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Tampa Bay Lightning Draft Fits: USHL Forwards

The 2022 NHL Draft is fast approaching. The Tampa Bay Lightning, preparing to play game four of the Eastern Conference Finals against the New York Rangers, elected to keep their first-round draft selection for the first time in what seems like forever. So, while they likely aren’t focusing too much on the draft, Last Word will look at some Lightning draft prototypes in a new series. 

Tampa Bay Lightning Draft Fits: USHL Forwards

The Lightning, since 2010 when Julien BriseBois became an assistant general manager and Al Murray joined the organization, have drafted 7 forwards from the USHL. That’s tied for the third-most of all the leagues they have drafted from. The average of those players is roughly 5’11” and 190 pounds. The shortest player they’ve drafted from the USHL is Cole Guttman, at 5’8”. Meanwhile, the tallest player they’ve drafted is Nick Capone at 6’2”. The heaviest player drafted is also Capone, at 216 pounds, while the lightest players are Guttman and McKade Webster, at 168. 

Other averages also include roughly 77 USHL games played pre-draft, with 26 goals, 27 assists and 53 points. The highest total of games played for USHL draftees for Tampa Bay is 122 (Ryan Lohin), while the least is 43 (Capone).  Ross Colton has the most goals scored with 53, while the least goes to Capone with eight. As for assists, Lohin has the most with 50 while Capone and Cole Koepke are tied with the least at 13. Most points belong to Colton with 99, and the least belongs to Capone at 21. With those parameters set, what 2022 NHL draft prospects fit the mold of a future Bolt? (Also used to find prototypes is per game WHL stats and U18 World Juniors performance). 

Tampa Bay Lightning Draft Fit #1: Isaac Howard, Right Wing, USNTDP

The best fit amongst USHL prospects is Isaac Howard, who has the second-best fit score in the entire draft! He sits only behind Shane Wright for that honour, he is the top realistic fit for the Lightning. Howard is ranked between 14th (Puck Authority) and 41st (Recruit Scouting), landing him in a spot where the Lightning could snag him up. Committed to the University of Minnesota-Duluth for the 2022-23 season, Howard posted 33 goals and 49 assists for 82 points across 60 games played for the NTDP. That includes 11 goals and 26 assists for 37 points in 27 games facing USHL competition. 

If drafted by Tampa Bay, Howard would set new highs in USHL goals per game, assists per game, and points per game, as well as U18 World Juniors games, goals, assists, and points. Howard placed above average in USHL goals, assists and points. The only things holding him back from getting a better draft fit score is the fact he was below average in USHL games played (55), height (5’10”) and weight (181). He would not set a new low, however. 

What Does Howard Bring To The Table?

Howard is a high-risk, high-pace, electrifying offensive presence. He’s a threat to attack the high-danger areas of the ice constantly. Whether through his really strong shooting ability or playmaking skills, Howard will attack the defence with an extremely fast-paced play. But perhaps even better than his work with the puck is his off-puck play. He constantly finds open ice in dangerous areas and knows how to dissect defensive zone coverages. 

However, the problem with Howard is he only knows one speed: fast. He needs to slow down the pace sometimes, as his high-paced play has led to bad turnovers. Additionally, his skating is below-average, though definitely coachable. Defensively, Howard isn’t great. He isn’t very engaged defensively, and when he is, he can chase the puck and get dragged out of position. Overall, Howard is a boom-or-bust prospect, but for Tampa, he would be quite the option. Considering the fact that their prospect pool is bare, a high-upside selection could be what the doctor ordered.  

Tampa Bay Lightning Draft Fit #2: Rutger McGroarty, Center, USNTDP

The next two top fits in the USHL is not Rutger McGroarty (he’s fourth-best). The second and third best fits are actually Logan Cooley and Frank Nazar. However, neither of those players have a shot at being available. McGroarty may not be available either, being ranked between 12th (FCHockey) and 40th (Elite Prospects). If you get rid of the lowest ranking, the next lowest would be 29th (McKeen’s Hockey and Craig Button). It is possible but very unlikely. Regardless, the University of Michigan commit lands on the list. He recorded 35 goals and 34 assists for 69 points in 54 games this season, including 15 goals and 18 assists for 33 points in 25 USHL games. 

