Tampa Bay Lightning rich in NCAA and European talent

By Chris Roberts

Matthew Peca - Tampa Bay Lightning

Photo: Quinnipiac forward Matthew Peca has been solid in his junior season of hockey, recording 12 goals and 25 assists through 38 games. The Lightning selected Peca in the seventh round of the 2011 NHL Draft. (courtesy of Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

The Tampa Bay Lightning have shown a willingness to draft from all corners of the hockey world, so it should be no surprise that the organization boasts a wealth of NCAA and European prospects.

Former first round pick Andrey Vasilevskiy is the only player among the group considered to be a high-end prospect, but fellow goaltender Adam Wilcox has been excelling in the NCAA for two seasons now. There is also promising late-round picks like Joel Vermin, Matthew Peca, and Nikita Gusev who are not yet NHL ready, but thrive at one particular aspect of the game.

Europe

Andrey Vasilevskiy, G, Ufa Salavat Yulayev (KHL)
Drafted 1st round, 19th overall, 2012

Last season Andrey Vasilevskiy was fortunate enough just to see the ice in eight games with Ufa of the KHL. This year, after a strong finish to the regular season, which saw him play in 28 games, he's been leading the playoff charge. After losing their first two games in the first round against Novgorod, Ufa has evened the series at two and Vasilevskiy has been a major contributor. He helped Ufa to a triple overtime win in Game three to avoid going down 3-0, and in Game 4 stopped 39 shots in a 4-2 Ufa victory. Ufa would go on to win the quarterfinal series against Novgorod in seven games.

He split time between the pipes this season with veteran Alexei Volkov, but earned the trust of head coach Vladimir Yurzinov prior to the playoffs beginning thanks to a sparkling 2.21 goals against average and .923 save percentage to go along with a 14-8-5 record. The 6'3 netminder was also once again a stud for the Russian World Junior team, leading them to a third place finish while posting a 1.83 goals against average. His KHL contract expires at the end of this season.

Jaroslav Janus, G, HC Slovan Bratislava (KHL)
Drafted 6th round, 162nd overall, 2009

Having recently cut ties with goaltender Riku Helenius, the Lightning may also be headed in that direction with Jaroslav Janus. The organization loaned him to HC Slovan Bratislava last season due to an abundance of capable goaltenders, which, ironically, included Helenius, and while he played well then, his game has tailed off considerably this season. His goals against average increased from 2.17 to 2.86 and his save percentage dropped from .928 to .898. Factor in the ascension of Latvian Kristers Gudlevskis, who was only drafted last year, the steady play of Ben Bishop in Tampa, and the continued development of both Andrey Vasilevskiy and Adam Wilcox, and it is unlikely Janus remains in the organization.

Joel Vermin, RW, Bern (NLA)
Drafted 7th round, 186th overall, 2013

Joel Vermin had a rather pedestrian season for Bern of the Swiss-A league this year. The Lightning took a flyer on the winger in the seventh round of the 2013 NHL Draft; that season, playing with John Tavares, thanks to the NHL lockout, Vermin picked up 35 points in 47 games. This year, playing on a much weaker Bern team, Vermin scored just six goals and added 12 assists through 49 games. The 5'10, 194 pound winger was signed by the Lightning in September to a three-year entry level deal, and will likely report to Syracuse of the AHL next season.

Nikita Gusev, LW, Yugra Khanty-Mansiysk (KHL)
Drafted 7th round, 202nd overall, 2012

Playing for a total of six teams in the last three seasons, skilled Russian winger Nikita Gusev has been able to find some stability this year for the KHL's Yugra Khanty-Mansiysk. He has played no more than 34 games for a team prior to this season, as a result of minor league call-ups and send-downs, but dressed in 44 games this season in the second best professional hockey league in the world. He finished eighth on the team in scoring with 14 points, cementing his role on the veteran-laden, offensively-challenged team. He boasts an impressive history of being an elite scorer against players his own age – 76 points in 34 games in the MHL in 2011-12 and nine points in seven World Junior games that season – and should see his offensive totals rise next season as he gets more comfortable playing against stronger, faster players.

