The Tampa Bay Lightning drafted goaltender Adam Wilcox with their 6th round pick (178th overall) in 2011, when he was still playing with the Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL.
At the time, he was a bit of a project goalie, as most goalies are at that age. His numbers in the USHL were fine, but not eye-popping, and an expected jump to the NCAA likely meant several years of slow-burn development in the college ranks was likely before the Lightning would get anything resembling a "finished product".
After two stellar years with the University of Minnesota, Wilcox has created another interesting depth related problem for Steve Yzerman and the Lightning organization, one that will have to be resolved this year.
First, the panel's ranking:
|Kyle Alexander||John Fontana||Clare Austin||Mike Gallimore||Clark Brooks|
Last Year's Rank: 23
Wilcox's freshman season, two years ago, (2012-13) was outstanding. He appeared in 39 games with a .921 SV% as the team finished in a tie for 1st in their conference (WCHA). The season came to an abrupt halt in the NCAA Tournament, however, as they fell to Yale in a major upset in the first round, 3-2 in overtime.
Not really Wilcox' fault on that one, but it doesn't make it sting any less.
His sophomore season was even better than his freshman one in terms of individual performance, as Wilcox upped his SV% to .932 as he appeared in 38 of the team's 41 games, even as the team moved from the WCHA to the Big 10.
The team got over the disappointment from the year before with a convincing run through the NCAA tournament, including some blowout victories over Robert Morris and St. Cloud State (a 4-0 shutout for Wilcox) before eking out a 2-1 victory over a talented North Dakota team in the Semifinals.
That game ended in spectacular fashion, with a last second shorthanded tally to seal the victory for the Golden Gophers, but not before a tremendous individual performance from Wilcox to keep the game close through regulation with a handful of highlight-worthy saves.
For his efforts over the course of the season, Wilcox was a Hobey Baker (top NCAA player) and Mike Richter (top NCAA goaltender) finalist.
But if Wilcox returns to school in the fall and plays another season with the Gophers, where Minnesota will be a title contender again, he will have the option at the end of the season to become an unrestricted free agent and go to a team of his choosing. The CBA allows players to become a free agent four years after they were drafted.
Drafted in 2011 + four years is 2015, so after this, his junior season of NCAA eligibility, he can opt to become an unrestricted free agent, free to sign with any NHL team next summer.
Wilcox noted himself that climbing to the NHL as a young goaltender is tough in any organization, but it's hard not to imagine him considering going UFA and seeing what other teams might be out there that can promise him more playing time, perhaps even right away as an NHL back-up or an AHL starter.
As it stands right now, the Lightning have Ben Bishop, Evgeni Nabokov, Andrei Vasilevskiy, and Kristers Gudlevskis ahead of him on the depth chart, with Allen York signed to an AHL deal with the Syracuse Crunch. The path to playing time in the Lightning organization is an uncertain one right now, even for someone as talented as Wilcox.
Nabokov, of course, is on just a one-year deal, and is basically in place as an NHL stop-gap while the kids marinate in the AHL. That means there's at least a good chance for an AHL spot for Wilcox in the fall of 2015, after his junior season, if he chooses to sign an ELC with Tampa Bay rather than go UFA. In that scenario, one of Andrei Vasilevskiy or Kristers Gudlevskis tandems with Bishop at the NHL level and the other with Wilcox in Syracuse.
Convincing Wilcox that there's opportunity for him to earn a spot on the NHL roster in time will be tough, however, especially if Ben Bishop is signed to an extension sometime this year.
If the Lightning don't feel they'll be able to get Wilcox under contract, they have a few options -- trade a goaltender ahead of him on the depth chart to open a spot, or trade Wilcox's rights for peanuts. College players without contracts have had their rights traded in a few instances in recent seasons, though usually not for much of a return.
It's another instance of a new set of problems for GM Steve Yzerman and his staff, one where too much depth at one position or one playing level means some creative roster maneuvers become necessary. There's no doubt Wilcox has the talent to potentially develop into an NHL player -- the question is, will it be with the Lightning?