Former Trail Smoke Eaters captain Jake Lucchini almost slipped under the Trail Times’ radar, as the Michigan Tech Huskies’ 2018 MVP was the fourth Smoke Eater to attend an NHL Development Camp last month.
It was an unprecedented June for the Smoke Eaters, as d-man Seth Barton was drafted in the third round by the Detroit Red Wings, then attended their development camp, while 2017 fifth-round pick, Kale Howarth, skated at the Columbus Blue Jackets camp, and Bentley University forward Luke Santerno with the Winnipeg Jets.
Lucchini attended the Edmonton Oilers camp the previous two seasons, but was invited to the Pittsburgh Penguins development camp following an MVP season at Michigan Tech. The Trail native scored a team high 16 goals and 39 points in 44 games, leading the Huskies to a WCHA championship and a trip to the NCAA national tournament.
“I talked to them (the Penguins) in a game against Bowling Green,” said Lucchini. “I think they were coming to watch Dane (Birks) and I think I maybe caught their eye or something. I was in contact with them for a couple months. I think that was the beginning of February and it was towards the end of March they invited me to camp.”
Teammate Dane Birks, son of Beaver Valley Nitehawks assistant coach Bill Birks and former coach of the Smoke Eaters, was drafted in the sixth round of the 2013 NHL draft and signed a two-way contract with the Penguins in March.
But Lucchini also earned his spot at the Pens camp with an incredible finish to the NCAA season. The 23-year-old dynamic forward was named the WCHA’s Offensive Player of the Month for March, leading the Huskies to a second straight McNaughton Cup, and tied for tops in conference post-season scoring with 10 points. He was named to the NCAA East All-Tournament Team and earned Huskies MVP and top scorer at the end of the year.
“It was good, the coach gave me a lot of opportunity with being an older guy, being kind of a leader on the team,” said Lucchini. “We all kind of struggled at the beginning of the year, but when playoffs hit we all came together and ended up winning our playoffs.”
As for the Penguins development camp, Lucchini was one of 38 players invited to try out, including 16 drafted or signed by the Penguins and 22 undrafted free agents.
The Penguins’ staff showed their prospects an inspiring video to kick off camp about the history of the Penguins’ Stanley Cup teams and how, for a lot of those players, it all started at a development camp.
The players underwent fitness testing and on-ice practices over three days of camp from June 26-29, which culminated with a 3-on-3 tournament.
As part of the team’s unique off-ice activities, the prospects competed in an axe-throwing competition at an aptly named place called ‘Lumberjaxes.’ As a reward, the winners, Lucchini’s Team Murray and Team Maatta, suited up for the upcoming 3-on-3 tournament in the Penguins dressing room.
The prospects got another taste of the NHL as Pens captain Sidney Crosby and goalie Matt Murray dropped by the practice facility and talked to the players in the weight room and around the building.
“It was different from Edmonton, but it was cool,” said Lucchini. “I got to experience two different kinds of camps. Edmonton was pretty tough, fitness testing was hard, and skating, they really took it to you, but Pittsburgh was a lot different. They stressed getting to know the players, and then showing us how they work with their organization. We did fitness testing and we did skate but it was just a little bit different.”
Four teams faced off for the annual 3-on-3 tournament in a quest to win the Michel Briere Cup. In the end, Lucchini’s team, coached by Scott Young the Pens director of player development, swept aside the competition to win the Cup.
“It was a lot of fun and there were a lot of fans out there,” said Lucchini. “But we did win it. We went 2-0.”
Lucchini’s progress has been impressive at every level of hockey, and his series of invites to NHL development camps indicate a serious interest from NHL teams, something that should bode well for the future.
“It’s helped me that I’ve been able to experience different camps and just my confidence level, I know what to expect and how to work and things like that, so I think that benefitted me a lot.”
In his three seasons with the Smoke Eaters from 2012-15, Lucchini scored eight points in his first year and 26 in his second campaign. As Trail’s captain in 2014-15, he led the team in scoring, finishing fourth overall in the BCHL with 35 goals and 83 points in 58 games, more than doubling his combined total from the previous two seasons.
Lucchini’s numbers at Michigan Tech are also on the rise, netting 17 in his freshman year, 22 as a sophomore, and 39 as a junior. He’ll look to maintain that momentum when he returns for his senior year in September, finish his degree in Sports and Fitness Management, and eventually get his shot at professional hockey.
“They (Pittsburgh) said they liked me and are going to watch me next year,” added Lucchini. “Hopefully things work out and I do well and get an opportunity to sign a contract and play pro somewhere – next year or the year after.”
Jake is home for the summer and returned to the Smoke Eaters, where he is completing a practicum for his course work in sports management.