With the conclusion of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s development camp, there were several standouts and bright looking futures ahead. I will focus on two forwards that are under contract already. They will play for the Syracuse Crunch this season. But could either of these players play in the NHL?
RW Maxim Cajkovic
Most definitely the player more likely to be known by Tampa Bay Lightning fans from development camp in this article will go first. Cajkovic played with the Crunch this past season in only 20 games. In which he recorded three goals, three assists, four penalty minutes, and a minus five. He got into 25 games for the Orlando Solar Bears as well. While there he recorded eight goals, 12 points, 16 penalty minutes, and a minus nine. The now 21-year-old was drafted by the Lightning in the 3rd round of the 2019 NHL entry draft at 89th overall.
At the time, he was rated much higher than 89th. It was thought that he had dropped to the Lightning due to behavioral issues. He has mostly been a minus player. Why did I bring him up, and why was he drafted in the same round as Tampa staples Brayden Point and Anthony Cirelli? The answer is raw skill and physical play. He is primarily a goal scorer.
Maxim Cajkovic was suspended by Slovakia during the 2019-20 season for checking a teammate recklessly in practice despite being their leading scorer in the tournament up to that point. In Cajkovic’s time in the organization since then, he has shown improvement and consistency with his behavior. His defensive play has also improved and must continue to in order for Cajkovik to have a chance at playing with the big club.
Ultimately, I don’t think he will get an NHL call up this season. Cajkovic has got strong skating, offensive abilities, and NHL size. He can storm into the zone like Brayden Point. He’ll just need to spend at least a full year in Syracuse to continue developing his defensive abilities. Showing off his goal scoring with the Crunch like he did during the development camp will surely give him a chance for a call up to the NHL in 2023-24 season.
C Ilya Usau
On the other hand, this player is probably unbeknownst to almost all Lightning fans. The free agent entry level signing by the Lightning during this previous season was easy to miss. This Belarus native has played seemingly everywhere, but most notably at just 20 years old he already has two years of professional experience playing against men in the KHL with Dinamo Minsk the last two years. Last season, he tallied 26 points in 40 games with a plus five. The year prior as a rookie, he put up three points in five playoff games. He had no problem keeping up with Maxim Cajkovic for goal scoring at the Lightning development camp this week. During drills, they each put in almost every shot and the ones they didn’t usually went off the post or crossbar. They also played very well in the 3v3 tournament.
Ilya Usau, also known as Ilya Usov, looks most likely to see time in Tampa this season compared to the rest of the forwards in development camp for several reasons. He, like Cajkovic, should spend the year in Syracuse. With the inconsistency of defensive play in the KHL and the 3v3 tournament he will likely need at least some time to adjust to a more defensive style of play. He won’t need to adjust much to the rink size because he has already played in North America. Most recently in the WHL for the Prince Albert Raiders during the 2019-20 season.
It seems highly unlikely that Usau will go back to the Raiders for another season when he is AHL eligible and chose to sign with the Lightning instead of continuing to play overseas. I expect him to play exclusively with the Crunch this season unless he disappoints and is sent to the ECHL’s Solar Bears. Usau seems slightly more inclined to pass rather than shoot compared to Cajkovic and the level of his passing skill reflects that. For his size measuring in at six-foot one he could use to put on a little weight. With several NHL forward contracts concluding following this season, he could compete for one of those potentially vacant spots on the Tampa roster at that point. Until then, look for at least 35 points by Usau in a Crunch uniform barring any injury.
Three Forward Stars of the 3v3 Tournament
Honorable mentions: McKade Webster, Niko Huutanen, Connor Kurth
Third star: Maxim Cajkovic
Second star: Ilya Usau
First star: Dylan Duke
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