A group of 24 Tampa Bay Lightning rookies – 13 forwards, nine defensemen and two goaltenders – departed the Bay Area on Friday for Nashville to take part in an NHL rookie showcase against prospects from the Predators, Boston Bruins and Florida Panthers.
The showcase provides an opportunity for future Lightning players to stand out and make their case to join the big league club sooner rather than later.
But, as important as it is for the players to mesh together on the ice and perform well, the outside-the-arena bonding that goes on during the five-day trip is just as critical, maybe even more so.
“As [Lightning vice president and general manager] Steve [Yzerman] and [chairman and governor] (Jeff) Vinik say, we are the future of the Lightning here,” defenseman Slater Koekkoek, playing in his second Lightning rookie showcase, said. “The Lightning like to build through the draft. We’ve got to get to know these guys well and get to be buddies with them if we’re going to be seeing them for the next however many years.”
The Lightning play their first game against host Nashville at 4:30 p.m. Saturday. Sunday, the Lightning are matched up against Boston in a 4 p.m. game. On Monday, the Lightning have a morning practice but are free for the rest of the day. To build camaraderie, a lot of the players will use the time to explore Nashville together.
“We’re going to go to the Country Music Hall of Fame while we’re there, so that’ll be fun,” Koekkoek said. “I think any time a team goes on the road, it’s a good bonding experience. A lot of these guys I know, but some of them I don’t.”
Activities like eating meals together, sharing a hotel room or checking out an unfamiliar city will provide the players with ample opportunities to get to know one another more intimately.
“Some guys may be a little shy around the arena, so when you go on the road, that’s when their true colors come out and people open up,” forward Cody Kunyk said. “We’"I'll try to have dinner the day before we’re off on our own, so I’ll grab a bunch of guys and we’ll go to a nice restaurant. It’ll be fun.”
Those bonds formed off the ice can lead to better communication on it.
“I remember playing with (Andrej) Sustr last year. We really played well together,” said Koekkoek, who is expected to be one of the leaders for the team during the Nashville trip. “We had to learn quickly to talk to each other because talking helps you a lot if you don’t really know their style. This year, me and [2014 first round pick Anthony] DeAngelo will have to get acquainted pretty fast and learn how to play with each other. These last couple practices, I’ve been trying to get in as many reps with DeAngelo, whether it be breakouts or things like that just to try to get to know where each other wants the puck, where we’re going to be, those kinds of things. That’s huge.”
The Lightning conclude the rookie showcase Tuesday against Florida at 10 a.m. All three games will be played at the Ford Ice Center, the Predators’ brand-new practice facility, in Antioch, Tenn.