TAMPA — With all the talent and depth on the Lightning roster, it’s difficult for a young player to break through. Only the most promising prospects get to cut in line. Most have to bide their time, earn the trust of the coaching staff and wait for an opportunity for ice time.
For every Brayden Point or Nikita Kucherov, players who quickly become a piece of the puzzle, there are many others like Alex Volkov who had to show patience. Now, that patience is paying off for the 23-year-old, who has suddenly claimed an important role and is making the most of it.
Volkov started the season by playing in just four of the first nine games, the odd man out when the team played with 11 forwards and seven defensemen. But a rash of injuries opened the door for Volkov, and he scored his first three NHL goals over his past two games as the Lightning’s fourth-line right wing.
“I think I am building more confidence every day and every game,” Volkov said. “I’ve been working hard and watching a lot of video with the coaches to get my game to where I want it to be. I’ve got some good chances the last few games, so I want to keep building off of that.”
The Lightning lost fourth-line center Mitchell Stephens in the season’s fourth game. More recently, second-line center Anthony Cirelli suffered an injury that will force him to miss several weeks.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper knows it can be frustrating for young players who see a logjam in front of them, and it’s important to let those players know there is a light at the end of the tunnel as long as they continue to improve, work resiliently and learn the team’s foundations of puck possession and forechecking.
A salary-cap crunch forced the Lightning to cut ties with experienced forwards like Cedric Paquette and Carter Verhaeghe, and that created an opportunity for some players who had been cutting their teeth in the minors.
“You need depth,” Cooper said. “You need guys to be able to step in when players go down. And in the offseason, a few players were moved for financial reasons with our salary cap. And now you get a few guys hurt and some unexpected injuries, and all of a sudden, who’s going to step in? And the development of these players, not only physically, but mentally, is key.”
With the exception of three brief stints with the Lightning last year, Volkov spent the past three regular seasons with Syracuse in the AHL. Following the pause, he earned an invitation to the Lightning’s restart training camp and was brought into the playoff bubble, where he practiced with the team every day. His first postseason game happened to be the Lightning’s last, their Stanley Cup-clinching victory over the Stars.
“The one consistent thing about Volkov during the whole thing was his work ethic,” Cooper said. “And when you are in that bubble for, at the time, it was 64 days, of not complaining, working your tail off, doing all the things that coaches asked you at a really tough time when you’re not even getting in games he deserved a shot. He didn’t play a ton of minutes, but he sure didn’t disappoint, and he helped us win the Stanley Cup.”
It was one of the best confidence-boosters a player could receive, getting 13 shifts and 6:04 of ice time in such an important game, and ending the night hoisting the Stanley Cup.
“I found out the morning of Game 6,” Volkov said. ”I was excited all day, and then once the puck dropped I was able to settle down a bit and just focus on doing what I needed to do to help the team win. It was a dream come true for me to lift the Cup up and celebrate with all my teammates after the game. It is something that I will never forget.”
The feeling carried into this season. Volkov had a strong training camp, and even though playing time was scarce early on, Cooper continued to rave about him.
Cooper kept up his praise after Volkov’s first career goal last Saturday in South Florida, a third-period score that helped the Lightning seal a 6-1 win over the Panthers. Volkov chipped the puck up the boards to Gemel Smith, then skated to the crease, where Smith found him for a one-timer just below the right circle.
“You know what I liked about Volkov’s goal?” Cooper said after the game. “He earned it. And he earned it from the defensive zone all the way to the offensive zone area.”
Volkov added two more goals in the Lightning’s 6-4 loss to Florida on Monday. He showcased his speed on the first, skating on to the puck in the neutral zone, then beating three Panthers into the offensive end before rifling a wrister from the left circle that deflected off a defenseman’s stick past goaltender Chris Driedger.
“Volkov is making definite strides,” said fourth-line left wing Pat Maroon. “He’s being more confident with the puck. He’s slowing the game down for himself. I think when you rush things, you start getting in your own head.
“So I think he’s done a really good job of just being patient, reading the game better, getting on the forecheck, using his speed to an advantage, shooting the puck when he needs to and hold on to it down below the top of the circles. So it’s good that he’s finding his game here.”
It hasn’t happened by accident. It’s taken both time and patience.
“You look at the success Volky’s had the last couple of games he’s played,” Cooper said. “I think that’s a product of years of development in the minors and then in the bubble, and now some of those fruits of his labor are coming to fruition. But it’s tough, because when there’s a logjam ahead of you, you have to wait your turn. And pretty much most guys in the lineup have.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieInTheYard.
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