Jets prospect Lambert making most of his time with T-birds
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A little older. A little wiser. And a whole lot scruffier.
Brad Lambert returned to the city — and the rink — on Friday night where his North American hockey career took flight last fall. In addition to the playoff beard he’s now sporting, a few other things have changed.
Such as where he had to enter Canada Life Centre.
“It was a little bit different coming in as the away team. I learned where the bus came in,” the 19-year-old forward with the Seattle Thunderbirds told the Free Press with a laugh.
“But nice to be back here. Already some good memories in this rink.”
Lambert’s arrival at Winnipeg Jets training camp was met with plenty of fanfare, especially after recording a goal and assist in his pre-season debut in Montreal, only a few months after the Finnish product was selected in the first round, 30th overall, during the NHL draft held in that very city.
His hot start, fuelled by skating that was already clearly NHL-calibre, had plenty of fans already pencilling him in the opening-night lineup.
The organization opted to take a more patient approach, sending a then 18-year-old Lambert down to the Manitoba Moose for further seasoning. Lambert scored his first two professional goals, and added an assist, in 14 games before being loaned to Team Finland for the World Juniors.
Then came some adversity and a dose of heartbreak, with the Jets choosing to place him in the Western Hockey League rather than back in the AHL (or NHL) once the holiday tournament was over. At 6-1 but just 175 pounds, there were concerns about how his slight frame might withstand the physicality over a full season.
Off to Seattle he went, with the Thunderbirds owning his rights. Although Lambert admits the decision was “a disappointment,” — he naturally wanted to keep playing at the highest level possible — he’s certainly made the most of it.
Lambert put up 38 points (17 goals, 21 assists) in 26 games, helping the Thunderbirds wrap up the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.
“He’s been great for us,” Seattle coach Matt O’Dette said following Friday’s morning skate.
“Obviously a highly-skilled player, he’s really integrated himself well with our team. He’s proud to be a T-Bird. Great skater, dynamic player, but also competes and plays in the hard areas. So that was a pleasant surprise for us. Obviously we knew of him, but now that we’ve had him for a while here, he’s a much more complete player than what we thought.”
Lambert, in the words of his bench boss, has “picked up in the post-season where he left off,” with 21 points (three goals, 18 assists) through the first 13 games.
“Obviously he’s probably keyed on a little bit more in the playoffs. He’s handled that really well,” said O’Dette. “The heightened physicality in the playoffs hsn’t bothered him at all.”
Although his hockey home has changed, one constant is Lambert’s drive and determination to succeed. While the past year hasn’t gone exactly as planned, he’s hoping to wrap it up in style.
“It’s going to be a tough series,” he said prior to Game 1 puck drop against the Winnipeg Ice in the WHL championship series.
Lambert was mostly held in check during Game 1, although he and his teammates sprung to life in the third period as they turned a 3-0 deficit into what ultimately was a 3-2 loss. Lambert did draw an assist on Seattle’s second goal, which came with 1:42 left in the third period. He also had four shots on goal, went 10 for 20 in the faceoff dot and showed a bit of a mean streak when he took a charging penalty in the second period.
Among those at the downtown rink watching on Friday night were Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, associate coach Scott Arniel, director of player development Jimmy Roy and Moose head coach Mark Morrisson.
Lambert is without doubt one of the most intriguing prospects the Jets have had in some time. He’s got speed to burn, and certainly caught the attention of coach Rick Bowness during camp.
“What he does, we can’t teach,” Bowness said after his preseason debut. “It’s unreal how fast he is. We’ll teach him how to play the game and understand the game a little better. That will be our job, but some of the things he does, that’s just natural and it’s beautiful to watch when he gets going.”
A few years ago, Lambert was being touted as a potential top three NHL draft pick. A couple tough seasons playing in the top men’s league in Finland against older, bigger stronger opponents caused his stock to fall. In that sense, he’s already battle-tested in a way that a typical junior hockey player might not be.
However, confidence with young players is always key, and part of the reason for sending him to Seattle was so he could feel as comfortable as possible, playing against his peers. Mission accomplished.
Lambert has also found instant chemistry with Dylan Guenther, the sensational 20-year-old Arizona Coyotes draft pick (ninth overall in 2021) who started this year in the NHL, with six goals and nine assists in 33 games, before being returned to junior.
“I know when I give him the puck I’ll get it back or he’s going to create something. Playing together, it’s harder for the other team to stop,” said Lambert.
If Lambert can eventually become an NHL regular, the Andrew Copp trade will be viewed as a grand slam for the Jets. You’ll recall Winnipeg sent the pending unrestricted free agent to the New York Rangers at the 2022 trade deadline, getting Morgan Barron and a pair of draft picks which turned into Lambert and Swedish defenceman Elias Salomonsson.
The fact Copp only lasted a couple months in the Big Apple, signing a long-term contract with his hometown Detroit Red Wings, already makes it a home run.
Lambert will be back in Winnipeg this summer for Jets development camp in early July, and then rookie and main camp in September. He’d like to add “Memorial Cup champion” to what is already an impressive resume, but a talented Ice squad will have plenty to say about that.
“Whoever wants it more is going to win,” Lambert said of this latest challenge. “We’ve got to be prepared.”
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.