Under the leadership of Steve Yzerman and Julien BriseBois, only one professional rookie who was eligible to be sent to the AHL has made the Tampa Bay Lightning roster out of training camp: Brayden Point. The only other professional rookies to make the roster out of training camp have been Brett Connolly, Jonathan Drouin, and Mikhail Sergachev. The difference was that these three players would have had to be sent back to juniors if they didn’t make the Lightning roster.
Yzerman came from the Detroit Red Wings School of Prospect Development that has a guiding principle of players needing AHL seasoning before they are ready for the NHL. There’s always some exceptions for truly special players. These are the ones that are ready to play right away as 18 and 19-year old players. But if a player is 20 and eligible to go to the AHL? Send them on down. That’s been the rule for the Lightning. Until Brayden Point was the exception.
Now, looking at Nolan Foote, I’m wondering if he might also end up being an exception to the rule. Because of his birthday, he’ll be eligible to play in the AHL next season just a year after being drafted in the first round like his older brother Cal. He’s already showing signs that his shot is NHL caliber. The question, as it is with almost any player coming out of the CHL, is if he can play defense at the NHL level, and more specific to Foote, is if his skating is ready for the NHL.
He has the hockey IQ. There’s no question about that. He’s a very smart player and knows where to be on the ice. That intelligence will serve him well in the NHL even if his skating isn’t quite where it needs to be yet. He has been working on it and has made strides (all pun intended) with his skating since last season.
I don’t want to put too much weight into what happens at the World Junior Championships, but his performance in the tournament can give us a view into if he’s ready. It certainly had that effect for Brayden Point, though maybe not in the way you’d expect. Point made the roster for Team Canada in 2014-15 as a 18-year old. He was initially the 13th forward but moved up the line up later in the tournament due to an injury to Robby Fabbri that forced Fabbri to miss two games.
That 2015 team wasn’t quite as stacked as some other Team Canada rosters we’ve seen in the past, but you’ll recognize a lot of NHLers here; Connor McDavid, Max Domi, Sam Reinhart, Nic Petan, Curtis Lazar, Anthony Duclair, Josh Morrissey, Jake Virtanen, Shea Theodore, Frederik Gauthier, and Darnell Nurse to highlight a few. Point finished tied for 8th in scoring on the team with two goals and four points. The team came together and won a Gold Medal with a lot of credit going to Zach Fucale and Eric Comrie providing stellar play in net.
Point returned to Team Canada for the 2016 World Junior Championship and was named Captain. He tied for third on the team in scoring with a goal and five points in five games. This team also had a lot of good talent on the roster, but were let down by their goaltending. Dylan Strome, Mitch Marner, Lawson Crouse, Mathew Barzal, Thomas Chabot, Travis Konecny, Mitchell Stephens, Anthony Beauvillier, Haydn Fleury. A lot of NHLers, and some that have turned into high end players in the league.
Point didn’t exactly blow the doors off the hinges in the offensive department, though we knew he had a lot of skill there. But what he showed us in both tournaments was a great defensive game and the ability to play with, and against, some of the best players in his age group. He also showed that his skating had improved. He was more than just a fast skater now, he was a quick skater. What I mean by that is that he showed more of an ability to make fast, short moves to put himself into position defensively or to support a board battle or to get open for a shot. He always had that straight line speed that could lead to breakaways. Now he showed he had more skills in the toolbox to be a complete skater.
Foote showed well during his tournament. He recorded three goals and five points on the way to a Gold Medal for Team Canada. He was outshined by some of the better forwards on the team though coming in tied for 7th in scoring and tied for 6th among forwards. His three goals also tied him for 4th on the team with two other players.
He might have been able to pick up another goal or point if he hadn’t been (in my opinion wrongly) tossed early in a game for what was deemed a check to the head with a major and a game misconduct. I disagree with the referee’s decision and believe that they reacted to a perceived injury on the play, instead of what actually happened. But the referees in IIHF hockey tend to take apparent head shots very seriously and will err on the side of throwing a player out even if there was no actual head contact. Further supporting that to me was the fact that the IIHF did not suspend Foote. This decision by the referees though took him out of a game less than five minutes into it.
Beyond the World Junior Championships, Foote continues to excel in the WHL. He posted 36 goals and 63 points in 66 games last season for the Kelowna Rockets. So far this season, he has picked up 15 goals and 33 points in 26 games. His goal scoring rate has ticked up a little bit, and he’s picked up more assists upping his points per game to just over 1.25 per game. For comparison, Point scored 35 goals and 88 points in 48 games in his last WHL season. Foote is lagging behind Point’s final year production, but it’s still been very good and he’s 16th in points per game in the WHL among players with at least 25 games played.
It’s still very much a long shot for this Foote to make it with the Lightning next season (though we could see Cal on the roster). He will need to light it up offensively down the stretch and into the playoffs for Kelowna and show for sure that he’s got the offensive game, and defensive game, to play now in the NHL. If Kelowna doesn’t make it far in the playoffs (they currently rank 3rd of five in their division and 6th of 10 in their conference), then Foote can play some games in the AHL with the Syracuse Crunch to show off what he’s learned.