Coming in at number 24 in our rankings, Cole Koepke is another player with a similar path to Ross Colton who opened our list yesterday. Like many of the Lightning’s late round picks in recent seasons, Koepke was an overage player from the USHL headed to the NCAA to play college hockey. Last season was his first at the University of Minnesota Duluth and it ended with the team winning their second consecutive national championship.
The Lightning drafted Koepke in the sixth round in 2018 after he scored 39 points in 60 games for the Sioux City Musketeers in the USHL. Koepke wasn’t a completely off the board pick. He had a seventh round grade from multiple outlets. So late in the sixth round was a reasonable spot for him to go.
In his first year of NCAA hockey, Koepke showed well. He joined a team preparing to defend a national championship and managed to not only find a role but be a consistent contributor. His 19 points put him in a three-way tie for sixth among forwards. By the championship game, he’d earned enough trust to start the opening shift of the game.
For a team that won a title, Duluth will be returning much of its roster meaning that Koepke doesn’t have an easy path to getting a big increase in minutes this season. The team had several young forwards who played well last season and Koepke will be in competition with them for shifts up the lineup.
In our writer rankings, Koepke consistently landed in the 20s. Among the readers, he got less love and ended up unranked. That dropped him from 23rd to 24th in the overall rankings. He wasn’t ranked last year after being drafted so this is his first appearance in this series.
In terms of his future, expect Koepke to play at least two more seasons in the NCAA before the Lightning consider signing him to an entry level contract and bringing him up to Syracuse. It’s always possible he could have a huge season this fall and earn a contract next summer but given how good Duluth is, it seems more likely the Lightning will take advantage of the opportunity to have him continue to develop for two more seasons at a good program before he makes the transition to professional hockey.
And realistically, an NHL contract isn’t a guaranteed outcome for Koepke. Plenty of sixth round picks are never signed. But based on the solid start to his NCAA career, Koepke seems to be trending toward at least giving himself a chance to earn an NHL deal in a couple years.
This season, the Lightning will be looking to see steady growth from Koepke in his sophomore season. That means playing well enough to earn more ice time and taking a larger role on what should be a good team again this season. They’ll also be looking for more production in those extra minutes. Scoring 25-30 points would be a nice next step in his progression.
Koepke represents another late round pick with a chance to have a professional career. He can continue along that path by building on a solid first season in Duluth. He, along with Sammy Walker and Cole Guttman who will be featured later in this season, should be fun to follow in the NCAA this fall.