Hanging on a wall inside Oncenter War Memorial Arena in Syracuse, N.Y., home of the Tampa Bay Lightning AHL affiliate Syracuse Crunch, are pictures of current Lightning players Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat.
Two seasons ago, Johnson and Palat were standouts for the Crunch, recording 65 and 52 points, respectively, and helping lead Syracuse to the Calder Cup Finals.
In 2013-14, the pair made the Lightning out of training camp and continued to excel, finishing as finalists for the NHL’s Calder Memorial Trophy given to the league’s rookie of the year.
With the Tampa Bay Lightning 2014 rookie camp starting Thursday at Amalie Arena, Syracuse Crunch and rookie camp head coach Rob Zettler pointed to Johnson and Palat as players the Lightning rookies should emulate.
“Their pictures are on our wall in Syracuse for a reason,” Zettler said. “…They worked their tail off. They play the game the right way, and they had a lot of success…A lot of (the rookies) are seeing the guys at Syracuse have a lot of success at that level go up (to Tampa) and have unbelievable success. It’s a great message, a great story, but, more importantly, I like to look at it a little bit deeper and talk about what they did away from the spotlight, away from the game, in the weight room, how they got there. Both guys had to work and come a long way to get there.”
As Zettler surveyed the ice on the opening day of rookie camp, he marveled at the amount of talent on display. Zettler will take the Lightning rookies to Nashville for three games against rookie teams from the Predators, Bruins and Panthers starting Saturday through Tuesday.
The team he fields will have speed, plenty of skill and, most importantly, tremendous depth.
“(Depth) creates that competition and kind of raises the bar for everybody,” Zettler said. “Up front, we’re going to have depth. On (defense), we’re going to have depth. Obviously, we know what’s going to be going on with our goalies [Kristers Gudlevskis and Andrei Vasilevskiy]. Both goalies are going to be battling it out as well. That to me creates healthy competition and creates a better framework for a team.”
In camp are a handful of high profile players, including 2013 NHL Draft first round selection Jonathan Drouin, who, after spending last season starring for Halifax of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, hopes to follow the path of Johnson and Palat with a break out year in the NHL this season.
“Everyone wants to make the team,” Drouin, 19, said. “Last year, it didn’t happen. I think this year is the right year for me. I’ve grown as a person, and I’ve matured. I think it’s going to be the right time for me to step in.”
Also competing in his second rookie camp is 2013 second round pick Adam Erne, a left winger who had surgery during the offseason to repair a wrist injury that hampered him at times last season.
“You don’t get a second first impression I guess, so this is the first time they’re really going to see us play after the summer,” Erne, 19, said. “Obviously, I didn’t get to play this summer, so this will be the first time. I definitely want to make a good first impression this year.”
2014 first round selection Anthony DeAngelo, an 18-year-old defenseman from Sewell, N.J., is hoping to carry over an impressive performance from development camp in early July to his first rookie camp.
“Everybody’s a good player here, so you’ve just got to go out and do what they brought you in for,” DeAngelo said. “You don’t have to try to change your game or do anything too special, just go out there and do what they brought you in for and see what happens.”
The Lightning rookies will hold one more practice session Friday morning at Amalie Arena before departing for Nashville.