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Alex Barre-Boulet is making the most of his chance on the top line for Tampa Bay

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It’s nice to see.

NHL: Columbus Blue Jackets at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Count me as a doubter of Alex Barre-Boulet being able to make an impact at the NHL level for the Tampa Bay Lightning. He’s small. He’s not an elite skater, which is usually necessary for a smaller player to be to succeed. Plenty of prospects have had skill and hockey IQ going for them, but lacked in other areas of their game that kept them from being able to progress out of the AHL and into the NHL.

The first couple of pre-seasons that Barre-Boulet played for Tampa, I wasn’t very impressed. He wasn’t playing against particularly tough competition when pre-season line ups, especially early in the pre-season when he was getting into games, usually consist of a handful of NHLers, a good chunk of AHL players, and a smattering of juniors prospects. It seemed like the speed of the game, even at that reduced level, was too much for him.

However, he has produced at the AHL level. As a rookie he put up 34 goals and 68 points in 74 games. The next season saw 27 goals and 56 points in 60 games in his follow-up campaign. He roared out to an impressive offensive start with 8 goals and 12 points in 10 games for Syracuse this season. In his third professional season, he finally got the call to the NHL. He made his debut on February 22nd of this year. He played 8:51 at even strength on the fourth line, got some time on the second power play unit, had just two shot attempts at even strength (both of which missed the net), but did finish the game with good possession metrics. He got into his second game on March 9th. Once again, he played on the fourth line. The possession metrics weren’t great and he had one shot attempt, which was on net.

It was clear that Barre-Boulet wasn’t well suited for the fourth line. Ross Colton has been a much better fit to the fourth line, both because of the style that linemates Pat Maroon and Mathieu Joseph play, but also because of the identity of the group. Barre-Boulet wants to drive the play and create offensive chances with his creativity. The fourth line typically grinds and cycles the puck, often leading to low-event hockey that doesn’t produce a lot of offense, but also doesn’t give up a lot of chances on the defensive end.

Steven Stamkos’ injury opened up a spot at the top of the line-up. Barre-Boulet wasn’t the first choice for taking one of those top six spots though. Jon Cooper went with a few other options, juggling up the lines, trying to find something that would work, especially with much of the top six struggling offensive for most of the previous month.

When Barre-Boulet returned to the line up on April 15th, it was finally with the kind of skilled players that he needs with him to succeed. He was put on the right wing of Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat. Playing on the wing gives him more freedom and less responsibility in the defensive zone. Offensively, he can go where he needs to be and use his creativity in conjunction with Brayden Point to create opportunities.

He went through his first five games with the top line without recording a point or finding the net for his first career goal. What I saw from him though, was something I hadn’t seen from him in the first two games playing with the fourth line. He had more space to work with the puck. He was creating chances. Eventually his own chances started to come with greater frequency as he adjusted to his new linemates. Some of my worry and doubt had dissipated. He was showing to me that he could play up the line up and have an impact, even though it wasn’t directly paying off... yet.

His play finally paid off in his eighth career NHL game when he put in a power play goal. Granted, it took Elvis Merzlikins Joonas Korpisalo suffering a lower body injury during the play that made it easier for Barre-Boulet to score that goal. But there was a good chance that one was going in even if Korpisalo had been able to push across to attempt a save.

Barre-Boulet followed that up with his first even strength goal in the following game. He shot the puck on net, then followed his shot while Palat helped to keep the puck loose. Barre-Boulet found the puck before Chicago could clear it away, and banged it into the open side of the net.

It’s refreshing to see Barre-Boulet get this kind of chance. It feels like it’s rare that Jon Cooper gives a young, skilled, offensively minded forward prospect this kind of opportunity in the top six so early in their career. Right now, that’s an assumption I’m making. Join me as we take a closer look at the most recent forward call ups and what kind of opportunity they were given.

  • Ross Colton - Colton started on the fourth line and has mostly stayed there. He got a little bit of time with Alex Killorn and Anthony Cirelli, and has seen some post-penalty shifts with Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow. But he hasn’t gotten an extended time up front. The bottom six though is where Colton belongs on this roster, and he doesn’t have the same offensive upside as Barre-Boulet.
  • Alex Volkov - Volkov did get an opportunity early in the top six when he was first called up in 2019-20. During that season, his most common partner was Steven Stamkos. His next four most common forward partners were Cedric Paquette (after his top six opportunity early), Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, and Alex Killorn. Volkov was given the same kind of opportunity that Barre-Boulet is having now. The only goal scored at 5v5 for the Lightning while he was on the ice came with Alex Killorn and Mitchell Stephens. Killorn was the only top six caliber forward that he had a positive xGF% with. Volkov was given that opportunity, but couldn’t run with it.
  • Carter Verhaeghe - This is the guy in the group that probably most deserved a better chance up the line up. He’s proved he can produce this year with the Florida Panthers. Cooper never gave him that opportunity because of the stacked nature of the Lightning forward group.
  • Mitchell Stephens - Like Colton, Stephens was always destined for a bottom six role.
  • Mathieu Joseph - When Joseph entered the NHL, he primarily played in the bottom six. Skillwise, he’s kind of a tweener middle six type. I don’t mind seeing him get occasional opportunities in the top six because his speed can be disruptive and he has a good shot. But he’s not at the same offensive skill level.
  • Adam Erne - Erne fits into the same kind of conversation as Joseph, but has also had an inconsistent NHL career. Erne lacked the high end offensive skills as he didn’t progress as far offensively as expected in the AHL.
  • Anthony Cirelli - When Cirelli stepped into the line up, he did so on the third line. While Cirelli is now firmly a top six center, he had to work his way up to that position over his first couple of seasons. Cirelli had to earn his way up the line up and wasn’t handed a big opportunity in the top six early in his career.

Realistically, I feel like I have to go back to Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat to find the last big offensive forward prospects that got a big role early in their careers. Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov both had to start on the third line and didn’t become big time producers in the top six until their second full NHL seasons. Jonathan Drouin had a similar story of starting out on the bottom end of the line up and having to, the hard way, earn his way up the line up.

Johnson and Palat actually started on the third line in 2013-14 with Richard Panik. When Steven Stamkos was injured early in the season, the two of them were still with Panik for almost a month before they were teamed up with Martin St. Louis on the top line. That was in the 28th game of the season that they got their opportunity with a future Hall of Famer.

The point is, Barre-Boulet is making the most of his opportunity here, and it’s been a rare one to get under Jon Cooper. How long will it last? Well, probably until the end of the regular season. If he’ll remain in the line up into the playoffs is going to very much be dependent on the health of Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos and when they can make their return.

For now, he’s keeping Kucherov’s seat warm on the top line. He’s bolstered his case for being able to fill in a top six spot next season after Julien BriseBois is forced to re-make the forward corps this offseason due to the salary cap crunch that is looming.