If drafted by Tampa Bay, McGroarty would set new highs in USHL goals per game and points per game, along with U18 World Juniors games played, goals and points. He also finished above average in World Junior assists, USHL assists per game and total goals, height (6’1”) and weight (205). McGroarty finished below average in USHL games played, assists, and points. 

What Does McGroarty Bring To The Table?

McGroarty and Howard are similar in some ways, and polar opposites in others. When it comes to offensive play, McGroarty is the better shooter. He gets in tight to the net and fires shots from high-danger areas a ton, being a threat with the puck to take space and rip home powerful shots. As for his playmaking, he is mostly simple. McGroarty does not often attack the high-danger areas and instead elects to keep possession by passing to the perimeter or point. However, their off-puck movement is similar, as they both do an excellent job breaking down defensive zone coverages and finding pockets of space to set themselves up for a pass and scoring chance. 

Transitionally, McGroarty has the raw skills to dominate. Unfortunately, his skating ability being only above-average gives him some problems navigating the neutral zone with the puck. Defensively, McGroarty is inconsistent. He has the makings to be a solid 200-foot player, but can be a bit too aggressive. It is a forgivable trait, as he is a power forward and excels in that role. Perhaps reeling that back in the defensive zone would help, as he can be extremely efficient with generating turnovers when he is more conservative. His IQ is excellent, and he should use that trait more than his body to knock people around. 

Tampa Bay Lightning Draft Fit: Honorable Mentions

There are 11 more draft fits in the USHL for Tampa Bay. That is way too many to break down individually. However, it would be a shock if they don’t draft at least one of these guys, as this class has consistently met the Lightning preferences. Those 11 other fits are: Devin Kaplan, Cutter Gauthier, Stephen Halliday, Jimmy Snuggerud, Connor Kurth, Cruz Lucius, Nicholas Moldenhauer, Ryan Greene, Dylan James, Kenny Connors, and Adam Ingram. 

Gauthier is likely not going to be available with the Lightning first pick, so that knocks it down to 10 realistic fits. Kaplan, Snuggerud, and Ingram could be late first-round options, but that may be a bit of a reach and, without a second or third-rounder this year, they likely are off the radar as well. Lucius is a very intriguing option at the end of the first round, but having dealt with an injury-riddled season, he likely falls into the same range as Kaplan and Snuggerud. Ultimately, that leaves Halliday, Kurth, Moldenhauer, Greene, James, and Connors.

Realistic Options Amongst The Honorable Mentions

Halliday is a 6’4” and 209 pound center from the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the USHL. He went undrafted in 2020 and 2021, and he turns 20 on July 2nd. He recorded 95 points this season in 62 games. Kurth went undrafted in 2021, and stands 5’11” and 214 pounds. Kurth, also being an overager, recorded 81 points in 62 games this past season with Dubuque. Moldenhauer is in his first year of eligibility, and the 5’11” and 170 pound forward is ranked anywhere from the second round to the seventh. He recorded 43 points in 41 games with the Chicago Steel. 

Greene, who is 6’2” and 179 pounds, looks to go somewhere in the middle of the draft, making him a fourth or fifth-round option for Tampa. He recorded 51 points in 59 games with the Green Bay Gamblers. James, who is 6’0” and 176 pounds, could go as early as round two but could fall to the late stages as well. He recorded 61 points in 62 games with the Sioux City Musketeers en route to winning the Clark Cup and USHL Rookie of the Year. Finally, Connors, another member of Dubuque’s strong roster, stands 6’1” and 190 pounds. The 19-year-old isn’t ranked after recording 56 points in 61 games.

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