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Handful of promising juniors looking to make jump to NHL

Youngsters like 2016 first-round pick Brett Howden strive to follow in the footsteps of Brayden Point

by Bryan Burns /

Call it the Brayden Point effect.

Last season, the Tampa Bay Lightning rookie center made the unconventional leap from junior hockey straight to the National Hockey League and flourished, scoring 18 goals and recording 22 assists to rank sixth on the Bolts for scoring in his first season in the league.

That early success for the now 21-year-old Point didn't go unnoticed by a group of Lightning prospects hoping to follow in his footsteps.

As a substantial group of highly-skilled youngsters go through Day 3 of the five-day Lightning Development Camp at the Ice Sports Forum in Brandon, they know they have the chance to catch the eye of Lightning management and potentially grab one of a handful of open roster spots at the beginning of the season, players like Anthony Cirelli and Brett Howden and Taylor Raddysh who have one more year of junior eligibility remaining but may not need it.

Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman reiterated as much during a mid-camp progress report update with media on Wednesday, saying he anticipates the players that are still juniors eligible going back to their respective junior team for another season.

Video: Howden on Day 1 of Development Camp

But not necessarily

"If any of them are really good enough to play on our team -- and they're big, strong boys with skill -- if any of them are good enough to play on our team and we have a roster spot, they could be on the team," Yzerman said.

Before the draft, Yzerman stated the Lightning were in need of a winger or two. That addition could come via free agency or a trade.

But that player might also already be in the organization too.

"I don't think many people expected Pointer to make it last year, but he turned heads," Howden said. "He worked as hard as he could and he proved what he can do. They all noticed that and they kept him around. To see how far he's come this past year is pretty amazing. It for sure gives us young guys hope that there is always a chance."

Howden has arguably the best opportunity to make it to the NHL straight from juniors. After scoring 38 goals and recording 81 points in 58 regular season games during his third full season with Moose Jaw, Howden joined the Syracuse Crunch roster toward the end of the AHL season and saw action in five regular season games plus three more during the Crunch's first round playoff series against St. John's. He also got to stick around while the Crunch advanced all the way to the Calder Cup Final, and while he learned what he needs to do on the ice to succeed at the pro level - "It's all men out there; there's no more lightweights or little boys," he said -- he also saw first-hand how championship-caliber players conduct themselves off the ice as well.

Video: Yzerman on prospects and free agency

"It was just so much fun to be a part of that culture," Howden said. "You could tell that they were winners. They were such a close team. They welcomed all of us young guys in right away. They didn't make us feel like we were outsiders or anything like that. Just to be a part of that and for them to let us come in was very special for us. My brother (Quinton) has played in the AHL for five or six years now and he told me he hasn't been that far in the playoffs once yet. We knew how lucky we were to be a part of that opportunity."

The Lightning have made some significant roster moves in the last couple of days. They signed Yanni Gourde, an integral part to the Bolts' playoff push over the final couple months of 2016-17, to a two-year, one-way contract. The Lightning inked veterans Cory Conacher and Gabriel Dumont to similar two-year deals; a one-way contract for the first season and a two-way contract for the second.

"These guys are valuable guys and can really fit up and down our lineup," Yzerman said of the trio, adding, "We have some really good players. Those really good players cost you a lot of money. You need really good players that don't cost you a lot of money too."

If the asking price for a free agent forward is too much for the Lightning in the upcoming free agency frenzy, could the last couple spots as the Bolts look to round out their bottom two lines come from the handful of promising prospects already in the organization?

"You don't really want to look too far ahead," Howden said of the opportunity. "Obviously, you see the guys that are signing and you see the guys that are on the team. I try not to look at that stuff too much, just try to do my thing and I'll come back in September and work as hard as I can to make it a tough decision for them."

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