Lightning 2022 top pick Isaac Howard still aims to stand out in a crowd

After learning some tough lessons in his first season of college hockey, he is getting a clean slate in a comfortable situation.
Lightning prospects Ethan Gauthier left, and Isaac Howard, right, participate in the Lightning's development camp Monday at TGH IcePlex in Brandon.
Lightning prospects Ethan Gauthier left, and Isaac Howard, right, participate in the Lightning's development camp Monday at TGH IcePlex in Brandon. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published July 3, 2023|Updated July 3, 2023

BRANDON — During the Lightning’s development camp this week at TGH IcePlex, Isaac Howard has found the front of the line on every drill.

It was all new to him last year, riding the high of becoming the organization’s first-round pick (No. 31 overall) following a remarkable season with the USA Hockey National Team Development Program U-18 team. But in his second camp, he wants to show the team what he’s learned during the past year.

“I want to be first in line,” Howard said. “I know we did all these drills last year and stuff, so I just want to (show) a little bit of leadership in that way and just keep growing myself. Obviously, I’m still young and so much improvement can be had, so I just keep working.”

Howard’s first college season was a learning experience. He struggled early in his freshman year at Minnesota-Duluth, going through an 18-game goal drought after scoring in the season opener. He finished the season with just six goals and 11 assists in 35 games, a far cry from the 82 points (33 goals, 49 assists) he accumulated in 60 games during his draft season.

His average ice time of 14 minutes, 25 seconds ranked ninth among Bulldogs forwards. He saw time on the power play but ended the season with a minus-13 plus/minus rating, lowest among the team’s forwards. He also served a two-game suspension for a cross-check during an early-season game against Wisconsin.

In March, Howard entered the NCAA transfer portal. He decided to transfer to Michigan State, where he will be united with his old USA Hockey NTDP coach, Adam Nightingale.

“It’s completely different,” Howard said. “(Duluth) was kind of a more defensive-first, not the most-skilled team on the ice. And then kind of making the move to that Big Ten game (at Michigan State) to kind of just get back to my game a little bit more.”

The college game changed considerably after the pandemic. The NCAA added a fifth year of eligibility for players, which means teenagers like Howard were entering college hockey playing against 22-23-year-olds with an inherent edge in size, speed, smarts and maturity.

“This year, I got to gain a lot of wisdom for sure,” Howard said. “It was not the year I wanted offensively by any means. But I thought I had plenty of good games with no points. But I just want to now get back to where I know can be.”

Howard hopes the change of scenery will allow him to recapture the flair on the ice that he showed off it at last year’s draft, which he attended in a white suit, blue turtleneck and belt with an oversized buckle with the image of an American flag on it.

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Howard is still years away from potentially making an impact at the NHL level. For now, the Lightning simply want him to be where he’s most comfortable.

“It’s just keep getting stronger, keep playing, getting big minutes. Hopefully, he gets more ice time this year in bigger situations,” Lightning player development director Stacy Roest said. “You can see the skill and the skating and the shot and the passing. He’s got all the tools. It’ll just be a matter of time and progression.”

Howard is anxious to get going. He is going to Michigan State next week and eager to meet his new teammates.

“It’s exciting,” he said. “I couldn’t be more stoked for the season to get started.”

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