Cole Koepke is in a very interesting spot as he settles into #4 in our Top 25 Under 25. The only players above him are the bonafide NHLers, and those directly below him are either the ones close to the league or are young prospects with the most value. That makes Koepke “best of the rest,” a title the Lightning themselves are hoping he hits because there is an open job for the last forward spot in the lineup. We’re betting that he comes through.
Koepke was drafted in the sixth round in 2018 by the Lightning, and at the age of 24 is in his last year of eligibility in our list. He spent three years at the University of Minnesota-Duluth (the same school Isaac Howard is going to) scoring 38 goals and 75 points in 104 games.
Koepke left the NCAA after his third year, something I noticed several prospects do in 2020 and 2021 if they were able to complete their degrees virtually over the summer. Koepke joined the Crunch in the latter part of 2021 and that transitioned him into the strong rookie season he had last year where he finished 5th in team scoring with 20 goals and 39 points in 69 games.
The Lightning have made it clear over the summer that they like Koepke and they intend to give him a real chance at a fourth line role. Because the team have said this, I would like to help explain the reasons why, as well as the situations where it might not happen.
First off, Koepke plays a heavy game on the forecheck and in battles along the boards. That immediately fits what the Lightning want with their fourth line of PE Bellemare, Pat Maroon, and Corey Perry, one of whom (probably Perry) will have to play up on the third line while Anthony Cirelli is out. Another thing Koepke does often is be that physical presence between the benches and between whistles. He’s not afraid to stand up for his teammates and try to play the intimidation game. That fits right in with the Lightning’s identity.
Both in the NCAA and the AHL, Koepke showed that he can shoot the puck pretty hard, but there weren’t many instances where he was doing it under tight pressure or at awkward angles. By definition for fourth liners because of their icetime and usage, there’s very little that we should expect from Koepke if he were to make the team, certainly not 20 goals like in the opportunity he got playing in the top six in Syracuse. Fourth liners score about 10 goals at the best, and that’s not because they suck offensively, it’s because they don’t get power play time or time on ice because other players are played more as well as penalties.
In defense of his shot mechanics, Koepke can still provide a lot in terms of the possession game because of his ability to generate shots. He averaged three shots per game across the whole season, totalling 199 on the year. That put him in the top 2% of AHLers in terms of shots per (estimated) 60 minutes, he also averaged almost 2 primary points per (estimated) 60 minutes, which is in the top 10% of players. And just to round out the math, he was comfortably above average in terms of goal differential when he was on the ice, meaning he was a net positive to his team when he was on the ice vs off.
Just so everyone has the heads up, Cole Koepke is going to be the next Lightning prospect that makes you go "where did he come from?"— Kyle Cushman (@Kyle_Cush) September 22, 2022
Really solid rookie season in the AHL producing high shot volume and even strength goals https://t.co/K1v93NT30h pic.twitter.com/iRSdm6EKv2
I talked about the shooting, which I think is going to be the thing that stops him from being a Ross Colton type, but that doesn’t mean he can’t get his offense in other ways. Having a strong shot volume not only gives you chances to score, but it means the puck isn’t in your end of the ice. His defensive game is about what you would expect from a pro, not much to worry about there.
The other thing I want to mention is his stop-start acceleration, which is okay, but not great for someone of his size. I would’ve expected more. I think that’ll hurt him a bit when it comes to “getting” pucks and being aggressive in the neutral zone. I could be wrong, it’s not like he’s very far off average. I just wouldn’t expect the same zippiness compared to other slightly smaller players.
So for me, and this is just for now, I can’t see Koepke going higher than the fourth line. I think the fourth line would be a good place for him to show his strengths and be a positive impact. The third line is just a little more difficult, and for someone who hasn’t played in the NHL before, it’s a big jump to try and make.
The Tampa Bay Lightning are a team where they’ll give “their guys” a chance and choose to be loyal instead of picking up players who might technically be better but are new. They’ve given their young players a real chance and are willing to give up overall quality for team cohesion and stylistic preferences. They’ve done this with Cal Foote and ABB as they’ve tried to bring them up.
I do believe that when the waiver wire begins, the Lightning will be able to find better players to fit into their bottom six than what Koepke can provide. There’s going to be a lot of players with good NHL experience and with good tools available as the league becomes ever more competitive in the (non-star) support roles.
The Lightning are currently living two seasons at the moment. The first season is what I call “pre-Cirelli” and then with Cirelli after his injury. While Cirelli is out, the Lightning have plenty of cap room to make a full 23 player roster, something they haven’t gotten to do in a while. That means three spares instead of the usual one or two. At the moment, there is one lineup spot as well as up to two forward spots available. I’m assuming Haydn Fleury has the 7D job at the moment until Bogosian returns. That means three players the team can trial and work out who’s best. I have to assume Koepke will be one of those three, I’m anticipating a player on waivers will also be there, and maybe Fortier will get the final spot.
Because Koepke is waivers exempt, the Lightning will be able to keep him in the organization on the Crunch after Cirelli comes back and those spots are no longer available (at that point the Lightning can run a 22-player roster with one spare at forward and defense).
Anyway, all this complicated roster talk can be ignored for another time. What we do know is Koepke, despite no NHL experience up to this point, is very likely to make the Lightning’s roster and will play games for them this year. He fits the bill perfectly for what they want in a fourth liner.