With the 2019 NHL Draft in the rear-view mirror, the Tampa Bay Lightning turned their attention to their annual development camp. Older prospects who played in Syracuse last season and looking to make the Lightning in training camp this fall, such as Alex Barre-Boulet, Mitchell Stephens, Alex Volkov, and Cal Foote were not in attendance. Despite that, fans at the Ice Sports Forum in Brandon got to see the entire 2019 draft class, including first round pick Nolan Foote (Cal’s brother).
While most of the week’s camp focused on practices, power skating drills, and working on individual skills, the fun really began on Friday, when the 3-on-3 tournament became the featured event over the final two days. Divided into four teams playing a round robin on Friday with each of the six goalies playing in one game.
On Saturday, the top two teams, Team St. Louis and Team Esposito, combined with the third and fourth-place teams in the standings, Team Lecavalier and Team Andreychuk, for Saturday’s championship game. Team St. Louis, featuring Foote, Otto Somppi, Ryan Lohin, Radim Salda, Oleg Sosunov, and Cole Guttman, ended up taking home the championship trophy with a 9-8 victory over Team Esposito.
Somppi stood out throughout the entire tourney, a versatile, two-way force who led all players in scoring over both days with eight points, four of which were goals. Salda tallied six of his seven points and both of his goals on Day 1, while Foote led all players with six assists.
Although the tournament is a highlight, development and progress is the name of the game at this camp.
Two years ago, the Lightning took a flier on Sammy Walker in the seventh round of the draft. A high school kid out of Minnesota who was short on stature (listed at 5’9″), but high on skill and speed. Fast forward to the present day, Walker has been a standout at last year’s development camp and this year’s. On top of that, he also earned Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors in 2018-19 at the University of Minnesota.
Heading into this week’s camp, Walker put on some much-needed muscle to his frame while losing none of the speed. Throughout the 3-on-3 tournament, he was a difference-maker. He notched four goals and two assists while constantly generating chances either off the rush or off the cycle. It’s hard not to make a comparison to Lightning center Anthony Cirelli. Bolts assistant GM and director of player personnel Stacy Roest had nothing but positive things to say about Walker’s development.
“The speed, the skill, the shot, he’s getting stronger. It’s a process and he’s bought into it, he’s working hard in the offseason and during the year, so it’s all positive,” said Roest. “He’s a great kid, works hard. His work ethic is top notch.”
While Foote didn’t find the back of the net, it didn’t take long to see his skill set on display.
During 2018-19, Foote scored 36 goals for Kelowna of the WHL while playing with a broken wrist for much of the season. Despite not scoring during the 3-on-3 tournament, you could see why the Lightning spent a first round pick on him. His shot is tremendous, and during the tourney he was either stopped by good goaltending or rang shots off iron. He also possesses a tremendous north-south game and likes to use his size to take the puck to the net. There were two instances where his net-driving play led to a goal for a teammate while earning himself assists in the process. Entering the draft, the biggest knock on his game was skating. When I asked about what he felt like he needed to work on, he didn’t hesitate in his answer.
“I would probably say my quickness and explosiveness. Growing so tall at 6’3″, it’s something I need to work on” said Foote.
The thing about skating is that it’s something that can be corrected by putting the work in and having the right coaching, and the Lightning have been successful in helping prospects in the past improve their skating. If you look around the league, even a player such as John Tavares wasn’t the best skater coming out of junior, but that aspect of his game improved drastically over the years. Foote will spend another year Kelowna, and with continued work on that skating and improved health, he should be a monster in the WHL next season. He’s not a prospect the Lightning will rush into action any time soon.
Other prospects who stood out during the tournament.
Maxime Cajkovic, a third round pick in last week’s draft, looks like a guy with a ton of ability and a player to keep an eye on down the line. Last summer, he arrived in North America from Slovakia after being selected with the first overall pick in the CHL’s import draft by the Saint John Sea Dogs of the QMJHL. While Cajkovic led the Sea Dogs with 22 goals and 46 points, he didn’t have a lot of help around him as a rebuilding Saint John team was one of the worst in the QMJHL last season. He also sat out a few games as a healthy scratch, so he slipped to the third round. The Lightning could reap the benefits in the future. This weekend, Cajkovic displayed an excellent shot, an ability to finish, and a speed that served well in transition.
Fellow third round pick Hugo Alnefelt, a goaltender out of Sweden, made his presence felt by posting a .932 save percentage during the tournament, stopping 41 out of 44 shots faced. Alnefelt helped backstop Sweden to a gold medal in the U18 tournament in April. He looked poised, calm, and let the action come to him, whereas a lot of young goalies tend to scramble around a bit when things get hectic in front of the net. Like most goalie prospects, he’s going to need plenty of development time, but his selection in the draft helps provide organizational goaltending depth after the Connor Ingram trade.
Speaking of long-term projects….
One worth watching is 2019 fourth round pick Max Crozier, chosen from Sioux Falls of the USHL. Heading to Providence College this fall, Crozier wasn’t on my radar heading into development camp. However, the 6’1″ defenseman stood out to me with his offensive creativity, ability to maintain possession in the offensive zone, and even showed a penchant for creating some turnovers. The good news when it comes to mid-to-late round picks taken from the USHL is that they’re not on an accelerated timeline. There’s upside and the Lightning can afford to be patient with him as he develops and plays against better competition.
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