BRANDON It would be easy for Lightning fans to see the 2009 draft as the year defenseman Victor Hedman landed in their laps with the No. 2 overall pick.
But that draft class also marks the first time in team history Tampa Bay made two selections in the opening round of the NHL Entry after then general manager Brian Lawton moved up into the 29th overall spot to snare 6-foot-3 winger Carter Ashton.
Two years later, Ashton may finally be ready to make his mark on the organization.
Ashton is taking part this week in Tampa Bay's summer development camp at the Ice Sports Forum in Brandon along with 29 other prospects. But Ashton, the son of Brent Ashton, who played in 998 career NHL games, squarely has his sights set on a return to the Forum in September when the Lightning open up formal training camp to prepare for the 2011-12 season.
With the loss of Simon Gagne, who signed a two-year deal with Los Angeles, there may be a spot open in a top six role when the full team gathers together just over two months from now. While holdovers such as Mattias Ritola and Steve Downie (who played a third line role in the postseson) along with newly acquired Ryan Shannon will be in the mix to fill that slot, Ashton also figures to factor into that equation.
"Carter is a very skilled player who can also play a power game. I think it's important that he brings that power game shift after shift and add the skill in,'' Lightning director of scouting Al Murray said. "Sometimes in junior he has enough talent that he can be a skill player and he doesn't always have to work the corners and work the front of the net and be that power forward style of player. But as he makes the step toward pro hockey it's important that he brings that competitiveness shift after shift, that gritty power game shift after shift.''
If last season is any indication, Ashton has a penchant for being a quick learner.
After finishing off his junior career in the second round of the Western Hockey League playoffs with the Tri-City Americans – he ended last season with 33 goals and 71 points between Regina and Tri-City and had three goals in 10 playoff games – Ashton ended his season in the American Hockey League with Tampa Bay's top affiliate, appearing in the final two postseason games for Norfolk.
In that short period of time, there was a noticeable difference in how Ashton went about his game.
"He came up and played with Norfolk after his team was eliminated from the playoffs and he was outstanding,'' said Lightning player development consultant and former NHLer Steve Thomas. "He understood the type of game he had to play at the American Hockey League level. In junior, he was kind of a top dog so he felt he could do things that he wouldn't do at the pro level, so he got away with it, so his best attributes are going hard to the net, going in on a heavy forecheck, taking bodies, taking pucks to the net from in deep and finishing checks. That's the way he has to play to be effective at the next level.''
Heading into his first camp as a pro, Ashton fully understands there is an opportunity for him to make a strong impression, and perhaps earn a spot. In his two preseason appearances in his last camp, Ashton made a strong impression scoring a pair of power play goals and hardly looking out of place.
"I think I still have to prove myself,'' Ashton said. "That would be a big accomplishment and that would be a big step (making the team out of camp). We'll see how the summer goes. I'm looking forward to improving and coming to camp ready and we'll see what happens from there.''
The patient approach to developing his game has aided in the learning curve.
"Just having a couple more years of experience has helped, I feel that I've gotten a little bit stronger and feel more comfortable on the ice now,'' Ashton said. "I've learned a lot coming to this (summer) camp the last three years. I know I still have a lot to go, but it's been a good process.''