Saku Salminen, LW, Kiekko-Vantaa (Mestis)
Drafted 7th round, 184th overall, 2013

At 6'3 and 205 pounds, Finnish winger Saku Salminen has the build of a budding power forward, though his offensive skill currently leaves a lot to be desired. He dressed in 13 games for his club Jokerit last season, but was unable to cement a spot on this year's team, instead being loaned out to Kiekko-Vantaa of the Mestis league in Finland, where he has recorded just two assists in 13 games. He is more of a long-term project, years away from being an effective pro in North America, if he comes over at all.

NCAA

Adam Wilcox, G, Minnesota Golden Gophers (Big 10)
Drafted 6th round, 178th overall, 2011

With the sudden surge in optimism behind the Lightning's goaltending situation – both in the now and future – it is easy to forget about Minnesota product Adam Wilcox. Playing for his hometown Golden Gophers, Wilcox has been a wall between the pipes, posting an impressive record of 23-4-6 while owning a goals against average of 1.91 and a save percentage of .934. The sophomore goaltender recently set a career high in saves with 41 and was recently announced as a nominee for both the Hobey Baker award and Mike Richter (top goalie) award. The fact that he is playing a significant role on the top team in the nation should certainly help Wilcox going forward, likewise the fact that he still has two years of college eligibility left.

Brian Hart, RW, Harvard Crimson (ECAC)
Drafted 2nd round, 53rd overall, 2012

Sophomore Brian Hart scored the only goal of Harvard's best-of-three playoff series against Yale last week, as the Crimson saw their season come to an abrupt end. With six goals and nine assists in the regular season, Hart came three points shy of matching his point totals as a freshman, but finished fifth in team scoring. He projects as more of a power forward with his 6'3, 212 pound frame, but does possess some offensive upside. Next year, the Crimson are eligible to return each of their 12 top scorers from this season, which should lend a certain comfort level that can only benefit Hart and the rest of the forwards – outside of Jimmy Vesey (NSH) and Kyle Criscuolo, Harvard's remaining forwards accounted for just 41 goals.

Matthew Peca, C, Quinnipiac Bobcats (ECAC)
Drafted 7th round, 201st overall, 2011

Undersized center Matthew Peca put an exclamation mark on his junior season earlier this month. After the 5'10 pivot reached 39 points in his freshman campaign, he dipped to just 30 points last season, and had just 27 heading into the final weekend of this year's regular season. However, Peca went off against St. Lawrence, recording six points in a 8-0 win. Not only was it the only six point performance in the NCAA this season, he also tied a Quinnipiac record for most points in a game, and, of course, was named ECAC Player of the Week. He continued that production the following week in the ECAC tournament against Yale, and now has 37 points through 38 games on the season.

James Mullin, C, Miami RedHawks (NCHC)
Drafted 4th round, 118th overall, 2010

Playing just 19 games thanks to a season-ending lower body injury, James Mullin was unable to really get any momentum this season, recording just seven points in what was a disappointing season for the typically strong Miami University. For Mullin's part, his offensive totals have dipped in each successive year following his incredible freshman campaign in which he reached 26 points in 37 games. Fortunately, he has one more year of college eligibility left, where, if healthy, he could potentially play his way toward a contract offer from the Lightning.

Brendan O'Donnell, C, North Dakota (NCHC)
Drafted 6th round, 156th overall, 2010

After scoring just 16 points combined in his first two seasons with the University of North Dakota, Brendan O'Donnell provided a nice mix of defensive play and scoring – 15 points – this season, despite playing just 30 games. North Dakota recently won their best of three game series against Colorado College and will play the Miami Redhawks in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff on March 21st.