While the top of the Tampa Bay Lightning's Top 20 prospects remains unchanged from the beginning of the 2013-14 season, there has both plenty of movement and fresh faces beyond top prospects Jonathan Drouin and Andrey Vasilevskiy.
Graduated from the title of prospect are Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Radko Gudas, all of whom have become integral pieces to the Lightning lineup. Both J.T. Brown and Richard Panik, who are on the list, are close to graduation as well. Yet, reinforcements are already well on their way, as players like Nikita Kucherov, Vladislav Namestnikov, and Slater Koekkoek, among others, have played well above expectation this season. Even with their graduations, the Lightning possess one of the better prospect pools in the NHL.
1. (1) Jonathan Drouin, LW, 9.0C
Drafted 1st round, 3rd overall, 2013
His omission from the Lightning's opening night roster may have been a small surprise, but his rampant scoring for the QMJHL's Halifax Mooseheads is nothing new. He sits eight in league scoring, but his 71 points in just 34 games gives him the second best points per game average, just behind Val d'Or's Anthony Mantha (DET). It is hard to find negatives in Drouin's season to date, but his goal totals have been down some, which is not that great of a shock considering he is without recent number one overall pick Nathan MacKinnon (COL). Of his 22 goals on the season, 12 came in a 10-goal span during November. That said, his assist totals are up this year, with 57 through 37 games.
He is still arguably one of the most talented offensive players in junior hockey, and while he is still eligible to play junior next season, it is nearly inconceivable to think that he will.
2. (2) Andrey Vasilevskiy, G, 8.5C
Drafted 1st round, 19th overall, 2012
Ben Bishop's emergence as a top goaltender in the NHL has slowed the hurry on Andrey Vasilevskiy's arrival in North America, despite the fact that the big Russian goaltender has proven himself as one of the top young goaltenders outside of the NHL. In previous years, he made spot appearances for Salavat Yulaev Ufa of the KHL, but this year he has emerged as the team's starting netminder, earning the bulk of shares over veteran Alexei Volkov, and posting an 11-8-5 record. His team is securely locked in a playoff position, and a deep run could add to his already incredible wealth of experience, which includes three World Junior Championship appearances.
3. (4) Nikita Kucherov, RW, 7.5B
Drafted 2nd round, 58th overall, 2011
A fast-rising prospect, Nikita Kucherov moves into third with help from the graduation of Alex Killorn, but primarily as a result of his own play. The offensively-gifted Russian needed just 17 games in the AHL to receive a call-up to the Lightning, and he has stuck since then, suiting up in 35 games for Tampa and collecting 14 points.
In his brief stint with Syracuse to start the season, he was far and away the team's most dangerous player, scoring 13 goals and adding 11 assists. With Kucherov, the team scored an average of 2.9 goals per game, while, since his recall, they've averaged just 2.4 goals per game.
4. (7) Vladislav Namestnikov, C, 7.5C
Drafted 1st round, 27th overall, 2011
Other than missing more than a month with a broken hand, Vladislav Namestnikov has been the Syracuse Crunch's most consistent forward this season. In the 33 games he has played for the team, the lanky-but-growing center has posted 30 points, while holding an admirable minus-five rating on a team that has a goal differential of minus-29.
Through the past season-and-a-half, he has proved he can compete – when healthy – at the pro level, and was rewarded just before the Olympic break with his first career NHL game. With the Lightning's suddenly deep prospect pool, there is no rush to get Namestnikov to the NHL. He is likely better suited to continue developing with Syracuse, particularly since he has played just 77 regular season games since the start of the 2012-13 season.
5. (6) Richard Panik, RW, 7.0B
Drafted 2nd round, 52nd overall, 2009
Sent down to Syracuse of the AHL just one game short of graduating from prospect status, Richard Panik had trouble finding consistent ice time in Tampa Bay this season. He played in 39 games for the team, scoring two goals and adding nine assists, before being reassigned on January 24th.
