Each summer for the past three years Tampa Bay Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman has added an extra prospect – or “bonus draft pick” – to his prospect pool. A player the organization considers worthy of a pro contract but slips through the draft is signed and the player development process begins.
In 2010, Yzerman’s first year on the job, it was free agent defenseman Charles Landry . Tampa Bay signed the righty two-way defenseman to a standard rookie contract and sent him back to QMJHL Montreal.
A year later, Yzerman signed big defenseman Dan Milan to an entry-level deal before returning him to Victoriaville of the Quebec league. Of course, this was the same fall that free agent camp invitee Cory Conacher  made his mark, but Conacher wasn’t signed to anything more than an AHL deal until the spring because unlike Landry and Milan he had American Hockey League eligibility.
Last summer, after the draft and before the lockout, Yzerman inked Russian rearguard Artem Sergeev  and watched as Sergeev made the Russian World Junior squad for the second straight year while enjoying a breakout season for QMJHL Val-d’Or.
For years Lightning prospect followers settled for the draft’s harvest and not much else to fill the prospect pool. Yzerman, backed by the wallet of team owner Jeff Vinik, has made a routine of signing free agent prospects, and not just in the fall.
In addition to the four players mentioned above, Yzerman signed reigning AHL MVP Tyler Johnson  while he was still at WHL Spokane, Danick Gauthier (QMJHL Saint John), and Andrej Sustr  (University of Nebraska-Omaha) in his quest to fill the Lightning organization with a quality depth.
This year the candidates included University of Minnesota-Duluth defenseman-turned-forward Drew Olson  (pictured), energetic OHL London winger Brett Welychka, WHL Calgary late blooming center Brady Brassart, and QMJHL Gatineau goalie Eric Brassard.
Brassard and Welychka dropped from the candidate list when they were returned to juniors earlier this week without contracts.
Welychka, who played on a line with Brassart in the Lightning’s second intra-squad scrimmage Tuesday, recognizes it’s a process to fulfill his dream of an NHL contract.
“It’s a good learning experience,” Welychka said of his first professional camp the morning before his release. “I’ve just been working hard and playing my game out there and just trying to turn a few heads.”
The Lightning called the 5-10 forward after the draft, inviting him to the club’s Prospect Development Camp. A third liner with a deep Knights club, Welychka accumulated 35 points (16 goals) last season and added six more points on his way to the Memorial Cup tournament.
“It’s a great spot and everything’s a positive here so it made my decision pretty easy,” he said of his choice to attend the Lightning’s development camp.
After development camp the Lightning added him to their prospect tournament and main camp rosters to get a closer look.
Though Welychka’s professional future was undecided at the time of his interview, he wasn’t thinking about the looming decision.
“I just keep my head low and I just go with the flow right now,” he said. “I’m a free agent, so I’m not trying to look into it too much, but like I said, if I can turn some heads hopefully I can get a contract [now], or a little later on with this team, or [with] another team so that’s what I’m trying to do.”
The Lightning or any other club can draft him next year. Welychka’s own description of his game certainly fits an Yzerman-era Lightning draft choice.
“I like to bring something every game,” he said. “I try to bring some energy to the game and I’m trying to get better every game. I’ve got a north-south game, chip pucks in and go get it, help my teammates out [and] my linemates out. A lot of system stuff. I like to think about the game a lot, try to be in the right spots and sometimes I’ll chip in goals or get some assists and that just comes with it, or fighting – I’ll do that. Whatever, really.”
He returns to London with some individual objectives that may make him more attractive to interested teams.
“I have a goal to get some more points – more than last year, and hopefully just play the way I did last year and get in some peoples’ faces and try to pop in some goals.”
Both Welychka and Brassard were limited to returning to their junior teams because they are still teenagers. The AHL says players coming out of Canadian juniors must be 20 years of age to play in the American league.
Brassart and Olson can play in the AHL and will get extended looks at Syracuse’s training camp next week. Olson, who is on a Professional Try Out agreement said he’ll likely be going to Syracuse. The Crunch will then leave for St. John’s, Newfoundland, for camp.
“I’m here for right now and I think I’m heading down to Syracuse for their camp and then [the next location] is determined by how I play down here and in Syracuse.”
The Lightning acquired Olson from Columbus shortly after the draft. He became a free agent in August when his NHL rights expired, but he said the Lightning signed him to a PTO as soon as he got to Tampa Bay’s training camp.
Earning a professional contract is hard enough, so Olson is fighting an uphill battle trying to do it at a new position.
“I don’t have career games playing forward; I finished college playing defense,” he said. “It’s a little weird right now but it’s actually not too bad. [The Lightning] have been real helpful and showing me what to do and giving me helpful hints and stuff like that so the change hasn’t actually been too bad.”
Olson spent some time at wing in the Lightning’s Prospect Development Camp, but was thrown another curve the morning of his camp scrimmage debut on Tuesday.
“It was kind of a shocker – they switched me to center, which I haven’t played before,” he said. “It was a little bit of an adjustment, but I think it went pretty well.”
Now that he’s played center, wing, and defense, where will he end up?
“I don’t know,” he said. “I think they said they had a lot of D in their system right now so right now I’m sticking at forward but if they need me to move back to D I can move back to D, too. I’m comfortable with both.”
Olson could be signed to an NHL contract by the Lightning and be eligible for a call-up if needed, but more likely he’s a candidate for an AHL contract after this PTO is finished. He could also sign another PTO. The Lightning hold his rights under the PTO agreement.
Like Welychka, Brassart, and Brassard, Olson’s future is a great unknown, but he’ll control what he can and let the rest sort itself out.
“I think the biggest thing is to make sure I push a little harder and drive a little harder and make myself work harder and stand out a little bit more so I can show them that I can earn a spot somewhere on this team,” he said.
Yzerman is watching, pen ready if needed.