On the heels of a national holiday, 32 prospects--most drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning, others signed as free agents and a handful of invitees--gathered on the ice Saturday at the Ice Sports Forum in Brandon to begin several days of on-ice and off-ice conditioning as well as instruction in organizational values and the culture of professional hockey for both returning and first-time participants.
"Let's call this what it is: summer hockey," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper told assembled media. "Part of what [the players] get out of this camp is the chance to get to know myself, Rob Zettler, the staff. Getting to know expectations and being a pro."
"A lot of these kids are coming from juniors programs, college, all these different walks of life, but here at the Tampa Bay Lightning we've got a certain code of conduct," Cooper noted. "This is where it starts."
Having concluded fitness testing and physicals, players hit the ice and rounded out their day with an hour-long practice spent completing basic drills as well as a forty-five minute power skating session.
"The first day is always kind of a feel out day," Cooper said. "Some of these guys, I'm sure, have been skating and some haven't been."
Keeping in mind that the 3-on-3 tournament scheduled to begin Tuesday and wrap-up on Wednesday, the final day of camp, will provide better opportunities to gauge player abilities and hockey sense, here are some brief and selected observations:
- 2012 1st-rounder Andrey Vasilevskiy, who put on quite the show this time last year, looks to be in top shape. In numerous drills, especially while facing dozens of breakaway attempts without rest, the young netminder had the chance to display the stunning natural athleticism that complements his sharp technique and quick-but-fluid movement. He's got a knack for luring shooters in closer then they should want to get. With his size (6'3", 204) and agility, he's simply too good in close for most shooters, sealing the five-hole to drive guys wide before kicking out one of his long legs to eliminate everything low. Again, he's just fun to watch.
- More goalie talk: if it weren't for the equipment and maybe a few stylistic differences, it'd be hard to tell 2013 5th-rounder Kristers Gudlevskis  (6'3", 205) apart from Vasilevskiy. With a nearly identical build as his Russian counterpart, Gudlevskis also shares an athletic and active approach in net. Not that it is significant, but he did appear much more fatigued than Vasilevskiy at the end of the breakaway drill, when he made a point to show his exhaustion by lying on his back for a few seconds before picking himself up.
- In case you haven't heard, Jonathan Drouin  is very good at this game we call hockey. Fans will get a better chance to appreciate how special the Lightning's 3rd overall selection from this year's draft is during the 3-on-3 tournament but he did deliver a few flashes of his passing and scoring ability. At 5'11", 191 pounds, Drouin isn't 'big' but he certainly isn't tiny. He does skate a little lower to the ice.
- Slater Koekkoek , whom the Lightning took 10th overall last year and who's season came to an abrupt halt in January after injury, certainly looked fresh. His skating, which is a wonderful demonstration of coordinated power and grace, is as strong as ever and in conjunction with a sturdy frame (6'2", 188) that he'll be adding to, it's easy to compare him to former Tampa Bay defenseman Paul Ranger  in terms of potential impact down the road. The only time he really looked off was during a drill for defensemen that had them taking one-timers from the point. Koekkoek seemed to struggle with timing his release, at first not making enough contact before cranking the puck hard but a little wildly.
- 2012 7th-rounder Nikita Gusev  (5'9", 173) and 2010 4th-rounder James Mullin (5'11", 181) are near clones out on the ice, from their stride and the way they dart to and fro with the puck to their quick releases and the heavy shots they manage. Snipers. Mullin, in particular, seemed to have his way with Vasilevskiy, whom he beat cleanly with mid-range missiles on a number of occasions today. Gusev, perhaps not surprisingly, showed a lot of chemistry with former Team Russia and CSKA Moscow teammate, the highly-skilled Nikita Kucherov .
- Speaking of Kucherov (5'11", 174), it's one thing to see his puck-wizardry on television but you get a new sense of appreciation for it by seeming him execute his stick-work live. Tampa Bay's 2011 2nd-round is highly creative in tight against defenders and goalies, able to finesse the puck in ways that seem to defy explanation. Simply incredible eye-hand coordination.
- This year's 2nd-round selection, Adam Erne , also stuck out. At 6'1" and 211 pounds, Erne already has a sturdy, thick frame well-suited to playing as a power forward. Beyond his size, Erne impresses with quick feet that give him great burst to lead or jump into a rush or head from a stand-still in front of the net to a loose puck in the corner. He moves, with and without the puck, up and down the ice very well.
Andrey Vasilevskiy stretches out to make a save against Cedric Paquette . Photo by Eric DuBose.
Jonathan Drouin during a drill. Photo by Eric DuBose.
Nikita Gusev during a drill. Photo by Eric DuBose.