The Tampa Bay Lightning have five players on Canada's World Junior roster this year, including three who could make up a dynamite third line in the future.
There are teams that have more prospects and teams that have better prospects at the World Junior Championship, but you’d have to think the Tampa Bay Lightning are fairly pleased at the moment the way things are developing. The Lightning makes up for roughly a quarter of the roster for Team Canada that will play for the gold medal tonight against Team USA.
All told, the Lightning have five players on the Canadian team – forwards Taylor Raddysh, Mitchell Stephens, Anthony Cirelli and Mathieu Joseph and backup goalie Connor Ingram. The forwards have all had an impact one way or another in the tournament, from Raddysh’s four-goal effort against Latvia to Stephens and Cirelli combining on Canada’s first two goals in the semifinal win over Sweden. Ingram, meanwhile, has not been so lucky. His performance has been spotty in the tournament and after allowing two goals on Sweden’s first three shots, was pulled in the semifinal against Sweden. There’s no question his .833 save percentage in the tournament looks ugly.
But as the Lightning’s director of scouting Al Murray points out, Ingram was selected to the team for a reason and a bad stretch at a crucial time for a teenager should not define him. In the Western League, Carter Hart has the best goals-against average and Ingram is second, while Ingram has the best save percentage, with Hart second. “If you look at the games (Ingram) plays in Kamloops, they’re overmatched, they get outplayed and outshot on a regular basis and he faces a real high number of scoring chances,” Murray said. “If he’s not one of the three stars most nights, they’re not winning. And they’re winning a lot more than they’re losing.”
The Philadelphia Flyers lead the way with seven prospects in this year’s tournament, so they get the award for sheer volume. With Colin White of USA and Thomas Chabot of Canada, the Ottawa Senators probably win the tournament on the strength of having arguably the two best players in it. With Russian sniper Kirill Kaprizov, to go along with Joel Eriksson Ek of Sweden and Luke Kunin and behemoth Jordan Greenway of USA, the Minnesota Wild are also in the running.
What’s interesting about Tampa’s WJC prospects, though, is that none of them was taken in the first round of the draft. Raddysh was taken in the second round and Ingram in the third last June. And even though the Lightning had no first-round pick in 2015, it did have six picks in the top 20 and got Stephens in the second round, Cirelli in the third and Joseph in the fourth. Murray credits area scouts Rob Kitamura, Michel Boucher and Brad Whelen for identifying that talent, saying Kitamura pushed particularly hard for Cirelli, who had gone undrafted in the Ontario League, but has a penchant for scoring big goals.
Raddysh probably has the biggest offensive upside potential of the group. Murray compares him to Ottawa Senators winger Mark Stone. “Mark is a little meaner than Raddysh and Raddysh skates a little better than Mark Stone,” Murray said. “With Raddysh, you give him a chance to put the puck in the net, he puts the puck in the net.”
And when you’re looking for Tampa’s third line a few years down the road, it could very well be Cirelli between Joseph on the left side and Stephens on the right. Murray describes them as energy players who can play almost any role assigned to them, but their future in the NHL projects to be solid top-nine players. “If you look at those three guys, even though they’re putting up numbers in their leagues and at this event, we see them as a third line on a three offensive-line team,” Murray said. “Like a lot of teams these days, we’re hoping to have four offensive lines, so the more of those guys you can find with energy and can contribute, the more success you’ll have."
The Lightning would have had another prospect in the tournament playing for Finland if 2016 fourth-rounder Jonne Tammela hadn't been injured early in the season playing for the Peterborough Petes. Raddysh will be eligible to return for Canada next season and Murray thinks he could be joined by 2016 picks Brett Howden and Boris Katchouk, with Libor Hajek playing on the Czech team.