Beginning Friday, five Lightning prospects will participate in the prestigious 2017 Mastercard Memorial Cup, a junior hockey club championship to determine the Canadian Hockey League champion. To reach the Memorial Cup, held this year in Windsor, Ontario, a team has to win one of the CHL's three member leagues -- the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, the Ontario Hockey League and the Western Hockey League. The host team completes the four-team, round-robin tournament.
Lightning draftees Mathieu Joseph and Bokondji "Boko" Imama helped the Saint John Sea Dogs capture the QMJHL's President Cup league title and will participate in the Memorial Cup as a result. Taylor Raddysh, Anthony Cirelli and Erik Cernak helped lift the Erie Otters to the OHL's J. Ross Robertson Cup as league champions and will also participate in the Memorial Cup.
The WHL champion Seattle Thunderbirds and the host Windsor Spitfires round out the Memorial Cup field.
While the competition doesn't garner national headlines in the United States, it's a pretty big deal in Canada.
"I think it's a dream as a kid to play in the Memorial Cup," Joseph said. "It's an honor. Playing against the other leagues, which you never do, it's just awesome to be able to compare yourself to the other leagues."
Joseph is part of a Saint John Sea Dogs team that finished the QMJHL season with a 48-14-5-1 (W-L-OL-SL) record and went 16-2 through the postseason, including a four-game sweep of the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada in the championship series to win the President Cup. Joseph led the QMJHL playoffs for scoring (13-19-32) and ranked second on Saint John for points during the regular season (36-44-80). This season and subsequent playoff run is extra special for Joseph, who suffered a season-ending injury in the playoffs last season after having surgery to repair a cut to the back of his left leg sustained in an opening-round series.
"After a big injury last year, it was hard to see the team trying for a run and not being able to play with them and watching from the stands," Joseph said. "I was just going to come back with the same attitude that I had at the start of the playoffs last year. At the end of the day, I was just trying to play my best. My coaches and my teammates gave me a lot of confidence. I was trying to play a big two-way role this year."
Joseph's Saint John teammate and fellow Lightning prospect Imama put up a staggering 41 goals to lead the Sea Dogs during the regular season. Prior to this season, Imama's career high for goals in a season was 13 set in 2014-15.
"I think he proved a lot honestly," Joseph said of Imama. "He's been really good for us. He's picked up some big goals. He had the winning goal against Chicoutimi in Game 6 (of the President Cup semifinal). He's a tough kid and he does a lot of things so well."
The Erie Otters had a bit more work to do to reach the Memorial Cup. After sweeping the Sarnia Sting in the opening round of the playoffs, the Otters went the distance against the London Knights in the second round, prevailing 5-4 in overtime of Game 7. Erie then knocked off the Owen Sound Attack in six games and took care of the Mississauga Steelheads in five games to win the J. Ross Robertson Cup and advance to the Memorial Cup.
Cirelli led the Otters for postseason goals (15) and was tied for third along with Raddysh for postseason scoring (31 points).
"It's pretty amazing when you win your league and you're able to participate in an event like this with the other championship teams," Raddysh said. "It's been a lot of fun so far. It's a tough road, but we're all looking forward to the week coming up."
Raddysh said the confidence he gained from being drafted with the 58th overall pick at the 2016 NHL Draft by the Lightning allowed him to put up career numbers (42-67-109) this year for Erie. Now, he'll look to cap off the season by winning junior hockey's most prestigious tournament.
"You have a little window to win such a big event," he said. "It's not something everyone gets to experience. I guess it's sort of like a mini Stanley Cup for junior hockey, and if you're able to win that, it would be a dream come true."
No matter who wins the Memorial Cup, the fact the Lightning have five prospects competing in the tournament bodes well for the franchise.
"It's good to see for the future," Joseph said. "I think Tampa Bay's done a good job of drafting and I think you can see with so many prospects here in the Memorial Cup. It's a bright future for the organization. There are some really good players in the organization. It's going to be hard to make the team, but that's a good thing."