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Lightning use Syracuse Crunch, player development staff to stay ahead of pack

Former Crunch stalwart J.P. Cote helps Stacy Roest and the Lightning’s AHL affiliate ensure both first-rounders and undrafted signees have the resources to become future stars.
Lightning director of player development J.P. Cote works with players on the ice before the puck drops during a 3-on-3 tournament at the Lightning development camp earlier this month at TGH Ice Plex in Brandon.
Lightning director of player development J.P. Cote works with players on the ice before the puck drops during a 3-on-3 tournament at the Lightning development camp earlier this month at TGH Ice Plex in Brandon. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jul. 22|Updated Jul. 25

BRANDON — J.P. Cote said he had a tough couple of years before signing with AHL Norfolk in 2011. The defenseman thought his playing career was over after struggling with injuries.

After playing the previous season in Germany, the defenseman started the 2011-12 season with ECHL Ontario. He played 10 games there, then signed a tryout contract with Norfolk, at the time the Lightning’s affiliate. After nine games, then-Admirals general manager Julien BriseBois signed Cote to a standard contract.

Cote watched his first Norfolk game with a player who was a healthy scratch and in danger of being demoted to the ECHL.

Little by little, he said, things clicked for his new friend, Ondrej Palat, who eventually joined forces with Tyler Johnson and Richard Panik on a line that led the Admirals on a 28-game winning streak en route to the Calder Cup championship.

Palat spent most of the next season with AHL Syracuse when the Lightning transferred their affiliation. Eventually, he was called up that season to Tampa Bay. He spent the next nine seasons with the Lightning, where he ended up scoring the second-most postseason goals in franchise history, 48.

Cote, meanwhile, said he fell back in love with hockey in the Lightning system, playing 239 games for Norfolk and Syracuse, and earning a brief callup to Tampa Bay during the 2013-14 season. He was goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy’s first roommate in the United States and helped mentor several other core pieces of the Lightning’s run to four Stanley Cup finals from 2015-22, including Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Yanni Gourde and Alex Killorn.

Cote, 40, joined the organization as a director of player development in 2019, working with assistant general manager Stacy Roest.

Former Syracuse teammate Mike Angelidis isn’t surprised Cote has thrived in his role, calling him an “unbelievable leader” and constant “safety valve” for younger players.

“Maybe if I would have played 13 years in the NHL, I probably couldn’t help guys that are struggling,” said Cote, who played a total of 27 career NHL games in two seasons, 19 with the Lightning in 2013-14 and eight with the Canadiens in 2005-06. “Because that’s what it is. At one point, you’re going to hit a wall.”

Stacy Roest talks to prospects during a stoppage in play during a 3-on-3 tournament at Lightning development camp.
Stacy Roest talks to prospects during a stoppage in play during a 3-on-3 tournament at Lightning development camp. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

It’s no accident that low draft picks such as Palat (seventh round, 2011) and undrafted signees such as Johnson became key cogs in the Lightning’s machine. Almost 20 former Norfolk and/or Syracuse players have their names engraved on the Stanley Cup.

When Cote started his pro playing career in the Canadiens system, player development wasn’t even “a thing,” he said. Now it’s a priority.

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“It’s definitely part of the Lightning DNA,” Cote said. “And I think we’re ahead of a lot of things in that department.”

A winning roster

Lightning forward prospect McKade Webster, a 2019 seventh-round draft pick heading into his third year at the University of Denver, saw Cote at least five times last season. He said access to player development staff and skating coach Barbara Underhill was especially helpful as he focused on improving his mechanics following double hip surgery in 2020.

“They’re always there for anything that I need,” Webster said during the Lightning’s development camp this month. “They come out to games during the year, and they watch and give pointers, telling me this and that, so it’s awesome.”

McKade Webster credited the Lightning player development staff and skating coach Barbara Underhill with helping him improve his body mechanics after double-hip surgery in 2020.
McKade Webster credited the Lightning player development staff and skating coach Barbara Underhill with helping him improve his body mechanics after double-hip surgery in 2020. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Some NHL franchises, Cote said, aren’t willing to invest heavily in their minor-league rosters. He said that Roest, who also succeeded BriseBois as Syracuse general manager, is always searching for a player who can “get that extra playoff series” to give prospects valuable experience.

“A lot of players go (to the AHL), and I think they underestimate that league,” Roest said. “And once that happens, it’s hard to get it turned around.”

The Crunch’s veteran core over the last decade has included Cote, Angelidis, Gabriel Dumont, Pierre-Cedric Labrie and Daniel Walcott. The quintet has over 3,000 games of combined AHL and NHL experience and counting. (Walcott, 28, and Labrie, 36, still play for the Crunch.)

“We had a really good nucleus, and it showed,” Cote said, “and what we created back then, you see the waves still today.”

A different approach

Angelidis, a forward who arrived in Norfolk the same year as coach Jon Cooper, 2010-11, said his six years with the Admirals and Crunch were “totally different” from what he had experienced with the Hurricanes’ affiliate in Albany, New York. Management, including BriseBois, was around all the time, he said.

The team had the opportunity to work regularly with skating instructors such as Underhill, as well as psychologists, dietitians and other specialists. These resources were directed not just at high draft picks.

“If you’re outplaying guys, they’ll turn that (AHL or two-way) contract into an NHL contract, give you a chance,” said Angelidis, who played 14 games for the Lightning over five seasons.

He said the Lightning took care of their minor-league roster off the ice, too. Being away from family around the holidays was difficult, so making the effort to throw a Christmas party mattered.

“That’s a small thing, but it means something to the guys. Those are memories, right? … Those little things add up to a winning culture, and then development,” he said.

Mike Angelidis, right, scores 13:21 into his NHL debut in 2012 after being called up from Norfolk.
Mike Angelidis, right, scores 13:21 into his NHL debut in 2012 after being called up from Norfolk.

Isaac Howard, the Lightning’s first-round draft pick this year, said that falling from his pre-draft ranking that was as high as 10th to Tampa Bay at 31 was a “blessing in disguise.”

“Obviously, a draft doesn’t matter too much,” he said. “But now it’s just super important to be at a good organization.”

No one needs to tell that to Roest, who played almost 250 NHL games for the Red Wings and Wild after going undrafted. He and Lightning scouting director Al Murray collaborate on a simple, crucial mission to ensure the Lightning’s future succeeds in Syracuse.

“Draft and develop, right?” he said.

“And then they finally make it to Tampa and never come back.”

Contact Greg McKenna at gmckenna@tampabay.com. Follow @McKennaGregjed.

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