Back in 2010, during his very first press conference as General Manager, Steve Yzerman spoke about the path necessary for the Lightning to join the NHL’s elite. It was going to be a draft-and-develop strategy (one that has worked so well for his previous organization, the Detroit Red Wings, over the past 25 years). The process would take some time, Yzerman cautioned, but ideally, once the organizational cupboard was filled, it would stay full. A continuous supply of good, young players would be available, so that the Bolts wouldn’t have to address needs primarily through trades and/or by signing expensive free agents.
As Lightning fans remember well, in the first year under Yzerman’s tenure, the team made the playoffs for the first time in four years and reached the Eastern Conference Finals. This turnaround occurred before the “draft-develop” plan had had a chance to produce NHL-ready prospects. That team deserves credit for all that it earned, but, in perhaps a cautionary tale of how lack of depth can hurt an organization, the Lightning weren’t able to replicate that success the next year. In fact, the Bolts missed the playoffs in the next two seasons.
During all that time, though the organization was busy drafting and developing. “Drafting” also included the signing of undrafted amateur free agents such as Tyler Johnson, Andrej Sustr and J.T. Brown. In 2010-11, under new head coach Jon Cooper, the Norfolk Admirals made the playoffs for the first time since becoming the Lightning’s AHL affiliate. The next year, the club rattled off 28 consecutive wins, setting an all-time pro sports record. The Admirals also won their final 10 playoff games en route to the Calder Cup. In 2012-13, the Lightning new AHL affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, reached the Calder Cup Final.
In his first two seasons as GM, Yzerman, when he needed to recall a player, didn’t touch any of the young blue-chippers. Instead, he summoned AHL veterans like J.T. Wyman and Trevor Smith, players who had a bit of NHL experience and could step into a depth role on the big club. It wasn’t until the 2012-13 season, one in which the first half of the year was lost to a work stoppage, that Yzerman began bringing up the prospects. When they made their NHL debuts, Radko Gudas and Mark Barberio were well into their third pro seasons. Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat and Johnson were deep into their second. Other than Killorn, all those players eventually returned to the minors and were part of Syracuse’s run to the Final. That included Sustr, who joined the Lightning for a brief stint after his college career at Nebraska-Omaha, but ended up spending the rest of that year with the Crunch.
Last year, of course, those players, along with J.T. Brown, who had been with the Crunch for the entire 2012-13 season, earned a regular spot with the Bolts. Yzerman’s patience in allowing these players to develop in the AHL paid off. They were all important contributors to the Lightning’s 101 point season. They, along with Brett Connolly, who played most of the last two seasons in the AHL but is now on the big club, have also contributed this year.
This story is well known to Lightning fans. Those players were part of an initial wave of prospects. But now we’re starting to see arrivals from a second wave. Vladdy Namestnikov, who was a 2011 first round pick and turned pro in 2012, played most of his first two pro seasons exclusively in the minors (he had a four-game stint with the Bolts last year). He made the club this year out of training camp and has played 25 games with the Lightning so far in 2014-15. Likewise, defensemen Nikita Nesterov and Luke Witkowski both spent a season and a half in the minors before making their NHL debuts this year. It’s true that the recalls of the two defensemen were predicated by Lightning injuries, but it’s significant that they were the ones summoned. By comparison, when the Bolts had injuries on D last year, they opted for veteran J.P. Cote as a recall, not one of the young prospects.
Interestingly, Yzerman has also shown that he’s not married to a specific timeline and is flexible about the process. If he deems that a player is NHL-ready sooner rather than later, that prospect will get a look. If the player shows that he’s capable of staying, he stays. Take Nikita Kucherov, who turned pro in 2013. Last year, after a rash of injuries to Lightning forwards, he received a November recall. This came after a dominating first six weeks in the AHL. He never returned to the minors. While Kucherov had some consistency issues last year (natural for most NHL rookies), the experience of being in the NHL in 2013-14 helped him become more consistent this year. As one of the “Triplets” with Johnson and Palat, he’s enjoying a tremendous second season.
Cedric Paquette made his NHL debut late last season as a first-year pro. It’s true that he had spent all season in Syracuse prior to his April recall, but he was still a professional rookie. Yet he showed enough to the Lightning coaches that he earned a lineup spot in all four playoff games. After beginning this season in the AHL, Paquette has now secured a regular roster spot with the Bolts.
Then there’s Andrei Vasilevskiy, who is in his first season in North America. There were several factors that led to the decision to place Evgeni Nabokov on waivers last week. One of those factors was how well Vasilevskiy played in his four NHL appearances during December. The organization acknowledged that Vasilevskiy was ahead of the curve in his development and that he had made a rapid acclimation to the North American – and NHL – game. So he’s going to get more opportunities to play.
It took some time at the start, but now water is flowing nicely through the pipeline. And in case you hadn’t noticed, Syracuse is once more leading its division, near the top of the overall AHL standings. Meaning the arrival of more good, young NHL prospects is on the horizon.