Seeing is believing for up-and-coming Lightning prospects

On-ice success stories, film study and open conversations are all key components of player development strides.
Lightning prospect Jack Thompson participates in development camp at the TGH Ice Plex earlier this month.
Lightning prospect Jack Thompson participates in development camp at the TGH Ice Plex earlier this month. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published July 11|Updated July 11

BRANDON — Lightning prospect Jack Thompson is right on track. Coming off his first professional season at AHL Syracuse, the defenseman feels like he’s stronger and smarter. For many, the AHL is a crash course in physicality and speed of the game, and it can take time to perfect both.

Thompson was pleased with how he tested in the weight room during the Lightning’s development camp earlier this month, showing improvement everywhere, notably with his skating. But for Thompson, one of the best lessons he learned from his introduction to pro hockey was watching one of his older teammates graduate to an NHL contributor.

Darren Raddysh is six years older than the 21-year-old Thompson. The Lightning were his third organization, so he’s seen a lot more. But Thompson said that playing alongside Raddysh, a fellow right-shot defenseman, helped him understand what it takes to be successful in the AHL and earn a promotion to the NHL. Raddysh opened last season in Syracuse, was called up by the Lightning in March, then ended the season averaging 25 minutes a game in the playoffs.

“I think we’re similar sizes, and I think just how he positions himself in the defensive zone,” Thompson, the Lightning’s third-round pick in 2020, said of Raddysh. “We both aren’t going to run guys over, let’s say, but I think he’s really good with his stick. He’s really good at his body positioning. And then once he gets the puck, he has really good patience. ... And he’s talked to me a lot. He still talks to me every day. We’re pretty good buddies. And I thank him for that.”

Examples all over

Joel Bouchard, new head coach of the Syracuse Crunch, huddles up with Lightning prospects.
Joel Bouchard, new head coach of the Syracuse Crunch, huddles up with Lightning prospects. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Seeing is believing with greener players. It’s no coincidence that when the Lightning hold their development camp every summer, stars like Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy also train at the same time. Brayden Point is there leaning up against the glass watching skill drills. Being around champion players serves as an added layer of motivation.

While the development camp includes weight room testing, skills and skating drills, and 3-on-3 competitions, the film study work that prospects do is equally important. They watch how players like Point improved his skating to become an elite goal scorer, and they analyze their own film year over year to see their progress.

“I had a few discussions with the younger guys and you can definitely see, you know, they’re looking up to guys, all these guys have been through the system,” said Lightning player development director J.P. Cote. “You can tell they’re really good at their craft, and the drills we throw at them, they’re doing a good job at it.

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“It’s motivating for the kids. They’re younger guys, for sure, just because they’re looking up, they see, ‘OK, that’s what I need to get to the pro level, the AHL and then the NHL.’ And then what’s fun, you have guys around. Kucherov is practicing with other guys. Vasy is here. So it feels like it’s a family feeling.”

The camp week begins with skating coach Barb Underhill recording players’ strides with an iPad. The tablets are all over the ice at the TGH IcePlex early on in camp, positioned by the bench to record goaltenders and even at center ice for a broader view of drills. Ultimately, the goal is to use video to point out strengths and weaknesses, then show players their progress by putting clips side by side.

“Sometimes they’re not just even clips of top players in the NHL, it’s about them,” said new AHL Syracuse Crunch coach Joel Bouchard. “It’s about seeing something that you might think you know, but then you see it from a different angle and then you just need that to click sometimes. ... It doesn’t lie.

An open conversation

Lightning prospects Dylan Duke (53) and Warren Clark (59) tangle in the neutral zone during camp.
Lightning prospects Dylan Duke (53) and Warren Clark (59) tangle in the neutral zone during camp. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Bouchard, a well-regarded player development coach in the junior and AHL ranks, said the video starts a conversation with each player. Camp was capped by players having exit interviews with coaches and staff.

“I think 2023 is an open conversation,” Bouchard said. “Sometimes it’s where the player takes you. ... It’s about working together, putting the standard to a certain level and then when you can validate and show something that’s tangible, then it makes it easier for everybody to see where we are trying to be. ...

“It’s a generation that wants to be part of the process, and we have to include them. We have to respect how they see it from their perspective, and then come to an understanding.”

Players attending the camp come in at varying places in their careers, from 18-year-old draftees to players in junior ranks and college hockey to pros in the ECHL and AHL.

Forward Dylan Duke, the Lightning’s fourth-round pick in 2021, was attending his third development camp. The Lightning think highly of him, and as he enters his third college season at Michigan, they have seen him make strides every year. He was one of the top players in camp this month and he credited the Lightning for helping him make major strides with his skating.

“It’s definitely important to be able to see visuals of myself and then also learn from seeing videos of other guys,” Duke said. “I’m a visual learner, so to see that stuff, to kind of be able to see from past couple years my stride progress, I think it’s definitely getting better but something that I’ve got to keep working on. I think I’m a lot more powerful, my mechanics are better but nothing’s perfect, so I’m just gonna keep working at it every day every summer. Just trying to be the best I can be.”

The Lightning have a strong player development reputation, and if they want to see how quickly they can progress, they only need to look to last summer’s roster, which included Nick Perbix. Despite not making the opening night roster, Perbix played 69 games for the Lightning and ended the season with Victor Hedman in the team’s top defenseman pairing.

“I think players are smart in 2023,” Bouchard said. “They realize what they need to work on. They realize what the future will look like for them. So it’s just to guide them through it and give them all the tools, and this is one thing this organization has done very well over the years.”

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