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Koekkoek Gets His Contract

The Lightning signed 2012 first-round pick Slater Koekkoek to a standard three-year, entry-level contract today, vice president and general manager Steve Yzerman announced.

"This is obviously something I have been working toward my whole life,” Koekkoek said in a Spitfires press release. “I am happy it's done. But now the real hard work begins.

"Obviously my first hope is to make the Tampa club out of camp [next year]. But knowing I have a great team and teammates to come back to in Windsor if that doesn't happen is awesome."

According to the Lightning’s announcement, Koekkoek, 6-foot-2, 186 pounds, played in 42 games in the Ontario Hockey League this season with the Peterborough Petes and the Windsor Spitfires following a mid-season trade on January 10. He played in 40 games with the Petes prior to the move, recording six goals and 28 points. Koekkoek played in two games with Windsor after the trade, notching one assist with a plus-2 rating.

A native of Manotik, Ontario, Koekkoek has played in 133 career OHL games with Peterborough and Windsor, registering 18 goals and 70 points with 112 penalty minutes. He represented Team Canada at the 2011 IIHF Under-18 World Championship, where he had two points in seven games and helped lead Canada to the Bronze Medal. Koekkoek also played in the 2011 Ivan Hlinka Tournament and led Canada in defensive scoring with five points in five games while also serving as alternate captain.

The Lightning made Koekkoek the 10th overall pick at this past summer’s draft in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the first time Tampa Bay has picked 10th overall. He is one of 12 Top 10 picks in Lightning history. Koekkoek was a participant in this year’s Lightning Summer Development Camp, helping his team, which also consisted of Vlad Namestnikov, Nikita Nesterov and Cedric Paquette, win the annual 3-on-3 tournament.

Bolt Prospects Reaction:

This signing is a bit of a surprise because Koekkoek missed a good portion of the season for second straight year due to a shoulder injury. He had surgery on his right shoulder for the second consecutive year. Doctors examined and cleared Koekkoek before the 2012 draft.

I thought the Lightning may wait another year before signing him just to make sure there were no long-term injury concerns. The Lightning had until June 1 next year before they lost his rights if he wasn’t signed.

The Lightning signed 2011 first round pick Vladislav Namestnikov on March 13, 2012, so this is the second straight March a first round pick was signed by the Bolts. Last summer’s other first round pick, Andrey Vasilevskiy, is playing in Russia and served as a back-up goaltender in today’s Game 7 second round loss by Ufa against Ak Bars, 4-3. Vasilevskiy’s junior team, Tolpar Ufa, just advanced to the MHL’s quarterfinals, so it’s possible he could remain active for a while longer by joining his former team.

Vasilevskiy has expressed strong interest in coming to North America next year and the Lightning no doubt want to sign arguably their top prospect.

As for Koekkoek, he is an important piece to the Lightning’s future as the former Petes captain represents high-end offense from the blueline. He’s an elite skater with good size that can move the puck. While he can border on undisciplined at times when it comes to taking risks on offense, Koekkoek can carry the puck and distribute it with ease. He was one of just a few sources of offense for a bad Peterborough team through most of the year and the thought was his numbers would have been much higher if he played on a better team.

He should have that chance next year for Windsor under the tutelage of former NHLers Bob Boughner (coach) and Warren Rychel (GM). This isn’t a situation like Brett Connolly a few years ago where the Lightning kept a prospect in the NHL because of a less-than-stellar junior situation. Boughner, a former NHL defenseman, will be an excellent teacher for Koekkoek.

Like Connolly in 2011, Koekkoek cannot play in the AHL next season due to his age. Koekkoek, 19, has to be 20 by September 15 to play in the AHL because he was drafted out of Canadian juniors. His birthday is in February.

Koekkoek’s first step to reach the NHL is to have a full, healthy season with Windsor next year. A bonus would be earning a spot on Canada’s World Junior Championship squad next winter. After his 2013-2014 season, he will likely spend 1-2 years in the AHL before kicking down the NHL door.

Additional Signings?

The Lightning could be busy this spring with this year's crop of junior/college signings. In addition to Vasilevskiy, the Lightning are reportedly interested in signing Western Michigan senior defenseman Luke Witkowski and Blainville-Boisbriand (QMJHL) center Cedric Paquette. Guelph (OHL) center Tanner Richard is another option, though as of yesterday he hadn't heard from the Lightning. He and his Storm teammates are gearing up for a 4-5 playoff series against Kitchener. Tampa Bay is also reportedly targeting NCAA free agent defensemen Andrej Sustr of Nebraska-Omaha, who played in the Lightning's prospect camp in July, as well as last year's free agent target, Dan DeKeyser of Western Michigan. DeKeyser is Witkowski's defense partner and roommate. Rumors last year were that the Lightning and DeKeyser's hometown Red Wings ended up finalists for DeKeyser's services before he decided to return to school. WMU was eliminated from the CCHA playoffs last weekend and are waiting for a possible at-large bid to the national tournament. One final free agent option could be a goaltender to replace Pat Nagle as the No. 5 keeper in the organization. Nagle's contract ends after this season.