Last Saturday in the Lightning’s 4-1 win over Carolina, Tampa Bay rookies Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat both scored their first NHL goals. It was the first time in Lightning history that two Tampa Bay players had netted their first NHL goals in the same game.
It’s not a feat that happens every day, but it’s also not completely unheard of. In fact, earlier this year, Ottawa’s Dave Dziurzynski and Andre Benoit also both tallied their first NHL goals in the same game.
Beyond the statistical footnote – and an incredible, memorable evening for Johnson and Palat – the most noteworthy aspect of Saturday’s accomplishment was what it said about the state of the Lightning organization.
Ever since Steve Yzerman took over as Lightning General Manager in June of 2010, he has repeatedly stated that the Lightning needed to – and would – build organizational depth. He’s been consistent in saying that the best way to become a world-class organization on the ice, one that is always among the elite teams in the league, is to draft and develop your own players.
This is neither a quick nor an easy process. Players are usually drafted at age 18, and with the exception of a Steven Stamkos or Victor Hedman, they don’t immediately arrive in the NHL. Most players keep their amateur status until age 20 – or older, if they’re attending college. Then, after turning pro, they can expect to spend some time in the minors. In the American Hockey League, they grow as players, learning the intricacies of the pro game and getting valuable experience by playing in all situations. This is the “process” that we hear from Yzerman and Head Coach Guy Boucher.
From the organization’s standpoint, there is often temptation to “cheat” the process. If a player looks promising in training camp, a team might keep that player in the NHL at the start of a season, only to see the young man’s game drop off shortly thereafter. Such dips can affect a player’s confidence and development. Also, a team looking to add a significant player at the trade deadline might trade away a prospect in order to help themselves in the present.
Yzerman has been resolute about a) not rushing this process and b) not dealing any draft picks or prospects. (An exception might be a prospect for a prospect, such as in the Keith Aulie/Carter Ashton trade last year).
Now, Lightning fans are starting the see the dividends from that philosophy. Six Lightning rookies have made their NHL debuts this year: Cory Conacher, Alex Killorn, Richard Panik, Palat, Radko Gudas and Johnson. All six are either Lightning draft picks or, in the case of Conacher and Johnson, undrafted free agents signed at the end of their amateur careers. Some were drafted under Yzerman’s watch, others he “inherited”, like Killorn (2007) and Panik (2009).
I believe it is the first time in Lightning franchise history that we’ve seen such bounty of prospects contribute to the NHL team. Naturally, the Lightning have had some outstanding draft picks: Roman Hamrlik, Chris Gratton, Vinny Lecavalier, Brad Richards, Stamkos and Hedman. But the vast majority of marquee Lightning players have come from other organizations first. Not that making trades or signings isn’t important. The Bolts have made some savvy swaps, such as in Vinny Prospal and Dan Boyle trades. And of course, the Lightning signed Marty St. Louis as a free agent after he had spent a few years in Calgary’s organization.
But this feels and looks different from anything the Lightning have ever had before. Here are 22 and 23-year olds arriving in the NHL and making an immediate impact, directly helping the Lightning win games.
Drafting good players is important, but it’s still just part of the equation. Another is avoiding the temptation to rush players and instead, making sure that the players get sufficient time in the American Hockey League so that they are ready – really ready – when they come up. Still another part is how they become ready. In other words, just spending time in the minors isn’t enough, particularly if the teaching players receive isn’t very good. Yzerman hired Jon Cooper as Tampa Bay’s minor league head coach in 2010. Cooper deserves much credit for his work with the Lightning prospects. These players have ability, to be sure, but when they come up, they play a smart, sound positional game. That comes from good coaching. The last part, which is often a by-product of the first three, is building a winning culture at the minor league level. These Lightning rookies were part of Norfolk’s incredible 28-game winning streak last year. They won their final 10 playoff games en route to the Calder Cup. This year, Syracuse is one of the top teams in the league.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, too. Yzerman’s goal is to create a steady pipeline of good, young, well-coached players. In their 20-year history, the Lightning have never before enjoyed such a pipeline. Until now.