BRANDON — The visionary inside Lightning founder Phil Esposito once stated somebody born and raised in Florida would one day make it to the NHL.
Brandon native Clay Witt might be the first.
Witt, 22, is one of four goaltenders participating in the Lightning’s development camp this week at the Ice Sports Forum, the same rink at which Witt first started to skate and play hockey as an 8-year-old, the same rink he used to come to with his parents to watch the Lightning practice, the same rink in which his father’s company, Witt Fence Co., has an advertisement on the dasher boards as well as the Zamboni.
Though Witt, a free-agent invitee, intends to head back for his redshirt senior season at Northeastern University, the 6-foot-2, 200-pounder is a solid pro prospect after a strong season as a junior.
In 32 games, Witt went 17-12-3 with a 2.37 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage in his first full season as a starter and was named a finalist for the inaugural Mike Richter award as the top goaltender in college hockey.
“He’s there. He’s at the point where he’s able to take the step into pro hockey,’’ Lightning goaltending coach Frantz Jean said. “He had a very good year last year, so that gives you the indication that he’s able to dominate (in college) and that usually indicates that he’s ready to make the next step in his career.’’
That’s quite a step for a kid who grew up a Lightning fan near Bloomingdale High and started out playing in-line hockey as a 7-year-old before moving to ice skates a year later.
After a year on the ice, Witt convinced his parents that he wanted to become a goaltender and, unknowingly, a potential trail-blazing path was ignited.
“I don’t know if I would say I’m a pioneer. I’m just trying to get through the steps as far as you can,’’ said Witt, who graduated with a business degree and will begin working on his MBA in the fall.
The first step came after his eighth-grade year when Witt garnered attention while playing for travel teams in tournaments throughout North America and was recruited to play Junior B hockey with the South Boston Bruins in Marlboro, Mass., where he played for two seasons.
Witt then heard his name called during the United States Hockey League draft by Sioux Falls, where he played for two seasons and wound up being courted to play college hockey.
Witt hopes that next step takes him into the professional ranks, but for the time being he is enjoying the experience of being part of a camp run by a professional organization that just happens to be the same team he cheered for growing up, the same team he watched play in person during the 2004 Stanley Cup finals when he was 12.
“I don’t know if I would call it a dream moment. It’s something I expected after the season I had to be invited to a development camp,’’ Witt said. “I’m just glad that I was able to come to this one.’’
It has been a strong showing for Witt during camp, and his play stood out as the 3-on-3 tournament began Saturday. He stopped 37 shots and posted an .822 save percentage, second-best of the four goalies in camp.
“I like what I see,’’ said Stacy Roest, the Lightning’s director of player personnel. “If you watched him in the (3-on-3) games, he did really well. The goalie drills are the goalie drills, but the games ... our scouts really like him. Now we get to know each other and we’ll see where it goes.’’
Or where it leads.