To start last season, many believed Finnish center Brad Lambert would be one of the few challengers to Shane Wright’s status as the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NHL draft. While Wright was unseated by Slovak winger Juraj Slafkovsky, Lambert was far from close to challenging for first overall.
The silky smooth skating Finn went 30th overall to the Winnipeg Jets, with some scouts and analysts believing he may fall out of the first round altogether. A mid-season trade, underwhelming counting stats, playing with questionable talent around him and a few bad bounces saw Lambert’s stock fall – to the delight of the Winnipeg Jets.
Fast forward less than three months and ‘Big Bad Brad’ is looking like one of the most consistently dangerous forwards at Jets’ camp. He was also the leading scorer for the Jets at their prospect showcase.
The skating prowess and puck skill that made him one of the most enticing prospects heading into last season have shown up in a big way. His on-ice vision and transition ability have shined beacons in the pre-season.
The big question through two pre-season games and a number of training camp highlights is what is the next step for the Jets’ newest toy?
Generally speaking, when a 30th overall pick attends training camp mere months after his name is called, they’re in town to tour the NHL facilities and get a feel for what NHL talent looks like up close and personal. Lambert, on the other hand, seems uninterested in leaving.
The options for the young Finn are fairly easy to identify.
Going back to Finland to play in the Liiga seems out of the question. The Lahti Pelicans are not a strong squad, and despite their best efforts to employ the ‘Flying V’ (yes, this happened), developing another year in that system would likely lead to more frustration than success.
His CHL rights are owned by the Seattle Thunderbirds, a powerhouse team in the WHL. His speed and puck skills would be comical in the Canadian junior ranks. He would play with fellow 2022 first-round picks Kevin Korchinski (Chicago, 7th overall) and Reid Schaefer (Edmonton, 32nd overall) as well as 2023 top prospects in goalie Scott Ratzlaff and forward Gracyn Sawchyn.
Would he have success at the WHL level? Almost certainly, he’s torn up junior hockey just about every chance he’s had. But is junior hockey what’s best for his development after spending the majority of the last two seasons against men?
Since Lambert was drafted out of Finland, he is eligible to play with the AHL’s Manitoba Moose. 18-year-old prospects rarely get the opportunity because of the NHL-CHL agreement, but it would allow him to continue to develop his trademark speed and agility against bigger, faster, more mature competition without thrusting him into NHL action before he’s ready.
Oftentimes players drafted out of Europe are contractually obligated to head back to their home club. Lambert remains unsigned in any league. Signing his NHL entry-level contract could be in the cards due to his impressive performance thus far, but he would need to sign his deal soon to get into game action with the Moose – or the Jets.
Lambert’s cerebral mindset offensively has been evident against mixed NHL-AHL lineups, but could he continue to do that against full-blown NHL squads? The NHL is his third realistic option.
His coaches and teammates have all expressed how impressed they’ve been with him. They gushed about how he won’t have to catch up to the speed of the NHL game. That said, they’ve also been quick to caution that the NHL regular season is a different beast than the pre-season. Full NHL lineups with standings points on the line are much tougher competition.
It’s certainly a massive ask for Lambert to come into the Jets’ lineup and presumably play top-six minutes. He’s been paired with Cole Perfetti in practice recently – a duo that’s flashed some magic and chemistry already. While the two playing together on a scoring third line could make the Jets more dangerous offensively, they would likely need a center who’s happy to let them dance while he plays a background role, cleaning up defensive mistakes.
Making the Winnipeg roster less than four months after being drafted 30th overall would be a massive accomplishment for Lambert. It would also be a big step up from the competition he faced last season, albeit with more talented teammates who think the game a bit more cohesively.
So where does Lambert wind up?
Winnipeg has two more pre-season games, one tonight against the Calgary Flames at home and then another in Calgary on Friday. Lambert is likely to be featured heavily in both, being given his shot to earn a spot on this Jets roster.
If he performs well as he has been, he might stick with the NHL club, possibly forming a rookie dynamic duo with Perfetti. Maybe ‘Big Bad Brad’ is given the nine-game look in the NHL and then sent to the AHL to develop further. That seems like the most likely scenario at this point. A cup of coffee with the big club before a season developing in the minors. That also gives him the opportunity to be called up should injuries or poor performances occur in the NHL club.
All of this depends on Lambert signing his entry-level contract. Once pen hits paper, I don’t think there will be any thought of Lambert playing outside of the organization. AHL or NHL, Lambert is putting his name back on the map as one of the most talented prospects in the world at the moment.