Several prominent Tampa Bay Lightning prospects poised for breakout seasons

By Chris Roberts
Vladislav Namestnikov - Tampa Bay Lightning

Photo: Forward Vladislav Namestnikov is one of several Tampa Bay Lightning prospects expected to have a big season in 2014-15. (courtesy of Glenn James/NHLI via Getty Images)

 

 The Tampa Bay Lightning prospect pool is flush with skilled and intriguing prospects worth following at every prominent level of hockey. From already-signed players Jonathan Drouin, Andrey Vasilevskiy, to offensively-talented but question riddled CHL prospects Adam Erne and Anthony DeAngelo.

A number of NCAA prospects are entering their junior or senior seasons, meaning their performance and development will be watched closely if they are to earn an NHL contract.

Pro

Top Pro Prospect
Jonathan Drouin, LW, Tampa Bay Lightning (NHL)

A highly skilled, offensively-gifted winger, Jonathan Drouin is ready to turn pro this season – he is eligible for another season of junior, but has nothing more to prove at that level. He cannot be sent to Syracuse of the AHL either, but should have no trouble making the Lightning based on merit alone. Drouin’s playmaking ability and creativity with the puck would instantly improve the Lighting’s top six forward group; he will need to prove he belongs quickly, however, as the team can send him back to junior before he reaches 10 games.

Last season, he recorded 108 points in 46 games with Halifax of the QMJHL, improving upon a 105 point campaign the season prior. Going into the 2014-15 season, he is not only the Lightning’s top pro prospect, but a favorite to win the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie.

NHL-Bound
Vladislav Namestnikov, C, Syracuse Crunch (AHL)

Whether it is in October or January, there is a very good chance that skilled Russian pivot Vladislav Namestnikov spends considerable time in Tampa Bay this season.

At 6’0 and 170 pounds, he is far from a physical presence on the ice, but has elite-level vision and tremendous skating ability. He took a big step forward in his development last season, recording 48 points in 56 games with the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch, up from 21 points in his rookie season. He had an impressive pre-season debut with the Lightning, collecting three assists in showcasing his playmaking skills. His two-way play is already considered above average, giving him the jump on other potential call-ups in Syracuse.

Unsigned for 2015-16
Andrej Sustr, D, Tampa Bay Lightning (NHL)

Andrej Sustr has bounced back and forth between Tampa Bay and Syracuse over the past two seasons, yet to truly cement a spot on the big league team.

Despite his impressive stature at 6’8 and 225 pounds, he does not play a very mean game, though he does not shy away from physicality. He does a lot of things well, but nothing about his game – other than his size – stands out too much. This season should be telling as to what the Lightning consider his role to be within the organization. With the team having recently signed Anton Stralman and traded for Jason Garrison, it is hard to imagine Sustr earns significant ice time in Tampa unless injuries occur. He will also be battling with an impressive group of first and second year pros, including oft-injured former first rounder Slater Koekkoek, Dylan Blujus, and Nikita Nesterov. Sustr will still be a restricted free agent following the end of the season.

Junior

Top Junior Prospect
Anthony DeAngelo, D, Sarnia Sting (OHL)

It should be no surprise that recent first round draft pick Anthony DeAngelo enters the 2014-15 campaign as the Lightning’s top prospect in the CHL. The American defender is not particularly regarded for his physicality or defensive zone play, but emerged as one of the OHL’s top offensive defensemen as an 18-year-old last season. In 51 games with Sarnia, DeAngelo scored 15 goals, up from nine the year before, and picked up 56 assists. His minus-34 is not so troubling, considering the Sting were 17-44-0-7 last season.

Even if he were ready for the NHL, there is no room on the crowded Lightning blue line this season. In junior, he can work on the subtleties of his game with less pressure and more ice time.

