Looking at the depth chart the Lightning possess these days, it's amazing to think how far the organization has come in a relatively short period of time.
Think about it, Brett Connolly didn't even get an invitation to the abbreviated training camp this season. Granted this year provided a unique situation following the four-month lockout which limited the number of players that actually came to camp.
But if this was any other season in the past 10 years, and training camp was reduced in length and number of players attending, not only would Connolly – the sixth overall pick in 2010 – have warranted an invite, he would almost have been a lock to be on the opening night roster.
Instead, the Lightning are afforded the ability to let Connolly play important minutes in the American Hockey League taking on a top line role with the Syracuse Crunch and letting him develop his game. That way when Connolly does earn his opportunity for a roster spot, he will be ready to take on a top minute role with the Lightning.
Certainly general manager Steve Yzerman holding a firm philosophy of letting talent develop plays into some of these decisions. But it also comes from how much talent has been brought in since Yzerman took control of the organization less than three years ago.
Through drafting and recruiting free agent talent, it's not a stretch to say Tampa Bay's organizational depth is the best it has been since the inception of the franchise.
Cory Conacher – an undrafted free agent out of Canisius College – is aleady making an impact four games into his NHL career with seven points in four games. Center Tyler Johnson, also undrafted out of Spokane in the Western Hockey League, finished second behind Conacher in rookie scoring in the AHL last season and is knocking on the door for a spot in the NHL. Both were brought in under Yzerman's watch.
In any other time in the franchise's history forwards Alex Killorn (third round pick in 2007) and Richard Panik (second round in 2009) would be higher up on the depth chart, but like Connolly, neither made it to training camp. And this doesn't even include J.T. Brown, a college free agent out of Minnesota-Duluth that appeared in five games with Tampa Bay last season, who may have been penciled in to the lineup this season if not for a broken collarbone suffered earlier this month while playing for Syracuse.
On defense, both Mark Barberio (the 2012 AHL defenseman of the year) and Radko Gudas would be deemed ready to make the jump. Instead, while both had a strong training camp, they are ninth and 10th on the defensive depth chart right now while looking like strong possibilities to earn spots next season.
"We have really good depth on D now,'' Boucher said. "That's something that is very different for us from past years – whether we are talking about sixth, seventh, eighth or whatever number you want to give them. We even have depth in the American League now, so our depth is something that has changed throughout the whole organization, so that's very encouraging.''
In goal – an area of weakness throughout most of the franchise's history – Tampa Bay is stronger than ever. Anders Lindback, 24, was acquired from Nashville in June and is expected to take on the role of Tampa Bay's No. 1 goaltender. Dustin Tokarski continues to put up strong numbers in the AHL for Syracuse after he got a taste of the NHL last season. There remains hope former 2006 first-round pick Riku Helenius, playing backup to Tokarski in Syracuse, will regain the form that made him one of the top goaltenders in Russian last season.
Then there is this year's first-round pick Andrey Vasilevsky, who had another stellar World Junior Championship showing for Russia and is showing some promise playing for Ufa's top division team in the Kontinental Hockey League. Add in Adam Wilcox, a sixth-round pick in 2011, who is leading the way for NCAA top ranked Minnesota and it doesn't appear that goaltending will be an issue for many years to come.
All this stockpiling of talent has occurred in a relatively short period of time. Imagine what it will be when Yzerman and company have some real time to build it up.