After three straight trips to the Stanley Cup final with back-to-back wins before this past year's finals loss, the Tampa Bay Lightning have cemented themselves as one of the most dominant teams of the salary cap era.
The team was built through some incredibly deft drafting and excellent team building through trades and free agency. Now that they’ve become accustomed to trading first-round picks or getting rid of prospects in trades to bolster their NHL lineup, they have lost some of the luster in their prospect pool.
Luckily, the Bolts have managed to avoid emptying the cupboards completely. Their core is a mix of veterans such as Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, players in the prime like Andrei Vasilevsky, Nikita Kucherov, and Brayden Point and combined with younger emerging talents such as Mikhail Sergachev and Anthony Cirelli. The Lightning have done an excellent job developing talent so even if the pool doesn’t look exceptional at the moment, they'll likely find a diamond or two in the rough.
Isaac Howard immediately jumps up near the top of their prospect depth chart with his ability to be a difference maker in the offensive game. He led the USNTDP U-18 squad in scoring last year and did so by making a difference as a shooter and passer.
The Lightning have another former USNTDP forward in their system in Dylan Duke, currently with the Michigan Wolverines. Duke isn’t as gifted in space but despite not possessing the biggest frame, Duke has that dog in him around the crease. He will battle in every area of the ice and generally finds a way to make something good happen on just about every shift.
Gabriel Fortier had a cup of coffee with the Lightning, playing on the fourth line and contributing to the bottom six. He projects as a player who fits in at the bottom of a lineup, playing a good defensive game and playing penalty kill minutes with success. Cole Koepke could fill a similar role this year should an injury or absence occur. Koepke brings a bit more offensive pop thanks to his shot being as good as it is but he will have to earn it by taking another step in the AHL to start this upcoming season.
Gage Goncalves had a solid rookie year in the AHL thanks to his ability to load up his shot and contribute on the powerplay. He has average to above average tools across the board which will help him be versatile for a Lightning team that may need that from him but his calling card with be putting the puck in the back of the net, an area he will hopefully continue to improve on at the AHL level this year.
Declan Carlisle is a strong defender, particularly on the rush. The former Merrimack College defender can make a solid first pass out of his zone but lacks the dynamism that generally comes in offensive defenders. His anticipation is the key to his success.
Roman Schmidt is a bruising defender who hulks over his opponents, standing 6-foot-6 and using all of it to inflict pain on oncoming attackers. He isn’t the most fleet of foot but his length makes up for it in some facets of the game.
Eamon Powell is a bit of the foil to Schmidt’s game. Powell is also a good defender but lacks the size and physicality, rather opting to use his aggressive stick and excellent gap control to diffuse play before it starts. His skating allows him to join the rush a bit more in transition but his offensive zone game is average at best, acting more as an outlet and facilitator for the forwards than a playmaker.
Jack Thompson is an offensive defenseman that put up 57 points with the Sudbury Wolves and Soo Greyhounds last season in the OHL, including leading all OHL blueliners with 21 goals. His game is built around the offensive side of his game but he has grown defensively. Thompson doesn’t have blistering speed by any means but he’s agile and can get up ice when he needs to but passing is his best mode of transporting the puck out of his zone. He is set to join Syracuse in the AHL this season, which will go a long way towards seeing just where his game is at.
2022 NHL Draft Class
Round 1 (31 Overall) - Isaac Howard, LW, U.S. National Development Team (USHL)
Round 3 (86 Overall) - Lucas Edmonds, RW, Kingston Frontenacs (OHL)
Round 5 (160 Overall) - Nick Malik, G, KooKoo Kouvola (Liiga)
Round 6 (192 Overall) - Connor Kurth, RW, Dubuque Fighting Saints (USHL)
Round 7 (223 Overall) - Dyllan Gill, D, Rouyn-Noranda Huskies (QMJHL)
Round 7 (224 Overall) - Klavs Veinbergs, LW, Riga-2 (Latvia Jrs.)
Howard, the self-described best-looking player at the draft who easily won best dressed as well, was the Lightning’s first-round pick. The NTDP winger blends speed with timing to get him into an excellent position to get his well above-average shot off. Howard has quick hands and makes deliberate moves with the puck to open up passing lanes in the offensive zone or distance his stick from a defender to get his shot off. He has all of the tools you’d want in a top prospect and with a high-end play driver, he could very well be an elite passenger at the next level.
Lucas Edmonds was drafted by Tampa as a 20-year-old after putting up 113 points in the OHL, using physicality and offensive persistence as a way of producing. He has excellent hands but plays at a low pace which isn’t where the game is going at the pro level. He will need to refine his game with an NHL development staff and Tampa has a track record of success in that regard.
Fifth-round pick Nick Malik was drafted in his draft+2 season after putting up impressive numbers in the Liiga. The Czech netminder has been on draft radars for the last few seasons but success at the pro level in Finland made him enticing for the Lightning, who have a decent pipeline in net moving forward.
The Lightning prospect pipeline has taken a hit due to their three straight trips to the Stanley Cup Finals but if there is one area of strength for the Lightning, it may be on the wings. Howard is a big boost to their prospect pool. Lucas Edmonds is an addition that should provide fairly quick returns because of his age. Fortier and Dureau could find their way into the lineup in depth roles. Maxim Groshev and Mikhail Shaligin have been developing nicely in Russian, putting up points at the VHL level. They have some options on the wing and that isn’t counting the centers that will likely move to the wing such as Duke and Mismash.
The Lightning have a real need on the blueline. They have a few names that may work out to be NHLers but they all have major deficiencies in their game. Whether they have a lack of puck skill or they lack defensive aptitude, the Lightning prospects on defense are limited at best and if they produce any legitimate NHL players, they will likely be lower-end role players unless everything breaks right and there is some major development.
Next Man Up: LW Gabriel Fortier
Tampa Bay’s lineup is fairly set going into camp. They have a full roster at both forward and defense but injuries and absences occur and one of the players they looked to for a short stint last year was Fortier. He is comfortable playing lower in the lineup, filling in for a bottom-six vacancy should someone have to move up the lineup or there is an injury to a depth player. Fortier has played well enough at the AHL level that he deserves a look at the NHL level and if he can play well when he gets that next opportunity, he could find himself in the regular rotation.
Prospect Depth Chart Notables
LW: Isaac Howard, Gabriel Fortier, Jaydon Dureau, Mikhail Shalagin
C: Jack Finley, Dylan Duke, Gage Goncalves, Grant Mismash, Cam MacDonald
RW: Lucas Edmonds, Maxim Cajkovic, Maxim Groshev, Niko Huuhtanen, Connor Kurth
LD: Declan Carlisle, Dmitri Semykin, Sean Day
RD: Jack Thompson, Roman Schmidt, Eamon Powell
G: Hugo Alnefelt, Magnus Chrona, Nick Malik
For a deeper dive into the prospect pool with player rankings, check out the Yearbook and Future Watch editions of the Hockey News print edition!