Even with some of its most promising prospects graduating to NHL ranks in recent years, the Tampa Bay Lightning continue to boast one of the league’s most impressive prospect pools.
The organization has a skilled, high-end player in seemingly every position, and beyond that, incredible depth – each year, there is a mid-round pick that seems to greatly improve his value with a strong season. On defense, in particular, once an area of weakness for the Lightning, the team has a horde of NHL quality talent.
Jonathan Drouin will not be considered a prospect for much longer; after an injury kept him out for most of the team’s training camp, the 19-year-old has provided an offensive spark for the Lightning in just five games after a two-game AHL conditioning stint. A shifty winger with excellent vision and the ability to stop and start on a dime, Drouin is among the early favorites to win the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie.
The position may be the Lightning’s weakest in terms of organizational depth, however. Once Drouin graduates from rank as a prospect, the most skilled left winger remaining becomes Nikita Gusev, who is unlikely to make the move to North America anytime soon. Gusev has 10 points in his first 20 games this season, but he is likely to earn much more money staying in Russia.
Back in Syracuse, however, there is some solid depth. Tanner Richard, a point-per game player in the OHL, has yet to find consistency in his second AHL season, having managed just two points in nine games. Henri Ikonen, meanwhile, a 2013 sixth round pick, has registered one assist in his first nine games with the Crunch this season. Yanni Gourde, Philippe Paradis, Jeff Costello, and Dalton Smith are adequate AHL players, but the prospects are unlikely to find themselves in the NHL anytime soon.
Recently drafted Cristiano DiGiacinto is an interesting prospect; the 18-year0old plays a physical brand of hockey and is not afraid to go to the tough spots on the ice to capitalize offensively. He is an alternate captain with Windsor of the OHL this season.
Prospect depth at left wing may be lacking, but the organization has a number of intriguing players down the middle, most notably Vladislav Namestnikov, who has cracked the Tampa Bay roster to start the season. After an impressive preseason, Namestnikov has shown flashes of brilliance in his first 12 games with the Lightning. He has just three points, but is an all-around player whose defensive abilities sometimes fly under the radar. It is possible he is sent back to the AHL at some point this season, but after two successive seasons of improvement at that level, he is likely best suited in the NHL, for development’s sake.
Cedric Paquette does not have as much offensive potential as Namestnikov, but the former fourth round selection put himself on the Lightning’s radar last season with an impressive playoff series against the Montreal Canadiens. Already this season, he has played in three NHL games as a call up, and should see more time with the big club going forward. His game is best suited to a bottom-six role.
At the junior level, recently drafted pivot Brayden Point is an offensive dynamo, who plays a feisty game despite his smallish frame. Already this season, the 5’10, 165 pound forward has 20 points and 14 penalty minutes in just 15 games. He is a candidate to make the Canadian World Junior team, though his chances may have taken a hit when the Buffalo Sabres sent Sam Reinhart (BUF) back to junior. The Lightning could not come to an agreement on a contract with 2014 seventh round pick Cameron Darcy before training camp, so Darcy was sent back to junior for his overage season. Last year, the American pivot accumulated 82 points in 65 games for the QMJHL‘s Cape Breton Screaming Eagles – he has eight through nine games so far this season.
The Lightning also have three intriguing prospects playing in the NCAA, all of who are playing out their fourth and final season of eligibility this year. Of the three – Brendan O’Donnell, Matthew Peca, and James Mullin – it is Peca who has the most offensive potential. The 2011 seventh round pick could have made the leap to the NHL this season, but decided to play out his final year of eligibility at Quinnipiac University. He has seven points in seven games so far this season – he has topped 30 points in each of his first three seasons. O’Donnell and Mullin are limited offensively, and may not earn contracts, unless they have productive senior campaigns. O’Donnell is an interesting case; as a freshman, he recorded 26 points in 37 games, but his point total dropped to 14 the following season, and he had just seven in an injury-shorted 2013-14 season.
