Recent critiques of the Tampa Bay Lightning organizational prospects have pretty much followed the same pattern. They have some capable players that will make the NHL, but at best they are bottom-six forwards that are strong defensively, but aren’t going to do much scoring at the NHL level. With the 31st pick in the 2022 NHL draft last night, general manager Julien BriseBois managed to inject a little offense into that prospect pool with Isaac Howard.
Howard, an 18-year-old left winger from Hudson, Wisconsin, already possesses NHL-level speed and stick-handling. In 60 games with the United States National U18 team he posted 33 goals and added 49 assists. His play in the U18 World Junior Championships also heightened his rankings as he added six more goals and five assists in six games with four of the goals coming in one game against Canada.
Howard is pure offense. He is a goalscorer that has a vast array of shots. His skating is excellent and he uses it not only to burst out out of the zone, but also to create odd angles to shoot from. The shifty forward is also able to change his shooting angles thanks to his above-average stickwork. It’s been quite awhile since the Lightning have had a player with his abilities come through their system.
The quickness in the offensive zone allows him to find open spots and his shot is good enough to beat goaltenders cleanly. It also makes him hard to cover. One of the differences in the Stanley Cup Final was the ability of the Colorado Avalanche’s quickness in the offensive zone that had the Lightning defenders chasing them around. Howard plays in that style.
As talented as he is offensively there are still some areas he needs to work on in order to make it to the NHL. In the defensive zone he is okay, using his skills to try and intercept passes to break the other way. However, he can get caught out of position reaching for plays. While he is a solid 5’10”, 181 lbs. he has had trouble winning board battles and forechecking isn’t the strongest part of the game.
There have also been some questions about his work ethic. While he does play with a lot of energy, he isn’t known as a grinder. A few of the scouts that covered him have a noticed a bit of “selfish play in his game” and some “cheating in his game”. They also noticed a tendency to float a bit. Well, there were some similar concerns about Nikita Kucherov’s game when he was drafted as well (although Kuch was a little more engaged physically even as a junior player).
There is always a certain wariness about young players that rely on speed and skill to produce their scoring at the junior or national development level. Can they continue to press that advantage when the level of competition rises against them. Some of the moves that might work against a defender that is going to be selling insurance and playing in the beer leagues within three years might not play at the professional level.
The good news is that the Lightning aren’t going to throw him into the NHL right away. He is committed to a very good program at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. There will be a big step up in his competition and we’ll see how he adapts. It will likely be at least two years before he even contemplates signing his entry-level deal.
Isaac Howard, aka “Ice Man”, was the best player available when the Lightning made the draft. He was also the exact type of player Tampa Bay needed to bring into their system. If he continues to develop along this path the Bolts may have a top-six forward ready to take the ice when some of their current stars are ready to retire.