Camp, Cuts Part of the Process for Prospects

The Tampa Bay Lightning cut 27 players from its training camp roster Sunday, including 12 of the club’s prospects. Only prospects Mattias Ritola, Brett Connolly, and Scott Jackson remained with the club after the weekend.

“I’ve got to pay my dues to get up here and be a producing player,” Ritola said before cut-down day. “I've got to do the work first. I feel really excited to be here right now.”

Ritola spent time in Grand Rapids of the AHL two years ago and passed through waivers to get to AHL Norfolk last season. He’s still paying his dues and putting in the work to get to and stay in the NHL.

Other prospects are beginning that process, which starts with training camp.

The Lightning make its NHL training camp as beneficial as possible for prospects and does its best to keep in contact with them after cut-down day.

In camp, the learning experience is second to none.

“Our coaching staff, maybe more than any I’ve worked with, spends a lot of time individually, one on one with players,” said Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman, a veteran of nearly 30 years of professional hockey as a player and front office leader.

Lightning assistant coaches were seen with several prospects in one-on-one situations during practices the first weekend at camp, including Geoffrey Schemitsch, Connolly, and Daniel Milan, who was signed a few days later.

Although he doesn’t have a lot of time to spend with each young player in camp, Head Coach Guy Boucher helps in the process, too.

“During training camp, [teaching] is tough,” Boucher told Bolt Prospects. “I’ll talk to them in the gym here and there, but I do go downstairs before the practices and I show them what they’re going do on the ice – not every drill, but I have what I call the ‘theme of the day.’ I have different themes I go over: breakouts, neutral zone, o-zone, defensive zone – how we play.”

Prospects will look to veterans for help, too. Cory Conacher spent a good amount of time talking with his idol, Martin St. Louis. They even got to spend time on the same line together in preseason games.

For St. Louis, that kind of opportunity for Conacher, who called it something he’d always remember, brings back memories.

“I’ve been in that position before,” he said before the club’s preseason game in Orlando. “I was nervous. He’s probably going to be nervous. More than anything, it’s just trying to calm him down, [and saying] ‘Just play your game, don’t worry about trying to get me the puck or Stammer the puck. Play your game, make your plays.’”

Former prospect James Wright has 49 NHL games played compared to St. Louis’s 854, but that’s 49 games more than most prospects. Wright said younger players ask him for advice and clarification during organized activities.

“Maybe not so much in main camp, but I definitely saw it in prospect camp and rookie camp,” Wright said. “I’d maybe be the go-to guy between the players and the coaches. If they needed to know something I’d try to give a little bit of advice here and there - both on being a professional and what it takes and doing the right things like putting in the extra time after practice. Things that will get you noticed.”

Unfortunately for Wright, he was among those cut on the weekend, though his leadership will be needed in Norfolk as players continue their development. (More on Wright later this week.)

Norfolk Admirals Head Coach Jon Cooper called “How do you balance development and winning at the AHL level?” the “million-dollar question.” His response was one Ads fans will be happy to hear: “The best development is winning.”

Cooper said he and the coaches do a lot of teaching, getting to know prospects on a personal level, and finding the right situations for them to succeed as individuals.

He said he also puts a lot of the responsibility of young player development on veteran players like James Wright to show prospects how to prepare and be professional.

The Lightning’s professional approach to prospect development doesn’t end with telling a player he’s been sent to Norfolk’s camp or back to his junior club.

“We’ll talk to every one of the kids and ask them what they thought of the camp and give them our thoughts on their play, what they need to do to improve, what we hope they do over the course of their season back with their team, and then we stay in touch,” Yzerman told Bolt Prospects.

That’s when “Stumpy,” Lightning Development Consultant Steve Thomas, steps in, Yzerman says.

“Steve Thomas’s responsibility is to go around and see all of our kids all over the world; go and see them, watch them play, make sure they’re doing what they need to do both on and off the ice.”

The prospects have to do their part, too.

“We meet with them all individually and go over the camp, fitness testing, and give them as much guidance and things to think about as need-be, and then send them on their way,” Yzerman continued. “It’s up to them to do the work.”

The current group of prospects has a good future according to one prospect who has been doing the work – and is still with the big club because of it.

“We’ve got a lot of good young kids,” Mattias Ritola said. “This organization is going to see a bright future.”

That’s the goal of the process.

(Pictured: Prospect Carter Ashton. Photo by Eric DuBose.)