BRANDON — The core of the Lightning’s organizational strength — goaltending depth — is front and center at this week’s prospect development camp as the top three goaltenders in Tampa Bay’s system show off why the future is so bright in net.
But that strength could also prove to be a detriment, and the depth could take a hit at the end of the season. That’s because Adam Wilcox — the Hobey Baker-caliber netminder who led the University of Minnesota to the national title game last season — holds his future in his hands.
Should he stay with the Lightning, who drafted him in the sixth round in 2011, or should he go elsewhere?
Wilcox could easily stick with the Lightning, sign a contract and start his pro career as soon as the end of camp this weekend.
But if Wilcox returns to school in the fall and plays another season with the Gophers, where Minnesota will be a title contender again, he will have the option at the end of the season to become an unrestricted free agent and go to a team of his choosing. The CBA allows players to become a free agent four years after they were drafted.
With Andrei Vasilevskiy, the 19th overall pick in 2012, and Kristers Gudlevskis, who burst onto the scene last season, already under contract, Wilcox understands the situation.
“It’s a good problem to have for everyone,’’ Wilcox said. “That’s something that we will obviously think about here and keep talking about.’’
Considering how strong the team’s goaltending prospects are, the climb up the depth chart and the internal competition could be a tough hill to climb.
It would seem the Lightning have too many talented goaltenders and not enough nets to defend, leaving Wilcox in the position to have to make a decision.
“We’ve had those talks, and my decision is obviously not 100 percent complete, and I think that’s what this week is for, kind of getting a better feel for the future,’’ Wilcox said. “So we will try to see the path I have in front of me. It’ll be a tough one, but it’s tough everywhere. In any organization you go to, it’s going to be competition, and that’s how it should be, that’s what it takes to get to the NHL. You have to work really hard.
“So having said that, this is one of the better organizations for prospects right now, and that’s something I take into account. That’s why I want to be a part of it. It’s such a good culture around here right now, such a good group of guys.’’
Heading into the summer, Tampa Bay has four goaltenders under contract — Ben Bishop, Evgeni Nabokov, Vasilevskiy and Gudlevskis — for five spots in the organization. With Bishop and Nabokov locked in with the big club, there are three additional spots — two with Syracuse in the American Hockey League and one with the Florida Everblades in the East Coast Hockey League.
Wilcox is a highly regarded prospect after back-to-back strong campaigns with Minnesota, including this past season when he was a finalist for the inaugural Mike Richter Award as the top collegiate goaltender. He led the Gophers to the national title game and finished with an NCAA-best 23-4-6 record and 1.91 goals-against average. Wilcox also was a candidate to play for USA Hockey at the 2014 World Championships, but he was bumped when Tim Thomas decided to participate.
So the Lightning’s position of strength, with the trio of young netminders, could work gainst them.
“These kids are really good, young prospects. They all believe in themselves and we are excited about them,’’ Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said. “The goalies are the hardest position for us. We are deep in (goaltending) prospects. We like these prospects that we have, good prospects. Let’s see as we go on a little longer.’’
Erne held out
Right wing Adam Erne, a second-round pick in 2013, is being held out of on-ice activities because of a wrist injury. Erne is scheduled to visit the Cleveland Clinic after camp to determine if there is a ligament tear, which could lead to surgery.