When Cole Koepke walks around the Tampa Bay Lightning practice facility at the Ice Sports Forum during training camp, he has a little more swagger in his step, his chest puffs out a bit more according to Bolts assistant general manager and director of player development Stacy Roest.
Winning a national championship while a freshman forward for the University of Minnesota-Duluth this season has done wonders for the young prospect's confidence apparently.
The 6-foot-1, 196-pound Koepke was a sixth round selection (183rd overall) of the Lightning at the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. The 21 year old played a pivotal role for Minnesota-Duluth during his rookie college season, skating on the left wing on a line with senior captain Parker Mackay and sophomore Justin Richards, son of Tampa Bay assistant coach Todd Richards. Koepke played every game for the Bulldogs compiling seven goals and 19 points.
Video: Stacey Roest on Development Camp
"The beginning (of the season) was a little bit of an adjustment. Going from juniors took a little bit to settle, but once I did, I thought it was overall a good freshman year," said Koepke, who registered 33 goals and 44 points in two seasons with Sioux City of the United States Hockey League before arriving in Duluth. "I got a lot of playing time, so I can't complain about that. I got to play every game and got to play on a line with our senior captain and Coach Richards' son here, so that was exciting."
The year before Koepke came to Duluth, the Bulldogs won a NCAA national championship after defeating Notre Dame in the title game. They were seen as a contender the following season too, and Koepke said they got every opponent's best shot.
As a result, Koepke's game grew exponentially in his freshman year.
"I don't know if it was the college pace in general, but every team was coming out flying and coming at us hard," Koepke said. "Every game we had was pretty much a one- or two-goal game, so it definitely felt like everyone was gunning for us. Ultimately, it helped us in the end. We always kind of talked about how hard it is for a team to go back-to-back and how rare it is to happen. It was difficult all year with the target on our back for every team. It was a great group of guys and a great coaching staff. Just overall it was a great experience and then playing that last game against Massachusetts in New York, it was just pretty surreal."
The Bulldogs advanced to the Frozen Four in Buffalo after moving past Bowling Green and Quinnipiac during the earlier rounds of the NCAA tournament. In a 4-1 semifinal victory over Providence, Koepke didn't register a point but was plus-2 with two shots as the Bulldogs broke a 1-1 deadlock midway through the final period and tacked on two empty-net goals to advance to the final.
"I was a little nervous kind of at the beginning just going to the Frozen Four in general," Koepke said. "I think after we beat Providence in the semis, the championship game was like, 'Alright, we have a great opportunity in front of us. Let's try and zone out all the little attention seekers outside us and just play the game.'"
Two nights later, Minnesota-Duluth captured its second-consecutive national championship and third in program history after shutting out Massachusetts 3-0, the Bulldogs netting a goal in each period. Koepke started the game, was plus-one and contributed three shots.
"It was pretty exciting," Koepke said. "Everyone in the locker room was so happy for one another. It was a great group of guys. Everyone was happy for everyone. It was just an awesome celebration together."
Video: Foote on Day 2 of Development Camp
Now at his second Lightning development camp, Koepke has made a name for himself partly because of the national championship he can claim on his resume and also because of the part he played in helping his team achieve that championship.
"He had a big role on that team. He played well," Roest said. "He went to the Frozen Four. I watched him play. It was impressive, the role he had on that team. For sure, you can see his chest is out and he had a big role. Confident player, pure goal scorer, played a big role, had good minutes on his team, so it's nice to see him here and looking good."
Could a three-peat be in the cards for Koepke and the Bulldogs next season?
"It's going to be hard," he said. "But we have a good team coming back and with our coaching staff and the group of guys we have, it's definitely something we can do if we work hard."