After last season, Gabriel Fortier jumped from 11th to 5th place in our ranking of the best young talents in the Tampa Bay Lightning organization. Part of the reason why is obviously some players leaving the Lightning or simply aging out and become ineligible, but Fortier’s NHL debut also played a huge part in his jump.
When writing a similar article about Fortier one year ago, I didn’t expect him to see in the NHL. That was supposed to be his first full season at the professional level and I thought he’d still need some time to simply adjust to this level, even though he earned a “Rookie of the Year“ award in the Syracuse Crunch in the COVID season. Then he made a little splash during exhibition games with the Lightning, scoring a hat-trick in one game and was one of the last players who didn’t made the roster on opening night in 2021, losing that spot to Taylor Raddysh and Boris Katchouk. The start of the regular season with Syracuse was quite successful for him too as he posted four goals and 11 total points in 17 games.
With the Lightning already missing Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov due to long-term injuries when Mathieu Joseph suffered an injury in a game against the Minnesota Wild, Fortier was a logical choice to be recalled from Syracuse. He made his NHL debut on November 30, during a game against the St. Louis Blues, He played 9:37 in the game, recording one shot, three hits and one block. Overall, during his one-month stint in the NHL, he played in 10 games, scoring just one point — a goal against the Vegas Golden Knights in his 8th game in the NHL.
Over his time in the NHL, Fortier was mostly used on the wing, playing the majority of his time with centers Riley Nash and Anthony Cirelli. Despite his experience with playing on penalty kill in Syracuse, he didn’t have a chance to make the Lightning’s PK unit, playing only on even strength. In his 10 NHL games, he averaged 9:17 minutes. His underlying advanced stats are quite strong: he recorded 54.41 CF% and 56.68 xGF%, however he started 60 percents of his shifts in the offensive zone. As a player of bottom-six lines, he engaged in physical hockey, having one of the highest rates of hits amongst his teammates with 15.51 hits per 60 minutes. Earlier in his career Fortier had drawn attention as a Yanni Gourde type player, which was confirmed at the NHL level, where his forechecking was quite noticeable.
After being reassigned back to the AHL, Fortier continued playing top minutes for Syracuse, playing mostly on second-line wing. Overall during the 2021-22 regular season he scored 14 goals and 21 assists in 72 games and played in five playoff games, where he recorded one assist.
Currently Fortier is in final year of his entry-level contract. Despite Taylor Raddysh and Boris Katchouk not being in the organization already, Fortier isn’t the main favorite amongst rookies to make the opening roster in October. With Anthony Cirelli out at the beginning of the regular season, Cole Koepke emerged as the main candidate, training with the team during the previous postseason and playing on a line with Vladdy Namestnikov and Ross Colton during training camp. Fortier, however, should be one of the next main candidates. Unlike Alex Barre-Boulet, who’s also competing for the forward spot, Fortier is more fitted to bottom-six role so we will probably see more of him in the next season.
With Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Corey Perry also on expiring contracts and potentially leaving next offseason, the Lightning will need players who could fill bottom-six spots on the roster. He’s quite versatile player, despite playing majority of his career on a wing, he has also experience of playing as a center. He’s able to kill penalties, has solid skating and speed, and is known as a player with decent hands and shot. He’s also very dynamic and gritty player, not afraid to engage physically and is able to apply pressure on his opponents, which perfectly fits the the Lightning’s philosophy. If he isn’t making the NHL roster, we can expect him to take a more important role in Syracuse and continue developing to be fully ready for the NHL in 2023-24.