PLYMOUTH, Mich. - The Tampa Bay Lightning spent the summer solidifying their present. They also have done a strong job planning for the future.
The Lightning have seven players taking part in the USA Hockey National Junior Evaluation camp this week, most of any team in the NHL. It's the first step toward picking the teams that will play at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship.
Six of the players are with Canada: Forwards Brett Howden, Anthony Cirelli, Mathieu Joseph and Mitchell Stephens, defensemen Matthew Spencer and goaltender Connor Ingram. Finland forward Otto Somppi also is a Lightning prospect. Forward Jonne Tammela was supposed to play for Finland at the camp, but is out because of a knee injury.
"I don't know if any of the guys we have here are home runs," Lightning director of amateur scouting Al Murray said. "But there's lots of solid doubles that can stretch into triples, we think."
Among the players the Lightning have high hopes for is Howden, the No. 27 pick of the 2016 NHL Draft.
The 6-foot-2, 193-pound center had 64 points (24 goals, 40 assists) in 68 games with Moose Jaw of the Western Hockey League last season and is well-regarded for his defensive play.
"We always felt Brett was first and foremost very skilled," Murray said. "He's got good size, good skills and he's very smart. The more you watch him, you realize he's almost maintenance-free when it comes to the defensive part of the game, and how everything comes together between offense and defense. His attention to detail is very strong."
Smart players with two-way abilities are the hallmark of a number of the Lightning's prospects here. Cirelli, a 2015 third-round pick (No. 72), scored the overtime goal in the Memorial Cup championship game for Oshawa of the Ontario Hockey League in 2015. Last season he was captain and led the Generals with 59 points (21 goals, 38 assists) in 62 games.
"Anthony is a guy, very similar to Brett, great attention to detail with and without the puck," Murray said. "He's one of those guys that coaches tend to like. The more you watch him, the more he's around, the more you appreciate how little he makes mistakes, and how skilled he is that he can play with good players and complement those guys."
Cirelli, 19, also played three games with Syracuse of the American Hockey League. He'll likely return to Oshawa for one more season and understands he'll need full-time AHL duty before he's ready for the NHL.
"You don't want to be [in the NHL] if you're not ready because you don't want to get hurt or anything like that," Cirelli said. "You want to belong. Tampa [Bay], they don't rush their prospects. They want them to be ready 100 percent so it's comforting to know that when I'm ready I'll be there when I'm 100 percent ready to go. … You don't want to make the jump if you're not ready and [the Lightning] won't put you through that. For sure it's going to help my development playing a year or two [in the AHL]."
Howden got his first taste of the NHL at Lightning development camp in June. He'll likely return to Moose Jaw for at least one more season and said it's comforting to know he'll be allowed to develop at a pace that's right for him.
"Just being there, you can see how much faster the pace is and things like that," he said. "It's nice to see that they're not going to try to rush us in to anything, or try to hold us back. It's whenever we're ready to play in the NHL, that's when they're going to put is in. It's a great organization there and they really know what they're doing. None of us are really worried about anything."
Murray said it's good that the Lightning prospects have accepted the fact they'll be given more development time, because it's in the best interest of the players and the team.
"Certainly you can always have somebody who maybe feels a little impatient and doesn't want to wait and deserves a chance sooner," Murray said. "But I don't know anyone who ever was ruined by spending a little extra time at a lower level. Whereas a lot of guys have gone in and lost confidence or not been able to take advantage of an early opportunity, and then fallen back and not gotten a long career."
Since June, the Lightning have signed forwards Steven Stamkos and Alex Killorn, defenseman Victor Hedman and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy to long-term contracts, solidifying their present. One look at their prospect base shows them to be in solid shape for the future.
"The way the salary cap goes, if players play as well as they can, you can lose guys so quickly that you need another core coming through," Murray said. "We're hoping that we can continue to have guys ready to step in."
NHL Network will televise the final six games from this week's USA Hockey National Junior Evaluation Camp at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, Michigan.
The exclusive U.S. television coverage will commence on Wednesday (Aug. 3) with two games, including Canada vs. Finland at 1 p.m. ET and USA vs. Sweden at 4 p.m. NHL Network will also carry games on Friday (Sweden vs. Canada at 1 p.m.; USA vs. Finland at 4 p.m.) and Saturday (Sweden vs. Finland at 4 p.m.; USA vs. Canada at 7 p.m.).