Since the beginning of the Steve Yzerman era, the Tampa Bay Lightning haven’t been afraid to target NCAA bound players in the draft that they think are a fit for the organization. In his first draft in 2011, Yzerman took Adam Wilcox and Matthew Peca. He followed up in 2012 with the selection of Brian Hart. Johnathan MacLeod followed in the 2014 draft.
But in 2015, we started to see more draft picks add up. Ryan Zuhlsdorf and Kristian Oldham were picked late. In 2016, Ross Colton (who signed an entry level contract last spring) and Ryan Lohin joined the organization. Then over the past two drafts, the team has added Nick Perbix, Cole Guttman, Sammy Walker, Alex Green, Cole Koepke, and Ty Taylor.
Some of the Lightning’s NCAA bound draft picks have been overage picks either already in NCAA or headed there in the following year. Others were players that still had another year or two in the USHL before starting their college careers. Added to the handful of NCAA players that were already in the system, the flood of NCAA picks in the past two drafts has meant that the Lightning have a very high number of college players.
This is a definite contrast for prospect watchers from previous years. The Lightning have had many stand out CHL players to watch, including a large number of players that participated in the World Junior Championships. Generally for CHLers, they only spend another year or two in the CHL before graduating to professional hockey depending on their birthdate. For example, Cal Foote had a birthdate where he turned 20 prior to January 1st, but was late enough to put him into the 2017 draft class. This meant that he only had to spend one more year in the WHL before becoming a professional.
Over the past two drafts, Foote, Gabriel Fortier, and Radim Salda are the only players of the Lightning’s 13 picks from the CHL. Alexey Lipanov was selected out of Russia, but went to the OHL after being drafted. With Foote graduating to the AHL, that leaves the Lightning with just three players playing in the CHL. But they’re great number of NCAA draft picks over the past four drafts means that they have nine prospects in the NCAA ranks.
The season has just gotten underway for college hockey, but let’s take a look at how each of these players are doing so far.
Guttman, who sounds like he should be a middle-aged super hero in a bad comic book, is a small forward drafted in the 6th round, 180th overall in 2017 by the Lightning. Listed at 5’9” and 168 pounds, he is a player that looks to continue the Lightning’s tradition of excelling with small prospects. Guttman put up 27 goals and 54 points in 53 games in his draft year as a rookie with the Dubuque Fighting Saints in the USHL. He remained in the USHL last year, assuming the Captaincy for Dubuque. Unfortunately, his season was cut short due to an injury that meant he only score six goals and 11 points in 17 games.
He is now back to being healthy and playing for the University of Denver under the tutelage of former Lightning draft pick David Carle. Yes, Matt Carle’s little brother. In eight games, Guttman has put up five goals and nine points. Denver sits at 5-2-1 and is currently ranked 7th in the nation.
Lohin is one of the older Lightning prospects playing in the NCAA ranks this year. Already 22 years old, the 2016 7th round pick is now a junior for UMass-Lowell. After putting up 0.70 points per game in his first two seasons, he is currently sitting with four goals and six points in six games. With a good year, Lohin could be ready to join fellow 2016 draftee Ross Colton in signing an entry level contract to join the Syracuse Crunch in the AHL. UMass-Lowell has a 4-5-1 record thus far.
One of the Lightning’s 2018 draft picks, Koepke was picked in the sixth round as a 20-year old overage draft pick. At 6’1” and 196 pounds, the left winger has good size. He is a bit of a late bloomer having not played in the USHL until after he had graduated from high school. He put up five points in 22 games in his first season with the Sioux City Mustketeers. Last season he made an impression by scoring 28 goals and 39 points in 60 games. The Lightning took a flyer on him late in the draft to see how he could develop in the college ranks.
Through ten games for the University of Minnesota-Duluth, he has a goal and six points. UMD is also the school that former Lightning forward J.T. Brown played for. The powerhouse UMD Bulldogs are ranked 1st in the country with an 8-1-1 record and look to be poised for a nice run this season. Koepke will have an opportunity to play and produce with a very strong program as he develops.
Perbix is an interesting prospect on the blue line for the Lightning. He’s 6’4” and weighs in at 194 pounds, meaning he has some room to fill out and add some size to his frame. At 20 years old, he’s in his freshman season for St. Cloud State. He scored his first NCAA goal this past week and sits with a goal and six points through 10 games.
When he was drafted, there were some questions on why he was picked. He certainly has size, and he had production in high school, but he was also an older senior where he put up 40 points in 25 games from the blue line. The scouting reports though raved about his hockey IQ. I couldn’t help but feel at the time of his drafting in the 6th round of the 2017 draft that the organization was seeing him as a Braydon Coburn type as a professional.
St. Cloud State is also a very strong program ranked 2nd in the nation with a 9-1-0 record. The fact he is producing as a freshman bodes well for his progression as a prospect. We’ll have to see if this production continues through the season as the competition continues to heat up as they get into more conference play.
As a player for an Ivy League school, Green’s season has just started and he has only played in three games for Cornell. The Ivy League mandates that athletes only play a certain number of games each season to allow them to focus on their studies. Green was taken in the 4th round of the 2018 draft after he put up 10 points in 29 games in his freshman season. Through three games, Green has a single assist.
Zuhlsdorf is another NCAA player that has been in the Lightning organization for a little while. Now a junior for the University of Minnesota, the 2015 5th round pick hasn’t picked up his offensive production yet. Zuhlsdorf was drafted as an offensive defenseman, but through his first two seasons has yet to put those skills on display on a deep Minnesota team. I had some expectations that he would have more of an opportunity to step up and earn some power play time to help boost his offensive numbers after scoring just 14 points over 75 games in his first two season. But through seven games, he’s only recorded an assist.
Moving on to a new teammate of Zuhlsdorfs, we have another diminutive forward. Walker failed to latch on in the USHL with the Lincoln Stars to start last season after the Lightning made him a 7th round pick in 2017. He went back to high school hockey and put up 28 goals and 58 points in 25 games for Edina High. At the end of the season, he did get a call back to the USHL, this time with the Sioux City Musketeers. He finished up with nine points in 17 games in the USHL.
So far this year with the University of Minnesota, he has put up a goal and an assist in seven games. Walker’s small size held him back in the USHL, and he still needs to put on some weight. He’s 5’9” but is only listed at 150 pounds, which makes him very slight even for his shorter height.
Moving from skaters to goaltenders, we have Taylor, a 2018 7th round draft pick. Taylor spent the past two seasons in the BCHL with the Vernon Vipers. After an ok first season, he put up an impressive .931 save percentage last year to get him noticed. He’s now joined the University of New Hampshire and in three games has an .864 save percentage. He’ll have time to develop with UNH and doesn’t need to turn pro for a few more years.
Oldham is a prospect that has not developed very far from when he was drafted. He was taken in the 6th round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. He spent another season in the USHL before going to the NCAA ranks with the University of Nebraska-Omaha. He only played in 16 games over his first two seasons as a back-up and did not produce very good numbers. He was stuck behind an incumbent starter that was only a year older than him which meant he was likely to not get a chance as the starter until his senior season.
Oldham made the decision to transfer to Clarkson University and use his red shirt this season meaning he has to sit out for a year. It’s an interesting decision to make this transfer as Clarkson is also carrying a group of very good goaltenders. He likely is setting himself up to be in the same position of being stuck behind better players at his position. His opportunity as a prospect to develop is dwindling and it seems ever more likely he will not earn an entry level contract with the Lightning when he decides he is finished with school.