The Syracuse-to-Tampa pipeline is flowing just fine these days, funneling Lightning prospects up from the minors and seamlessly integrating them into the Tampa Bay lineup.
The Lightning will dress at least three rookies, and possibly a fourth, tonight when Tampa Bay hosts Winnipeg. All have contributed on the ice.
It sounds like a simple plan: develop players and plug them in slowly to build depth and establish organizational culture. It was part of the five-year plan general manager Steve Yzerman put in place when he was hired in 2010.
Though it also was the plan during previous regimes, it was never executed as successfully as it is now.
Since the lockout ended and the NHL season began, every player the Lightning have summoned from the minor leagues has stepped right into the lineup and looked like a perfect fit.
“Every waterfall starts with one drop of water,’’ Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. “And every drop that you bring in, that makes a big difference because once you brought one and then two and then three, all of a sudden you have a line. And then you have a pair of defensemen that fit within your culture and eventually you have your waterfall.
“So, right now, we have tons of drops, so we’re trying to make a waterfall.’’
Tampa Bay has used four rookie forwards with no previous NHL experience: Cory Conacher, Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat and Richard Panik. They have combined for 12 goals and 31 points. They also have scored five game-winning goals, accounting for half of Tampa Bay’s 10 victories this season.
Even 26-year-old Pierre-Cedric Labrie, who appeared in 14 games with the Lightning last season and is listed as a rookie, looks more confident on the ice this season.
One thing all five players have in common — they all played two months last season for head coach Jon Cooper as Tampa Bay’s affiliate in the American Hockey League captured the Calder Cup championship. Winning breeds confidence, and having success in a system similar to the Lightning’s aids in the transition to the NHL level.
“They are learning good habits playing for Coop in the American Hockey League, that’s No. 1,’’ Yzerman said. “They’re learning how to play responsible defense, so they are good all-around players, as well. So, they come in and they fit in.”
Conacher, the MVP in the AHL last season, is a legitimate Calder Trophy candidate and leads NHL rookies with 20 points and 13 assists. Killorn is tied for seventh among rookies with four goals and tied for 10th with eight points despite not being called up until Feb. 10. Both have been key contributors on the top two lines.
Panik, who has since been sent back to Syracuse, looked electric at times and showed flashes of the player he can be once he becomes an NHL regular. Palat, who had assists in each of his first two games, came as advertised, a reliable two-way player capable of making plays.
Cooper feels like a proud father.
“It’s unreal watching them come in wet behind the ears, buy into what we are preaching and become players,’’ Cooper said. “All of us, players included, are fired up for the guys.’’
Not all have been Yzerman finds. Killorn was a 2007 draft pick under former general manager Jay Feaster, while Panik was a second-round pick by former general manager Brian Lawton.
Conacher was a college free agent signed last season, and Palat was a seventh-round pick in 2011. And others currently in Syracuse are expected to see NHL action in the near future, including forwards Tyler Johnson, J.T. Brown, Brett Connolly and Vladislav Namestnikov, plus defensemen Mark Barberio and Radko Gudas. All but Barberio were acquired by Yzerman.
Developing young players capable of making their way to the parent club is a vital part of Yzerman’s vision for long-term success, particularly under the restraints of a salary cap.
“You can’t keep going out every summer and spending money on unrestricted free agents; the cost financially is high,” Yzerman said. “So, you need young guys coming into the organization and these guys have been with us for a couple of years and know what we are trying to do.’’
And they are going out and doing it.