In recent years the Tampa Bay Lightning have shown a willingness to select players from a variety of leagues. Their prospect pool consists of a group of talented Europeans, intriguing NCAA players, and – because most of their recent CHL selections have turned pro – just six players playing junior hockey.
Dylan Blujus, D, North Bay Battalion
Acquired: 2nd round (40th overall) in 2012
It has taken some time for American defenseman Dylan Blujus to settle into his new surroundings this season. The 6'3, 200 pound blueliner underwent knee surgery in the off-season and has only played 14 of the team's 26 games this season. He has contributed limited offense, providing one goal and four assists in his fourth OHL season, but his defensive play has been more concerning. He was a season-high plus-three in a November 1st game against Kingston, but since then dropped to a minus-12 rating.
And while plus/minus is not the be all and end all of defensive proficiency, it is clear that Blujus is not playing up to his potential. He was cut from the 2013 U.S World Junior Camp in Lake Placid, and while that would have been a great experience for Blujus, he could use the time to continue getting comfortable in North Bay. Given the team's middle-of-the-pack status, Blujus, who turns 20 in January, could be an attractive deadline acquisition.
Henri Ikonen, LW, Kingston Frontenacs
Acquired: 6th round (154th overall) in 2013
The Lightning drafted for skill when they selected Finnish winger Henri Ikonen in the sixth round of last June's NHL Draft. They knew they were getting a player with some offensive capabilities, as Ikonen led the lowly 2012-13 Frontenacs in scoring with 51 points. This year the Frontenacs have gotten off to a much better start, and once again Ikonen continues to lead the offensive charge. Through 22 games, he has scored 11 goals and added 24 assists.
Ikonen has found tremendous chemistry playing alongside 2014 projected first round selection Sam Bennett and had a sizzling October in which he reached 21 points in 11 games. He has cooled off somewhat, but is an important player for the Frontenacs game in and game out, as he plays a tempered physical game and has been part of the team's penalty killing unit since arriving in Kingston over a year ago. He played for Finland at the National Junior Evaluation Camp this past summer, and should be part of the team's roster this Christmas in Sweden.
Jake Dotchin, D, Barrie Colts
Acquired: 6th round (161st overall) in 2012
In his third full OHL season, Jake Dotchin is rounding into form for the Barrie Colts. He was dealt to the Colts midway through last season and participated in 17 playoff games with the team. His contributions this season have been much greater. Through 24 games on the season, Dotchin has five goals (he had seven combined the past two seasons) and 10 assists. He sits second on the team in scoring by defensemen, behind only Aaron Ekblad (2014), and is far-and-away the team's leader in plus/minus with 16.
Slater Koekkoek, D, Windsor Spitfires
Acquired: 1st round (10th overall) in 2012
Call it a renaissance season or just call it returning to full health, but Slater Koekkoek is finally doing what he was expected to do when the Lightning drafted him 10th overall in the 2012 NHL Draft. After spending the last two injury-plagued seasons between Peterborough and Windsor, Koekkoek arrived healthy to camp this season and has been a consistent force since.
Through 24 games this season, the 19-year-old has six goals and 15 assists – his best offensive pace throughout his injury-shortened junior career. He is on a high powered team offensively speaking, but that should not diminish his overall game. He was a late addition to Canada's WJC summer camp, and given his recent play, should receive some serious consideration to make this year's team.
Adam Erne, LW, Quebec Remparts
Acquired: 2nd round (33rd overall) in 2013
A potential top-six power forward in the NHL, Adam Erne has continued to thrive in his third QMJHL season. Since arriving in Quebec at the start of the 2011-12 season, the now 6'1, 210 pound winger has recorded 157 points in 157 games. He was a great complement to Mikhail Grigorenko (BUF) last season, and this year he has fit nicely with Anthony Duclair (NYR) and Fabrice Herzog (TOR).
Given that the Lightning's current crop of forward prospects are predominantly undersized, Erne is valued quite highly within the organization. Like many of the Lightning's junior prospects, he also has a strong chance of cracking his country's national team. An American, Erne had a strong showing in Lake Placid for the U.S Evaluation Camp. He was particularly good against Finland, scoring once in regulation to tie the game and twice in a shootout to get the Americans the win.
Jonathan Drouin, LW, Halifax Mooseheads
Acquired: 1st round (3rd overall) in 2013
It was perhaps a little surprising that arguably the most skilled player in the 2013 NHL Draft was sent back to junior. And while it was the right move, it took Drouin awhile to find the offensive touch he had last year in junior. That could have easily been attributed to losing linemate Nathan MacKinnon (COL), but since the start of November Drouin has been the most explosive player in junior hockey, scoring 30 points in just nine games. What's even more impressive is that of his 11 goals during that time only three have come on the power play. He's also reached four points in four of those nine games.
Through 19 games on the season, Drouin has 46 points and has climbed into second in league scoring. He would have liked to be in Tampa Bay, but returning to junior certainly has not stunted his development; in fact, quite the opposite. Drouin will also get another chance to shine on the international stage at the World Junior Championships in Sweden this year, where he will likely be one of Canada's leaders.
Outside of the CHL is where the bulk of the Lightning's prospects play, and several have given plenty of reason to get excited this season.
Forward Nikita Kucherov scored his first NHL goal on November 25th against the New York Rangers. In his first season of professional hockey, Kucherov has shown to be a quick study, managing 13 goals in his first 17 AHL games. He led the Crunch with 24 points through 17 games before his recall.
Right behind Kucherov in scoring is second-year pro Vladislav Namestnikov. Whether it is natural progression or a by-product of Kucherov making him feel more comfortable, Namestnikov has taken a huge leap in his development this season with 21 points through the first 16 games; matching his total from all of last season.
Finally, with an overabundance of goaltenders, last year's fifth round pick Kristers Gudlevskis has not had much opportunity to get between the pipes in Syracuse, but he has looked great in spot starts. He has given up just eight goals in four games, posting a perfect 4-0-0 record. He is also 7-3 with the ECHL's Florida Everblades, having given up 16 goals in 10 starts.