While the Tampa Bay Lightning got a big jump on rebuilding years ago with blue-chip draft picks Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, it’s worth noting that under GM Steve Yzerman, the organization has done an incredible job of identifying and developing talent. From hidden gems Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Yanni Gourde to Russian imports Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy, a boatload of talent has been produced in-house.
And as the Bolts battle Washington in the Eastern Conference final, it’s worth looking into how the organization develops its players.
Tampa Bay’s AHL affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, got steamrolled in the second round of the playoffs by the Toronto Marlies, but the Marlies were also the best team in the league this season. What Syracuse did accomplish this year was getting great experience and minutes for players such as Mitchell Stephens, a first-year pro with solid NHL upside.
“With the amount of rookies we had in the lineup, there were a lot of guys put into situations early in their career that benefitted them,” Stephens said. “For me, it’s a matter of doing the little things every day and trying to get better. You have to be on your toes every shift, every practice. There are no easy days, no days off here. You have to work or you’re not going to play.”
For Syracuse coach Benoit Groulx, communication with the parent club is key and his game plan involves producing fast, responsible players who will do more than just chip and chase.
“We have a lot of freedom, but we also share information,” Groulx said. “It’s a very open relationship. The guys on our team are here to play in the NHL at some point. Our goal is to develop them and get them ready if the big club needs them. We try to get our players to be good in all three zones.”
While it’s not easy to crack an NHL lineup that boasts the talent of Tampa Bay, it’s worth noting that the salary cap has forced the Bolts to balance their stars with younger, cheaper talent - but the onus is on those youngsters to take what they learned in the AHL and apply it to the big league. And they are paying attention.
“Yanni Gourde is doing what he did here last year: he’s going to the net, he’s scoring 20-plus goals,” Stephens said. “Anthony Cirelli was down here a bit and he works hard every day. He’s at the rink trying to get better and that’s why he’s in the NHL doing very well. He’s the type of player that’s going to have a long career.”
A key element of Tampa Bay’s player development goes even further back. When draft picks are still in junior, they know they can rely on director of player development Stacy Roest for help. Roest will actually get out on the ice with kids, which is not something every NHL franchise does. Out there, he can get into detail on skills, like helping Stephens learn how to spin off an opponent in the corner more effectively, for example.
“Stacy came to (OHL) Saginaw when I was there and worked on a few things with me after practice,” Stephens said. “Stacy’s a really good player development guy. He’s always there if you need to talk to him and he’ll come to wherever you’re playing to help out. The management and player development in this organization is second to none.”
The proof is in the results. Tampa’s top six scorers in the post-season are home-grown (Kucherov, Stamkos, Brayden Point, Hedman, Palat and Johnson), as is the starting netminder in Vasilevskiy. Stamkos and Hedman are the only two who never played in the AHL. With players like Stephens and Cirelli in the AHL and Boris Katchouk and Taylor Raddysh in junior (to name two of many), the spigot for talent is still running.
Creating a winning franchise isn’t easy, but the Lightning are putting in the work and once again, they’re getting closer to glory because of those efforts.