come. If he struggles, though, he might not make it through the rest of the year with the franchise.
Lightning Lacking Big Name Prospects
If you look directly at the Lightning’s prospects pool, you will see a group that has talent but won’t be on any top-ten lists. However, when you consider that Tampa Bay has been competing for a Stanley Cup over the last five-plus years, it makes their pool look more impressive.
As it stands, the Lightning are still in good shape as a franchise. With these prospects developing well, they should have the depth to keep competing for a championship for years to come, even as former stars see their roles with the team reduced.
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.