Offensive Breakout
Ben Thomas, D, Calgary Hitmen (WHL)

In his first full season with the Hitmen last year, Ben Thomas emerged as a steady, reliable defender who could chip in offensively as well. Playing a full 72 game schedule, the only Hitmen player to do so, Thomas scored seven goals and added 24 assists. In seven regular season games the year prior, Thomas failed to record a point.

There is no reason to think his progress offensively will not continue this season; two of the Hitmen’s top four defenders last season have graduated from junior, and Thomas should see an increased workload as a result.

New Team in 2014-15
Dominik Masin, D, Peterborough Petes (OHL)

A second round pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, skilled all-around defenseman Dominik Masin is suiting up for the Peterborough Petes this season. The 6’2, 190 pound Czech Republic native was selected by the Petes 25th overall in the CHL Import Draft this summer.

Masin played with HC Slavia Praha’s U20 team last season; the Czech Republic junior system is a notch below the CHL, but Masin’s 21 points in 39 games is noteworthy nonetheless. The smaller ice surface in North America should not be a problem for Masin, however; he plays a mean, physical game, and was the Czech U20 league’s most penalized player last season. Along with 17-year-old Matthew Spencer (2015), Masin will get a chance to anchor the Petes blue line this season.

Amateur

Top Amateur Prospect
Matthew Peca, C, Quinnipiac Bobcats (ECAC)

Entering his final year of NCAA eligibility, Matthew Peca, though undersized, has proved himself a highly skilled pivot. The 5’9, 165 pound Peca has recorded 30 points or more in each of his first three seasons at Quinnipiac University; his career high of 39 came in his freshman season, while he reached 38 last year.

The former seventh round NHL Draft selection was given the option by the organization to either sign or finish his collegiate career, and opted for a fourth college season. Given the Lightning’s propensity to allow young players to not only develop, but flourish, Peca should be playing for the Syracuse Crunch at the outset of the 2015-16 season.

Freshman to Watch
Johnathan MacLeod, D, Boston University Terriers (Hockey East)

Projected as a shutdown defender with a touch of offensive talent, recent second round pick Johnathan MacLeod will face much tough opposition this season. Last year, the 18-year-old played with the USNDTP, but faced competition no older than 20; with Boston University, he will be the youngest player on the team and will be faced with the task of shutting down forwards three and four years older.

MacLeod does have good size at 6’2 and 201 pounds, so his size should help him against older, bigger forwards.

Unsigned for 2015-16
James Mullin, C, Miami RedHawks (NCHC)

After playing just 19 games due to injury last season, Philadelphia native James Mullin enters his senior season with a lot of uncertainty. Coming out of the USHL’s Fargo Force, Mullin had his most productive collegiate season as a freshman in 2011-12, producing 26 points in 37 games. In his season-and-a-half of play since, he has accumulated just 21 points in 57 games. In 2012-13, he was passed by Riley Barber (WSH) on the team’s depth chart, and with his injury last year, freshman Anthony Louis (CHI) filled the void.

Mullin will be competing with both of those players for ice time this season, and considering his game is centered on offense, he will be judged on his production. An unproductive season offensively could leave the former fourth round pick without a contract offer from the Lightning.

Europe

Top European Prospect
Nikita Gusev, LW, Yugra Khanty-Mansiysk (KHL)

The Lightning’s lack of prospects playing overseas – they have just two – might suggest the team shies away from European prospects, but that is far from the case. The truth is that the organization simply does a tremendous job in bringing prospects to North America. This season alone Andrey Vasilevskiy and Joel Vermin are making the jump, while recent second round pick Dominik Masin is plying his craft with Peterborough of the OHL.

That leaves former seventh round picks Nikita Gusev (2012) and Saku Salminen (2013) as the Lightning’s only prospects playing overseas. Both players have a history of representing their respective countries in international play and have experience playing in men’s leagues, but Gusev is the more offensively gifted forward. He showcased his skill level against the top players in the world at his age during the 2012 World Junior Championships, picking up nine points in seven games. It is uncertain whether Gusev plans to come to North America at any point, but he can certainly make much more money playing in Russia.