TAMPA — In a group of the Lightning’s top prospects, Jack Finley easily stands apart from the pack.
It’s not just his 6-foot-6 frame or his status as the organization’s top draft pick a year ago. Whether it’s how he uses his size to swallow up the faceoff circle or his dedication to developing a two-way game, the potential is clear for Finley, who just turned 19 two weeks ago.
“I’d love to coach him this year,” said AHL Syracuse head coach Benoit Groulx, who has been leading this week’s Lightning prospect camp.
Finley saw his first action in nearly seven months Saturday in the Lightning’s first game of this weekend’s Lightning Prospect Showcase, registering two assists in Tampa Bay’s 5-2 win over Nashville.
“It’s fun to be back,” said Finley, who the Lightning traded up to pick at No. 57 overall last year. “Jumping onto the ice at Amalie the first time, I got chills through my whole body. It was so much fun. I had a good time.”
For most of the Lightning prospects, this showcase is an opportunity to work with coaches prior to the start of training camp next week while giving the organization a chance to gauge where players are in their development.
Finley is just happy to get back on the ice and into games. He participated in last season’s Lightning training camp, then joined Syracuse until his junior season with the Spokane Chiefs got underway in March. (The start of the Western Hockey League’s 2020-21 season was delayed due to the pandemic.)
Finley was named an alternate captain in Spokane but didn’t play a game for the Chiefs after sustaining a torn labrum in his shoulder that required season-ending surgery and a six-month recovery.
“It was definitely frustrating,” he said. “But for me, I just want to get in games, playing games, wherever I am, whenever I’m playing, I’m just excited to be healthy again and hopefully have a full season.”
Finley admitted he thought about his shoulder initially Saturday in his first game since Feb. 27, but it helped to see success early on. His back-door feed to Antoine Morand on a first-period rush gave the Lightning a 1-0 lead, and his centering pass from the end boards led to Jaydon Dureau’s first-period goal that gave Tampa Bay a 2-1 lead.
“He’s a strong man,” said Syracuse assistant coach Eric Veilleux. “Strong man, big body. He had a good game. I think he’s fine.”
Even though he played just two games last season with Syracuse, Finley learned some important lessons before his injury. He didn’t expect an invitation to training camp, but he received valuable mentoring from veterans like Pat Maroon, who shared some techniques with Finley and a few other prospects.
“For him to just pull me aside and talk to me, I thought that was really cool,” Finley said. “He plays a somewhat similar game. He’s really good down low, and he was showing us things in the corners and how he protects the puck well. Taking little things from a guy like that is beneficial for me, too.”
Even though Finley’s time in Syracuse was brief, he showed impressive growth, said Groulx, who experimented with Finley in front of the net on the power play, realizing that could be a spot he flourishes in as he continues to get bigger and better.
“We had Jack for a very small period of time,” Groulx said. “And after two weeks, you could see his progression. … He’s a young player, he’s smart, he’s a competitor. I think he’s got to become a two-way centerman that’s gonna be tough to play against that can produce offensively. ... I think he’s got a bright future.”
Groulx said Finley is improving before his eyes. He pointed to a play in the group’s first scrimmage on Wednesday in which Finley used his size to break up a play on the backcheck, hustling after a turnover to catch up with the puck-carrier and then using his length to knock the puck away with his stick.
“I really noticed that and like that about Jack,” Groulx said. “He wants to play the 200-foot game. That’s a sign that the player is coming to a camp and his head’s at the right place and he knows what he has to do.”
Finley said he used his rehab time to focus on his skating, because he couldn’t do much upper-body work during his recovery. He’s likely to return to Spokane to open the season and could play for Canada in the world juniors tournament starting in December.
“It’s been a lot of ups and downs, and I think the main thing is, I’ve just done what I can do,” Finley said. “You can just kind of sit back and say, ‘This sucks with COVID and getting injured and stuff.’ But for me, I just really tried to keep moving forward and be better after all this.”
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