PENTICTON, BC – As he begins his transition to North American hockey, Winnipeg Jets prospect Brad Lambert is a step ahead of most of his European peers.
Born and raised in Lahti, Finland, Lambert came up through the Finnish hockey system. But Saskatchewan is the home base for his father’s family, and visits were frequent.
“Before I started school, I spent almost half of my time there,” said the 18-year-old forward after practice Saturday at the Young Stars Classic. “Then, when I started going to school, I spent the winters in Finland for the school year there and then spent the summers in Saskatoon.”
Culture shock can be an issue when European players make the jump to North America to begin their NHL careers. After being drafted 30th overall by the team that’s just 500 miles east of his Canadian home base, Lambert’s adjustment so far has been silky smooth.
“I was in Winnipeg once before,” he said. “I was about 10 years old, so I didn’t remember much. But when I landed in Winnipeg, it felt a lot like home. You know, it’s a lot like Saskatoon, a bit bigger, but it felt a lot like home .”
The NHL-style game could also be a good fit for Lambert’s toolkit, which includes soft hands and high-end speed which earned him a pro contract in Finland’s Liiga at just 15 years old.
“As far as the playing structure goes, it’s a little bit different,” he said of his first taste of Winnipeg Jets hockey. “I think it’s a faster pace, harder on the forecheck and stuff like that. The Finnish system was to sit back quite a bit, play a trap.
“Here, we go quite a bit, which I actually like playing with.”
His skills have been on display in Penticton, where he made a strong first impression with the Jets.
Friday night, he opened the scoring and tallied an assist in Winnipeg’s 3-2 loss to the Edmonton Oilers.
On Monday, he connected again in the first period of Winnipeg’s 5-3 win over the Calgary Flames. The goal was an easy tap-in, but Lambert started the play by forcing a blue-line turnover to set up a quick-strike 3-on-1 that put the Flames’ defenders on their heels.
Lambert’s Penticton experience has also included a touch of the familiar. He roomed with 21-year-old Henri Nikkanen, his teammate from the Lahti Pelicans in Finland’s Liiga last season. A fourth-round pick by Winnipeg in 2019, the 6’4″ center is also at his first NHL training camp after finishing out last year with a handful of games with the AHL’s Manitoba Moose.
The Jets’ Young Stars roster also includes 22-year-old Finnish goaltending prospect Oskari Salminen, who was signed as a free agent last May.
“It’s nice to have a few guys to speak Finnish to,” Lambert said. “Everyone’s been awesome. I’ve gotten to know a lot of the guys. They’ve been great, so it’s been a lot of fun.”
For years, Lambert was regarded as one of the top prospects for the 2022 draft. Injuries and illness put a drag on his production last season, limiting him to just 10 points in 49 games with two teams in Liiga. At season’s end, he was ranked 10th among international skaters by NHL Central Scouting. On draft day in Montreal, he slipped to 30th before being snapped up by the Jets.
Undaunted, he’s aiming high as he begins his NHL journey.
“I’m going to try to do everything I can in training camp to earn a spot on the team,” he said. “Just go out there and do everything I can do here (at Young Stars) and then at training camp. We’ll see, after that, where they put me.”
His versatility is a strength. Listed as a center when he was drafted, he lined up at left wing in Penticton on Monday, showing good chemistry and those trademark wheels on a line with Cole Perfetti and Greg Meireles.
If he doesn’t make the big club, he could return to Finland. Because he was drafted out of Europe, he’s also eligible to play in the American Hockey League. Canadian major junior could also be a possibility, but it seems unlikely: other than national team play at the World Junior Championship, Lambert has not played at the U-20 level since the 2019-20 season.
Now let’s see what’s next.