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Lightning goalie prospect Adam Wilcox transitions to the pros

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

Adam Wilcox made 2,834 saves during an illustrious three-year goaltending career at the University of Minnesota.

None, however, as revered and replayed as his early-season stop against Bemidja State during his junior season.

Wilcox snuffed an initial surge by Bemidji State but splayed the rebound to the Beavers’ Gerry Fitzgerald in a can’t-miss spot on the goal mouth.

Except Wilcox has made a habit in his burgeoning career of bringing the puck back from the brink.

Wilcox reached back with his stick to swipe the certain goal off the line, batting the puck toward his glove and trapping it on the ice.

“That was probably my favorite save,” Wilcox said.

The maneuver was lauded on SportsCenter’s Top 10 highlight-reel plays of the day and left the Golden Gophers student section waving their arms up and down in a ‘we’re not worthy’ motion.

“That’s the funniest part about it,” Wilcox said. “The camera got them right as they were doing the reactions.”

In three seasons at Minnesota, Wilcox left a lasting mark on the Golden Gophers hockey program well beyond his penchant for routinely making stops that brought the Mariucci Arena crowd out of its seat. Wilcox was given the starting nod in the Gophers’ third game during his freshman season and held on to the top spot throughout his collegiate career, starting every game but six during his three years at Minnesota.

As a freshman, Wilcox set the Golden Gophers rookie record for most wins (25) in a season and posted the best goals-against average (1.88) in Gophers history.

He led Minnesota to the 2014 NCAA Championship – the Gophers fell in the final to Union – and was a finalist for the Hobey Baker (player of the year) and Mike Richter (goalie of the year) Awards

Wilcox backstopped Minnesota to the 2015 Big Ten Men's Ice Hockey Tournament title for the school's first conference playoff title since 2007 during his third, and what would prove to be final, year with the Golden Gophers.

Wilcox left Minnesota as the school’s all-time leader in career save percentage (.922) and GAA (2.09). He compiled a final overall record of 73-26-14.

On April 1, Wilcox signed a two-year, two-way contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning, the organization that selected him four years earlier with the 178th overall pick (sixth round) of the 2011 NHL Draft, the 22-year-old deciding to forego his senior season of college eligibility.

“I always knew going into college that I probably wasn’t going to play four years,” Wilcox said. “Leaving school was obviously hard, having to leave my buddies and such a great program. The three years I had there were so much fun, but I knew I wanted to turn pro and I knew I was ready to turn pro.

“That made the decision a lot easier.”

Wilcox made his pro debut for the Lightning’s American Hockey League affiliate Syracuse on April 11 against the Springfield Falcons, making 27 saves in a 3-1 loss.

During three starts in Syracuse, Wilcox finished 0-2, allowing seven goals.

“It was good to get (to Syracuse) for a month because I kind of got to see what it was like and fortunately I did get a couple games in, got the experience,” Wilcox said. “But for me, it was about going in there and getting to see what Syracuse was like and the guys on the team, get to know them, get to know the staff a little bit so when I go into summer and fall I’m a little more comfortable than if I didn’t get that opportunity.”

Wilcox began his fifth Development Camp with the Lightning on Tuesday at the team’s Brandon Ice Sports Forum practice facility. Wilcox said the week-long instruction is a good chance to refresh skills learned in previous camps and spend one-on-one time with Lightning goaltending coach Frantz Jean.

“I remember the first year he came in, you could see that he was a little bit of a diamond in the rough,” Jean said. “He had good skills but he used a lot his athleticism to make great saves, and he was more a battler than anything else. Now you see him and he’s become that kind of goalie that is a little more technical and uses more his positioning now to make saves but still has that battling ability but uses it only when needed. It’s not the base of his game. It’s fun to see it and after the first day, you could see he was a dominant player on the ice when we went to a practice. That’s what you want to see from guys that are coming back to Development Camp year after year.”

Wilcox will go into his first full professional year as a probable part-time starter for the Crunch, where, in all likelihood, he’ll split time in net with Kristers Gudlevskis. Jean said that Wilcox’s experience should help make the transition from college to pro a seamless one.

“He played with great teams in Minnesota with the Gophers,” Jean said. “They had a deep playoff run. They won big games. They had a couple of hardships also where they lost big games. I think he learned a lot just being exposed to high pressure situations and big hockey moments. I always say, you can’t teach experience, you can’t buy experience. The only way you can get it is by going through different situations, and he went through that in the last couple of years.”

Lightning GM Steve Yzerman said Wilcox is a good person and athlete, and he expects the South Saint Paul, Minn., native to turn some heads in his first season at Syracuse.

“He did well in the USHL,” Yzerman said, referring to Wilcox’s two seasons with the Green Bay Gamblers (2010-11) and year with the Tri-City Storm (2011-12). He did very well in college. The next step is to see how he does in the American Hockey League. He’s been successful at every level.”

Wilcox said getting used to the amount of traffic in front of net will be his biggest adjustment in pro hockey. At Minnesota, the 6-foot Wilcox could often see over the bodies blocking his way.

Not so in Syracuse.

“The guys are so much bigger in pro,” Wilcox said. “I really had to adjust how I was going to work with that because pro’s all traffic. That’s how it’s played now. So going (to Syracuse), it was good to see that because now I know what to train for in the summer, how much traffic there is, how quick the shots, how snappy the passes are.”

Another big adjustment will come from the amount of action Wilcox sees. In college, he was a fixture in net. If Minnesota was playing, Wilcox was starting.

At Syracuse, ice time will come less frequently.

The workload, however, will remain the same Jean said.

“When you look at the amount of games (Minnesota) played, they played 30-some games, like 32, 34 games overall at Minnesota,” Jean said. “He’s going to get that in the American Hockey League for sure. At the end of the day, even if he doesn’t play half the games, he’ll play probably more games than he played in a college season. So, his progression will still be pretty good…He’s going to get his starts. He’s going to get a fair share of starts, and he’s going to probably play more games next year than he’s played in a few since his USHL days.”

Wilcox said this upcoming season is about establishing himself as a pro.

“Every league that I’ve gone into, I’ve had a great rookie year, so I want to keep that trend going because now it’s a job,” he said. “You can’t not perform. In juniors, you don’t perform, there are other opportunities. This is a do or die thing now for me. If you’re not performing, you’re looking for another job.”

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