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Four reasons we're watching the Prospects Showcase

Lightning beat writer Bryan Burns highlights the storylines to watch at the 2019 NHL Prospects Showcase

by Bryan Burns / TampaBayLightning.com

Tampa Bay Lightning rookie camp opens today at AMALIE Arena with medical and performance testing followed by an afternoon practice session at the Ice Sports Forum. The Bolts hold another practice Friday before traveling to Nashville Saturday for the 2019 NHL Prospect Showcase, a four-day, round-robin tournament between future NHLers from the Lightning, Predators, Carolina Hurricanes and Washington Capitals.

The showcase provides an ideal environment for evaluating the off-season progress of prospects while also testing their competitiveness.

"It's our only chance to get them all together at one time and see where they're at," Lightning assistant general manager, director of player development Stacy Roest said.

The Lightning open the tournament Saturday against host Nashville (4 p.m.) and play the Hurricanes a day later (4 p.m.) before concluding the tournament Tuesday with a morning tilt versus the Capitals at 10 a.m. (all times Central). All games will be played at the Predators' training facility, the Ford Ice Center, in Antioch, and Lightning matchups will be streamed on tampabaylightning.com.

Here's what we'll have our eye on during this weekend's action.

Video: Behind the Bolts: 14th Overall Pick Cal Foote

1. Is Cal Foote ready for the NHL?
He might not need to be, at least right now.

With the Lightning bolstering their blue line during the offseason by adding free agents Kevin Shattenkirk and Luke Schenn to go along with the re-signings of Braydon Coburn and Jan Rutta, the Bolts already have eight players vying for six starting spots. And that's not including Luke Witkowski, who was brought back to the organization from Detroit on a two-way deal.

If Cal Foote were to make Tampa Bay's roster, it would certainly be for one of those starting six spots. The Lightning aren't bringing Foote up to languish on the bench as a seventh defenseman.

Therefore, it's going to be extremely difficult for Foote, the Bolts' most prized prospect at the Prospects Showcase, to crack the Opening Night roster.

But that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Foote improved tremendously as the season progressed during his first pro year with Syracuse in 2018-19, finishing with 10 goals, 31 points and a plus-16 rating, ranking fifth among AHL rookie defensemen for goals.

"He's getting close," Roest said.

A strong offseason - and a positive performance at the Prospect Showcase - will put Foote in the mix for a Lightning roster spot out of training camp. But ideally, he'll go back to Syracuse for another season where he can continue to develop while taking on more of a leadership role on the Crunch blue line. Then next offseason when contracts for Rutta, Schenn and Shattenkirk all expire and Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak become restricted free agents, Foote should be ready to step in and earn one of those six starting spots on the blue line, giving the Lightning a cheap option that will prove significant given the team's salary cap challenges.

Video: Alex Barre-Boulet Mic'd Up at Development Camp

2. Can Alex Barre-Boulet replicate his scintillating debut pro season?
Perhaps no player in the Lightning organization made a bigger name for himself last season than forward Alex Barre-Boulet, who ended the American Hockey League regular season as the league goal leader with teammate Carter Verhaeghe after finding the back of the net 34 times. Subsequently, Barre-Boulet was named AHL Rookie of the Year, a season after pacing the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League for scoring (53-63-116) with Blainville-Boisbriand and earning Canadian Hockey League Player of the Year honors.

Clearly, Barre-Boulet has a knack for racking up the points and has the hardware to prove it.

"He's smart," Roest said. "You give him the puck down low below the top of the circles and he makes plays and he puts the puck in the net."

Barre-Boulet enters rookie camp and next week's NHL training camp as one of a handful of prospects vying for a couple open forward spots on the Lightning roster. Step one in stating his case will be a strong showing at the Prospects Showcase. He'll be challenged with being the focal point of the offense and leading the scoring charge for the Lightning prospects in their three games this weekend.

