Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Carter Ashton arrived at the team’s 2011 Rookie Camp feeling like he had something to prove.
A fellow Bolts prospect, Vladislav Namestnikov, didn’t hesitate to admit he was focused solely on improving the same skills set that was in part largely responsible for earning him the distinction of a first-round selection in this past summer’s draft.
At the Lightning’s 2011 Rookie Camp, which kicked off Friday and will conclude with a Wednesday matinee against prospects within the Florida Panthers organization, both Ashton and Namestnikov, along with 19 other Tampa Bay prospects, will have the chance to do both.
It is every player’s dream to one day play in the NHL. While each of the 21 prospects at this week’s camp would agree that the club’s annual rookie showcase can certainly help them accomplish that goal, it becomes evident that an accord is not as quickly reached when examining the paths that each individual prospect is taking to get there.
Several attendees, such as Ashton, Brett Connolly, Mark Barberio and Radko Gudas, who all share a mutual sentiment regarding their ability to compete at the NHL level, are here to impress. Others, however, including Namestnikov, goaltender Jaroslav Janus and another of the club’s 2011 draft selection, Ondrej Palat, simply arrived in Tampa this past week to improve, knowing that their time to make an impression will come sooner rather than later.
That each prospect arrived at camp with a different agenda, mindset and a set of individual goals to accomplish hardly presents a dilemma, however, for Lightning brass. Having previously evaluated many of the prospects at the team’s summer development camp in July, both general manager Steve Yzerman, along with the team’s director of scouting, Al Murray, feel confident in their grasp of each player’s ability and where each prospect stands in terms of readiness to make the jump to the NHL.
Still, this week’s rookie camp serves as a useful tool in ensuring that each hopeful is staying the course with regard to individual development. An additional benefit of the camp, Murray says, is its tendency to reveal a rapid improvement in a player’s game since one’s last evaluation, usually manifesting itself in the form of an unexpected surprise, such as when James Wright made the big club out of training camp prior to the start of the 2009-10 season.
“With everyone, we’re hoping to see an improvement in strength, endurance and conditioning since the last time we saw them at our development camp here a few months ago,” Murray said. “It’s pretty clear to distinguish which guys are close to making the leap to the NHL and which ones still have their best years ahead of them, but certainly we’d like to see the guys who we feel are close to being ready make an impression this week and those who require some extra time continue to develop and move up within the organization.”
This year’s camp certainly features both.
Of the 21 prospects who received an invitation to attend, only eight of them played at the AHL level during 2010-11, while the other 13 attendees displayed their skills either in the junior ranks or at the collegiate level. Just one prospect, Wright, saw NHL action last season after appearing in one game with the Bolts, a significant decrease in exposure after the 2008 fourth-round draft pick played in 48 contests with the Lightning in 2009-10.
Much like Wright, Ashton is among a number of the team’s top prospects expected to leave a defining impression in the minds of several of the Lightning’s top executives next week as the club opens up it 19th training camp. The forward prospect even admitted he came to camp this week with the mindset of making the big club out of camp.
“I know that this year’s camp is pretty big for me,” Ashton said. “I think the past few years I’ve come here with the focus of improving my game and getting better, but this year has been different for me. I’m motivated to make the team out of camp and am going to work real hard these next couple weeks to leave a good impression. We’ll take it day by day, but I am hoping that I can stick around for a while.”
While earning a roster spot as a full-time professional might be job number one for the Winnipeg, Manitoba native, his previous experience at past Lightning rookie camps as a highly-touted junior prospect has allowed him to empathize with some of the younger players at camp, including Namestnikov, Palat, Connolly, Tyler Johnson and others. For those simply looking to become a better player this week at camp, the guidance and leadership through example set forth by Ashton and others has undoubtedly been a beneficial asset to improving their skills.
“I think the Steve Yzerman and the rest of the management already know what I can do just from having seen me at the draft and hearing the reports from the scouts,” Namestnikov said. “So for me, this week is really just about learning as much as I can. Some of the guys here have been at these camps before so all week I’ve tried to learn something different from each player. It has been a great learning experience for me.”
With a nice mix of players looking to both impress and improve, the three-team rookie tournament set to take place in Coral Springs, Florida over the next few days is sure to provide the opportunity for both. Also competing will be prospects from the Nashville Predators, as well as the in-state rival Panthers. According to Murray, the real-time, live-action contests will not only expose the prospects to competing against NHL-caliber players, many for the first time, but will also provide a closer look to some of the intangible qualities of each prospect that is often masked in the repetitive lull of drills and intra-squad scrimmages.
“The level of play is going to feature some top-end talent,” Murray said. “It’s probably the best indication we have to see how far along they are and if they have either stayed with, fallen below or have gone beyond our expectations and where we think they should be at this stage. But either way, it’s going to be a real tough test. A good test.”