Last summer, Brad Lambert had a decision to make.
The 2022 NHL Draft prospect could have embarked on his second season with JYP of Finland’s Liiga, where he’d excelled as a kid playing amongst men in his native Finland in 2020-21. He also could have made the cross-pond trip to Canada to join his WHL rights holders, the Saskatoon Blades.
There was a lot riding on this decision, considering the success he’d had just one season prior – the kind of success that saw him entering his all-important draft year as one of the most highly-touted NHL prospects in his class of 2022. At the time, he’d reached as high as second overall in some rankings (including Sportsnet’s Sam Cosentino’s season-opening list), thanks to his strong skating, elite-level speed, and the kind of offensive flair defenders are warned about.
The thought of watching Lambert’s skillset outside of the defence-first system of Finland’s top pro league was an enticing one, but with grand expectations for him to take his game to another level under the steady gaze of NHL scouts anticipating top-10 picks, it was the pull of developing his defence that prompted him to remain in Finland for another season.
“I did consider [Saskatoon] last summer, and a big reason I went back to Finland was, a big thing I needed to work on was just my all-around game and being more responsible defensively, and that’s the reason I decided to go back,” Lambert, 18, told Sportsnet last month during the 2022 NHL Draft Combine.
“If you want to play in that league, you want to be put on the ice, you need to earn the coach’s trust. You need to do all the little things right,” he said. “I think it’s gonna help me in the future. I know I can produce offensively, but now I know also that I can be responsible when that’s needed. So, I think that was a big part that helped me, playing with men.”
The idea of Lambert suiting up in Saskatoon had roused more than a little intrigue in western hockey circles, not just for his forward-thinking skillset but for the familiar name on his back.
The Lambert name is well-known in Saskatchewan, after all. His dad, Ross Lambert, was born in Kindersley and racked up 106 points in 71 games with the Blades in 1982-83 before suiting up for a brief American League stint and then jetting off to play pro in England.
Brad’s uncle, Lane Lambert (newly hired head coach of the New York Islanders), registered 104 goals and 233 points in two seasons from 1981 to 1983 before jumping into the NHL upon being selected 25th overall by the Detroit Red Wings and followed up his playing career by getting behind the bench.
Uncle Dale also played pro in England and now coaches the under-18 Triple-A Saskatoon Contacts while cousin Jimmy recently signed an ATO with the AHL Bridgeport Islanders (affiliate of New York) after four years at the University of Michigan.
While Brad Lambert’s hockey roots can be found in the prairies, his own personal hockey path runs through Finland. Lambert’s mother is Finnish, and he was born and raised in there, growing up learning the game in Finland every winter and spending summer months with family in Saskatchewan. A dual citizen, he represents Finland on the international stage and helped the team to a bronze medal in the 2020-21 tournament and was off to a hot start with the U20 team again in December before the tournament was called off due to COVID.
“Before I started going to school, I spent a lot of time going back and forth and kind of lived 50-50. It’s been good, I’ve seen both cultures — they’re a lot the same,” said Lambert. “The people are friendly, hard-working people in both Finland and Canada.”
With his decision made to stay in Finland another season, Lambert’s path to the draft this year wasn’t exactly a smooth one. His early lack of production (two goals and six points in 25 games with JYP) prompted questions about his draft-board position as he fell out of the top five and, eventually, outside of the top 10 with projections placing him in the middle of Round 1. The word “enigma” began to quickly to follow mentions of his name.
The slow start led to a mid-season homecoming for Lambert – not to Saskatoon, but to his hometown team, the Lahti Pelicans.
“My favourite time of the year is the playoffs, and the team I played for wasn’t in a playoff spot, they weren’t making the playoffs,” explained Lambert, adding that while the move raised some eyebrows in North America as an unconventional decision, switching teams in search of better opportunities is a much more common practice in Finland and Europe. “It’s very common to switch teams, and the Pelicans asked if it would be possible for me to go there and I thought it would be a great opportunity for me to go somewhere where I could help my hometown team make the playoffs and go as far into the playoffs as possible.”
The move ultimately didn’t bring the kind of offensive spark Lambert and others may had hoped for, however. In 25 games with the Pelicans, he registered two goals and four points before being shut out in three playoff games. A draft picture that was supposed to get clearer by the move was made muddier.
“Obviously, if you’re looking at a results standpoint and what our team result was and my results, it wasn’t the year I would’ve liked to have had or needed to have or people expected of me, but I think I took big steps forward in my defensive play, my all-around game, and just being more responsible on the ice,” said Lambert.
“I think I had my chances to create, and I think I showed what I can do against my peers in the world junior and the other under-20 tournaments,” he said (in two games at the WJC before the cancellation, he’d already racked up a goal and four assists). “The Finnish top league is obviously a very defensive league, a tough league to play in when you’re young, and I didn’t get the results I wanted but I know I can produce in the future.”
Now, with the season in the books and draft night just a few days away, intrigue will be found early and often when names start coming off the board in Montreal Thursday night. And with a smooth skillset on the ice and a rocky draft year in the books, Lambert’s name holds more intrigue than most. He dropped from fifth to 10th over the course of 2021-22 in the NHL Central Scouting rankings, and has been listed all over the first round. The word “enigma” could soon be replaced with “steal.”
Adding to the intrigue, of course, is the team positioned at No. 13 – the New York Islanders, coached by Uncle Lane, could make draft night a familiar affair if Lambert is there for the taking.
“I have talked to him since he got the job, congratulated him,” Lambert said of his uncle, who was officially hired as head coach on Long Island in May after serving as an associate there for four seasons. “It’s great for him, he deserves it. He’s an incredibly hard worker.”
The young Lambert, who says he models his game after Islanders star Mathew Barzal – “I think we have some similarities in the way we skate and handle the puck,” he said. “He’s a guy I definitely like to watch and learn from.” – said he’s spoken with the Islanders over the course of pre-draft interviews and scouting, but Lane was not part of any interviews (though, they did ask him about his uncle, he said).
Lambert said he hasn’t talked to his dad much about draft night itself, but rather, “more just about the game, what it takes to get there.”
“You need to work hard every day and concentrate on the things you can control and live in the moment,” he said.
Soon, Lambert will have another decision to make. Without a Liiga contract for 2022-23, and with his WHL rights just traded further west to the Seattle Thunderbirds, Lambert knows his decision on where he’ll suit up next won’t be his alone to make.
For now, he’s focused on the excitement, of course.
“You’ve dreamed about something like that since I can remember. It’s obviously going to be a great night,” he said. “I don’t think you can even imagine how cool it will be until you get there. I’m really looking forward to it.”