Both Ondrej Palat and J.T. Brown have done a better job gaining the trust of Lightning coach Jon Cooper, and with the team having elected to scratch two forward for the better part of the season, the thought was Panik would be better suited to top-six ice time in the AHL. His play over the past two seasons has warranted him a spot on the Slovakian Olympic team.
6. (11) Mark Barberio, D, 6.5B
Drafted 6th round, 152nd overall, 2008
In his fourth professional season, Mark Barberio has seemed to finally find his place in the NHL. He was known primarily for his offense throughout junior and his three seasons in the AHL, but he has provided steady defense for the Lightning blue line core. He also has nine points in 40 games. Barberio is waiver-exempt, but his improving play as of late has been more than enough to warrant a roster spot and the 15-plus minutes a night he has been earning since the beginning of January.
7. (13) Slater Koekkoek, D, 7.0C
Drafted 1st round, 10th overall, 2012
Injuries halted much of bruising defenseman Slater Koekkoek's career and development with the Peterborough Petes, but a fresh start with Windsor in his final year of junior has been quite beneficial. The 6'2, 186 pound Koekkoek has done exactly what the Spitfires imagined he would when they dealt for him at last season's deadline, leading the team's defense in both ice time and offensive production (he has 48 points in 55 games), but more important than that is the fact that he has been healthy. His play this season has helped to firmly re-establish himself as a defender with top-four potential at the NHL level.
8. (8) Adam Erne, RW, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 33rd overall, 2013
A budding power forward, Adam Erne has done exactly what has been expected of him this season, his third with Quebec of the QMJHL. His point per game production continues to increase, and he has found chemistry with Anthony Duclair (NYR), forming a formidable duo for the high-powered Remparts. He has also second on the team in penalty minutes with 65 in 48 games, and has been exerting himself physically more and more this season, using his 6'2 frame to gain open space on the ice.
9. (NR) Cedric Paquette, C, 7.0C
Drafted 4th round, 101st overall, 2012
Mixing both size and skill, Cedric Paquette has emerged as one of the top forwards for the Syracuse Crunch this season, particularly with the recall of Kucherov. He currently leads the Crunch in points with 32, and has also accumulated 95 penalty minutes, having dropped the gloves on sox occasions. Most important has been Paquette's durability as he is one of just three Crunch players to participate in all of the team's 49 games to date.
10. (18) J.T. Brown, RW, 6.5C
Signed as undrafted free agent, March 29th, 2012
In his second full season as a pro, J.T. Brown appears to have found a home in Tampa Bay. The 23-year-old began the season with Syracuse, but like many others, found himself in Tampa when injuries opened the door. He has taken full advantage of the opportunity, registering 13 points through 39 games with the Lightning and often plays near 15 minutes a night, despite getting limited power-play and penalty kill time. In fact, Cooper has only recently begun to give Brown shorthanded minutes, and it is a role that the speedy winger can fill effectively if given time.
11. (12) Andrej Sustr, D, 6.5C
Signed as undrafted free agent, March 21st, 2013
Hulking, 6'8 defenseman Andrej Sustr surprised many by making the Lightning's opening night roster after a three-year career at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Though he was eventually sent down, he would play 38 games with Tampa, drawing rave reviews for his steady play as a rookie. The Czech native is now logging big minutes for the Syracuse Crunch, where he has two points through eight games.
12. (16) Dmitry Korobov, D, 6.5C
Signed as undrafted free agent, August 12th, 2012
With the revolving door of Crunch forwards spending time in Tampa Bay, Belarusian rearguard Dmitry Korobov has lent some stability to the team's back end. The 24-year-old currently leads the team's defense in scoring with two goals and 17 assists through 45 games. However, it is not goal scoring that is Korobov's specialty. At 6'2, 230 pounds, he is the most physically imposing Crunch player, and in his second season in North America, has been able to better identify when to step up and make the big hit.