"He had a great season, but he's not satisfied," Roest said. "He wants to go to the next level, and we want him at the next level. He had a good offseason. He worked. He showed up every day and worked hard. Looks like he's stronger. We're excited to see him in camp."

3. Who's the next Alex Barre-Boulet?
The Lightning have found success in the undrafted free agent market uncovering hidden gems and developing them into bonafide NHL superstars.

In recent history, Tyler Johnson is the exemplar. Johnson was a prolific scorer for Spokane of the Western Hockey League, posting 115 points in 71 games in his fourth and final season with the Chiefs, but went undrafted anyway, mainly due to size concerns. The Lightning snatched him up as a free agent, and four years later, Johnson was a NHL All-Star.

Following in Johnson's footsteps was Yanni Gourde, who wasn't drafted, again, mainly because of his size, and spent time in the East Coast Hockey League before agreeing to terms on a contract with the Lightning in March 2014. After tearing it up in Syracuse for three seasons, leading the Crunch to the Calder Cup Final in his last season in 2017, Gourde earned a spot on the Lightning roster and went on to set franchise rookie records for goals (25) and points (64) in 2017-18. The following season, he was rewarded with a six-year contract extension.

Alex Barre-Boulet is following in that mold of undersized, overlooked, dynamic forwards who find success in the Lightning organization.

But who's next in that pipeline?

Jimmy Huntington could be the guy.

At 6-foot-1, 193 pounds, Huntington already has a size advantage over the aforementioned trio. He's a bit of a late bloomer too. After putting up pedestrian numbers through his first three seasons in the QMJHL, he started to show his potential with an 18-goal, 58-point season for Victoriaville in 2017-18. After moving to Rimouski last season, the 21 year old had a breakout campaign, scoring 40 goals and recording 92 points in 66 games, the Lightning inking him to a three-year, entry-level contract toward the end of that sensational season. 

"He got the opportunity last year to play with good players and he put up great numbers," Roest said. "But if you went and watched him play, he was always the center of it. He drove the line. He had the puck. He made plays. He worked. He backchecked. He won face-offs. Complete player, so we signed him as an overager and we're excited to add him to our prospect depth."

Lightning fans got a glimpse of Huntington's ability during the organization's development camp in late June, where he notched two goals on six shots at the camp-ending 3-on-3 tournament. Now we'll see if he can parlay that strong performance into a positive showing against opposing teams in Nashville.

Video: BriseBois on the 2019 NHL Draft

4. What about the 2019 draftees?
Four of Tampa Bay's seven picks from the 2019 NHL Draft will be on display at the Prospects Showcase, including Nolan Foote, the Bolts' first round pick and brother of prospect Cal Foote.

Nolan is a sizable forward at 6-foot-4, 195 pounds who ranked first on Kelowna (WHL) for goals (36) and power-play goals (17) last season and will be a top prospect in the Bolts pipeline for the foreseeable future.

But some other intriguing 2019 draftees will get a chance to show out too.

Maxim Cajkovic, a third-round pick, ranked third among QMJHL rookies for goals (22) and fifth for points (46) last season. Quinn Schmiemann, a defenseman taken by the Lightning in the sixth round, was the second-highest scoring rookie defenseman in the WHL in 2018-19 after notching 28 points in 58 games. And Mikhail Shalagin, a seventh-round selection, might bring the most impressive resume to the tournament, having scored a league-leading 48 goals and earning MVP honors in Russia's MHL last season. Shalagin continued to show that scoring touch at the Bolts' development camp 3-on-3 tournament in the summer, recording three goals and six points in four games.

The question for Shalagin is how long will it take him to adjust to the North American game, among other cultural differences?

"It's all going to be new to him a little bit," Roest said. "He came to development camp, impressed us with how he can shoot the puck and how he can handle the puck. He's getting stronger…Obviously, learning the language is going to be a little bit of a challenge for him because he doesn't know English that well. We're excited. He's big, strong, tall; a guy that can shoot the puck and make plays."

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