TAMPA — Cole Koepke has yet to play his first regular-season NHL game, but he’s already seen firsthand what it takes to win at the highest level.
The 24-year-old has proven to be a quick study.
After a slow start to his first full American Hockey League season, Koepke grew into one of Syracuse’s best players. His learning didn’t end there. He was one of the Lightning’s “Black Aces,” a group of minor-league players brought up during the postseason to train with the team.
Now, Koepke is a frontrunner to crack the Lightning’s opening-night roster. With center Anthony Cirelli out for the first six to eight weeks of the season while recovering from shoulder surgery, there’s a bottom-six forward spot to be won.
Koepke remembers arriving at training camp this time last year not knowing what to expect. Now, he enters a dressing room full of stars with championship pedigree comfortable knowing that he belongs.
“He got to watch us go deep in the playoffs,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “He got to see how we operated, how things were done. I think that experience is invaluable. And now, it’s up to the player to turn it into your game, but it can do nothing but help. It takes away the jitters — or it should — and makes you feel a little bit more calm and at ease.”
Koepke, who has played well early in the preseason, ultimately must show his game is NHL-ready in order to earn a roster spot. But he gained the confidence that comes from feeling part of the team during the playoffs. He saw how some of the best players in the world prepare as the Lightning made their third straight run to the Stanley Cup final.
“It was awesome,” Koepke said. “They didn’t get complacent at all on that run. If they win, it doesn’t matter. We’ve got another game in two days. Let’s hit the film. Let’s get this right. Let’s do what we need to do for our bodies. Get ready. And seeing that from a team that had already won back-to-back, it’s insane.
“It just shows that if you want to be at the highest level in the best league, the work never stops. Just being around it and seeing these top players put in that work, it shows that it’s not different for anyone. You’ve got to put in the work, even when you’re extremely gifted like these guys.”
Whether it’s trade-deadline additions or wide-eyed rookies, the Lightning cultivate a family atmosphere that makes newcomers feel at home. They know that winning a championship takes more than 23 players. Even if Koepke doesn’t make the team out of camp, he could become a contributor at any point, so benefits everyone to make his path easier.
“‘Coop’ always makes a point that there’s going to be a lot of guys in camp that are going to be part of it, whether it’s guys getting hurt and guys are getting called up, a ‘Black Ace’ in the playoffs,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said.
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“The reality is, we’re going to have some spots open this year, and a guy like him who we’ve been around for a little bit, he knows what it takes now. And he’s definitely probably more comfortable each camp he goes through, and we’re going to need guys like that to step up — especially with some injuries that we have early on.”
Koepke, a sixth-round pick in 2018, played college hockey at Division-I power Minnesota Duluth. He went to two Frozen Fours and played on a national championship team as a freshman in 2018-19. After turning pro following his junior season, he made a brief professional debut in Syracuse in 2021.
Crunch coach Ben Groulx said Koepke started the season slowly but gradually improved his game while getting adjusted to the grind of pro hockey. Koepke said he learned that he had to get better every day, because everyone in the AHL is competing for a promotion and complacency can leave you behind. He finished the season with 20 goals and 39 points in 69 games.
“He’s a player that earned our trust down the road, because he was very consistent at playing the right way,” Groulx said. “When you play at this level, it’s important that you’re consistent at being organized in everything you’re doing. And I think early on he wasn’t as organized a little bit on the ice, but he’s very consistent about doing things right. His compete level was good at the end, and I thought he was one of our top players near the end of the season.”
Koepke then saw the drive it takes to be successful in the NHL in the postseason.
“I definitely try and watch everyone,” he said. “Everyone on this team plays a role, and it’s definitely an important one, especially here where it’s about culture and knowing that you can’t win a championship by yourself.”
Koepke is finding that his veteran teammates are embracing him, as well. He said veteran forwards Corey Perry and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare have been eager to give advice. Given his likely spot on the third or fourth line, playing a grinding puck-possession game will be more important than scoring goals.
Koepke already has shown in camp that he skates well and can push the puck up the ice. Backup goaltender Brian Elliott has been helpful, and Koepke can lean on younger players like Ross Colton, who he knows well from development camps.
On the first day of practice, Koepke made a misstep during 3-on-2 rushes. Star forward Nikita Kucherov quickly pulled him aside.
“He was like, ‘Hey, kind of look for this when you’re on this rush, try this,’” Koepke said. “For someone as big of a name as him and as good of a player as he is, for him to kind of go out of his way and help me out, it’s just awesome. And I’ve just become even more confident and excited to be here.”
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