The Tampa Bay Lightning have steadily built a strong group of prospects since the arrival of general manager Steve Yzerman in 2010. This season, their patience paid dividends as they made a surprising playoff appearance. Several prospects – Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Mark Barberio – made key contributions and earned regular NHL roles.
During Tampa's first round series against the Montreal Canadiens, it was hard not to notice Cedric Paquette. The 20-year-old recorded two assists and 16 penalty minutes in four games, despite playing just two regular season games for the Lightning. His legs never stopped working during those four games, and he had no qualms about throwing himself into opposing players, crashing and banging along the boards. He spent the majority of the year in Syracuse, where his offensive production as a rookie – 44 points – combined with his high-energy game, put him on the Lightning's radar. With the Lightning's depth, another year in the AHL might serve him well.
You do not score 15 goals as a defenseman in the OHL without a heavy shot, and that is exactly what Slater Koekkoek employs. He scored just 18 goals in his previous three seasons, but missed time due to shoulder injuries that not only kept him out of the lineup, but likely limited his ability to shoot the puck as hard and accurate, as he is known to do. His shot is also accurate, and he possesses a heavy wrist shot, which, when not finding the back of the net, often leaves him with an assist – he had 38 last season. If he can stay healthy, he will be a welcome member of the Lightning's power-play unit in a season or two.
Best Defensive Prospect: Dylan Blujus, D, North Bay Battalion (OHL)
Recently signed to a three-year entry-level deal, Dylan Blujus has improved defensively over the past few seasons. He was a key cog during North Bay's OHL Championship run this year that ultimately came up short in the league finals, and was dealt with the task of shutting down the opposing team's opposition. In the conference finals against Oshawa, Blujus played a big part in shutting down the team's high-powered offense which includes Michael Dal Colle (2014), Scott Laughton (PHI) and Cole Cassels (VAN). Those three players scored just 12 points combined in the four game sweep, a significant drop from their regular season pace, which was well over a point-per-game. Even as a rookie, Blujus should add some much needed stability to the Syracuse Crunch blue line.
Fastest Skater: Nikita Kucherov, RW, Tampa Bay Lightning (NHL)
A great skater before being drafted by the Lightning, Kucherov has improved his speed ever since. Starting in the AHL, his speed – and shiftiness – was evident, as he was able to simply blow by opposing defenders, cutting to the outside. He was called up after just 17 games, in which he accumulated 24 points and proved, at least offensively, that he was ahead of the curve for a 20-year-old.
Jonathan Drouin could not be any more deserving of being named the Lightning's prospect of the year. Perhaps a little dejected after not making the Lightning in September, he got off to a pedestrian start in the QMJHL, but as the season went on the points piled up. He scored 29 goals and dished out 79 assists for a point total of 108, three more than he recorded last year in three less games – he played just 46. That is amazing, especially considering he did it all without last year's linemate Nathan MacKinnon (COL) by his side.
Drouin did about all he could in the playoffs to get the Mooseheads back to the Memorial Cup, but his 41 points in 16 games was not enough. He will almost assuredly be in the NHL next season, as he is a year too young to be sent to the AHL, and has absolutely nothing left to prove in junior hockey.
Breakout Player for 2014-15: Vladislav Namestnikov, C, Syracuse Crunch (AHL)
Should he continue on his current career arc, Vladislav Namestnikov would be primed for a breakout season next year. The former first round pick will be entering his third pro season and has steadily improved throughout his first two. As a rookie with the Syracuse Crunch in 2012-13, he lacked the confidence he now has, and played a little more timid. This season, Namestnikov was prompted into big minutes with the Crunch, due to the recall of players like Kucherov and J.T. Brown, and he responded. In 56 games, the Russian pivot finished second in Crunch scoring with 48 points. He is likely best served spending another year in the AHL as a top-line center, but could certainly be wearing a Lightning jersey come next October.
Most Improved: Jake Dotchin, D, Barrie Colts (OHL)
The fact that defenseman Jake Dotchin signed an entry-level contract with the Lightning over a month ago speaks volumes to his development. As a sixth round selection in 2012 with limited offensive potential and not considered a shutdown defender, Dotchin's chances of being signed were slim to begin with. He was traded to Barrie midway through the 2012-13 campaign and enjoyed a lengthy playoff run with the team. Coming back as a 19-year-old, Dotchin had his most productive season in the OHL, scoring a career-best 11 goals (he had just seven career goals prior to the season) and adding 25 assists. Only Aaron Ekblad (2014) had more points among Barrie defenseman than Dotchin. His skating has improved quite a bit since being drafted, and he has grown into his 6'3 frame and become a more physical force on the ice.
Overachiever: Kristers Gudlevskis, G, Syracuse Crunch (AHL)
Kristers Gudlevskis, the 6'4 Latvian, is not as good as he appeared against Canada in the 2014 Winter Olympics – at least not yet, or consistently. He played the game of his life in that 2-1 quarterfinal loss, but that game should not be used as an accurate representation of his talent level or ceiling. Through 34 games in the AHL, the former fifth round pick had a record of 18-11-4, while posting a 2.68 goals against average and a .901 save percentage. His style is a little unorthodox and he will need to continue working on the finer points of goaltending – cutting down angles, staying calm in the crease – but it is safe to say that not many expected Gudlevskis to both earn Olympic praise and take over the AHL starting job in his first year as a pro.
Underachiever: James Mullin, C, Miami RedHawks (NCHC)
James Mullin has underachieved for two years in a row now, if one considers his impressive freshman season in 2011-12. Mullin was part of a very talented Miami University squad that year, one which featured Reilly Smith (BOS) and Tyler Biggs (TOR). He finished third in scoring that year with 37 points in 40 games; in the two seasons since, he has just 21 points in 57 games. Part of that can be attributed Smith's departure from the university – Mullin often played with the now-Bruins player and had great chemistry. And this past year, he was limited to just 19 games due to an injury, but still scored just once during that time. With one more year of NCAA eligibility, he will need to return to his freshman form – or at least improve upon his last two seasons – to earn a contract with the Lightning.
Highest Risk/Reward: Slater Koekkoek, D, Windsor Spitfires (OHL)
Koekkoek has the physical tools and skating ability to be a top-pairing defenseman in the NHL, that much is not in question. However, he played just 26 games in his draft year due to a shoulder injury, and has been hampered by the ailment ever since. He came into the 2013-14 campaign feeling healthier than ever, and stayed that way until early March, when it was announced he would miss the rest of the season with another shoulder injury, marking the third straight year his season ended prematurely. In the 62 games he played this season, he led all Spitfires defenders with 53 points, so the talent and production is there – he just needs to stay healthy.