13. (NR) Henri Ikonen, LW, 7.0D
Drafted 6th round, 154th overall, 2013
The Lightning have to be impressed with Finnish winger Henri Ikonen's progress with the OHL's Kingston Frontenacs. Playing on a team that features rising stars and 2014 NHL Draft hopefuls Sam Bennett and Spencer Watson, Ikonen currently has 56 points through 42 games. Creative offensively, Ikonen recently went viral with his one-handed penalty shot shovel goal, in which he chipped the puck over Sarnia goaltender Taylor Dupuis (2014). He also played for the gold-medal winning Finns in the WJC, contributing a goal and two assists, primarily as the team's 13th forward.
14. (14) Matthew Peca, C/W, 6.5C
Drafted 7th round, 201st overall, 2011
Forward Matthew Peca has not done enough this season to move up on the list of Lightning prospects nor has he performed poorly enough to drop. Instead, Peca has continued to be a strong secondary scorer for Quinnipiac University with 26 points through 32 games, which puts him fourth on the team in scoring. He has been unable to replicate his rather impressive freshman season from two years ago in which he accumulated 31 assists, but has developed more of a propensity for goal scoring and is a better two-way player.
15. (NR) Adam Wilcox, G, 7.0D
Drafted 6th round, 178th overall, 2011
Proving that last season's numbers were no fluke, hometown goaltender Adam Wilcox has been a brick wall for the University of Minnesota once again this season. Playing in all but one of the team's 30 games, Wilcox has posted an impressive .931 save percentage and a sparkling 1.97 goals against average to go along with his 20-4-5 record. His goals against average ranks sixth in the nation.
16. (NR) Dylan Blujus, D, 6.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 40th overall, 2012
Dylan Blujus has rebounded from a mediocre season in 2012-13. Through 44 games for the North Bay Batallion, the Buffalo, New York native has four goals and 20 assists and has been much more reliable in the defensive zone. He is in his final year of junior and should be offered a contract prior to next season.
17. (17) Nikita Nesterov, D, 7.0D
Drafted 5th round, 148th overall, 2011
Russian defenseman Nikita Nesterov has been an integral part of the Syracuse Crunch's defense this season, playing in 40 games and adding 12 points. He has got some offensive power, as he showed during his two years playing in the WJC, but will likely need some time adjusting to the North American game. There is always the threat that Nesterov returns to Russia to earn more money, but his current trajectory should at least get him a look in the NHL.
18. (19) Brian Hart, RW, 6.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 53rd overall, 2012
Power forwards often take longer to develop and expand their offensive game, and that is the hope with Brian Hart. At 6'3 and 212 pounds, Hart is a big-bodied winger that has been an effective bottom-six forward for Harvard University this season. He does however has strong offensive instincts, evidenced by his high school totals (129 points in 56 games) and could develop into an effective power forward at the NHL level. Fortunately, Hart has two more years of NCAA eligibility to refine his game.
19. (NR) Kristers Gudlevskis, G, 6.5C
Drafted 5th round, 124th overall, 2013
Latvian goaltender Kristers Gudlevskis has displayed his talents both for the Syracuse Crunch and the ECHL's Florida Everblades, playing in a combined 33 games for the two teams. He is also playing for Latvia in the Olympics, and, prior to the NHL's Olympic break, spent time on the Lightning's roster as a third goaltender. Only drafted last season, the 21-year-old has been an admirable option between the pipes for the Crunch, posting a record of 11-8-2 to go along with a 2.69 goals against average and a .900 save percentage.
20. (NR) Nikita Gusev, LW, 7.0D
Drafted 7th round, 202nd overall, 2012
He still has no plans of coming to North America, but Nikita Gusev is beginning to make a name for himself in the KHL. This is the first year in which he has yet to be sent down from his KHL team, and to date, he has 13 points through 40 games, while playing a limited role. His offensive potential is intriguing, but the prospect of him playing in North America remains clouded.