Now that Nikita Kucherov has graduated, the Lightning’s prospect depth at right wing position is noticeably weaker. Kucherov is a proven offensive talent, who, this season, is beginning to shine in a top-six role with power play time.
Beyond Kucherov, the prospect with the best skill set at right wing is Adam Erne. Playing his final season of junior with the Quebec Remparts, Erne already has 20 points in 13 games this season. At 6’1 and over 200 pounds, Erne takes advantage of his size by playing a physical, in-your-face game. He should play a big role for the United States World Junior team this December.
Brian Hart, a 2012 second round draft selection, has a similar build to Erne, but the Maine native’s offense has not yet translated as well at Harvard.
At the pro level, Jonathan Marchessault has proven to be a top AHL player who makes an adequate NHL call-up. Danick Gauthier, meanwhile, has spent the majority of his time with the organization playing for the ECHL‘s Florida Everblades, proving no more than an AHL call-up. Rookie Joel Vermin has been settling in nice in his first seven games with the Crunch, recording four points.
Three of the organization’s top defensive prospects are also its youngest. Anthony DeAngelo, Dominik Masin, and Ben Thomas, all of whom were drafted last year, have been productive at the junior level and are not so far away from taking the next step. DeAngelo, a highly-publicized figure prior to – and following – the NHL Draft, does not lack for talent; the 19th overall selection scored 71 points in 51 games last season with the Sarnia Sting. This season, the American has nine points in eight games, and, for all the talk about his character, has been given an alternate captaincy. Masin was selected 16 picks after DeAngelo; he is not as poised or talented offensively, but is a solid 6’2 defender with room to grow. He was selected by the OHL’s Peterborough Petes in the Import Draft and has fit in nicely so far in his first season, with eight points through 13 games thus far. Thomas was taken in the fourth round of last year’s draft. He’s a strong skater with an ever-developing offensive game. All three players have NHL potential.
Already in the pro ranks for the Lighting are prospects like Slater Koekkoek, Dylan Blujus, Nikita Nesterov, and Andrej Sustr. All have NHL potential to varying degrees, while Sustr, a 6’8 Czech defender, is nearing 55 NHL games already. Both Koekkoek and Blujus are in their rookie campaigns with the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch and, while it has only been a few games, appear to be fitting in nicely. Both players will need at least a season or two before developing into an NHL-ready defenseman; for Koekkoek, he will need to prove he can stay healthy through the course of a season. Nesterov, meanwhile, has proven the ability to log heavy minutes for the Crunch, and he has a goal and one assist through nine games this season. The Russian defender is perhaps next in line for an injury call up.
Also in the pro ranks are Jake Dotchin, Dan Milan, Artem Sergeev, and Luke Witkowski. All three are long-shots for full-time NHL gigs, particularly Milan, who has struggled to prove himself at the AHL level.
Another defenseman drafted in the most recent draft is Johnathan MacLeod. Taken in the second round, MacLeod is a sturdy, physical defender with a knack for big, open-ice hits. He is currently enrolled in his freshman season with Boston College.
What was once the organization’s most glaring need has turned into its strength. While Ben Bishop continues to anchor the crease for the Lightning, the team has the pleasure of watching three quality goaltenders develop. Of course, former first round selection Andrey Vasilevskiy is the most regarded of the three; in fact, he is among the top goaltending prospects in the NHL. As of now, he is sharing time between the pipes with Kristers Gudlevskis in Syracuse – Vasilevskiy has started in three games with Gudlevskis has started four. Both goaltenders need games to develop, and given Vasilevskiy’s pedigree both internationally and in the KHL, it is likely he sees more games going forward.
Fortunately for the organization, they will have two more years to figure out its goaltending situation before Adam Wilcox enters the fold – and he will. The St. Paul, Minnesota native has been a star between the pipes for the University of Minnesota. In each of his first two seasons, his goals against average has been below 2.00.