The Tampa Bay Lightning’s prospects have had their seasons come to an end, despite the fact that the Syracuse Crunch looked like they were poised for a lengthy AHL playoff run. A first round loss to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins sent many of them home prematurely.
In the CHL, one of the organization’s top prospects, Anthony DeAngelo, helped to lead an offensively-stacked Sault Ste. Marie team to the league semi-finals—though he ultimately fell short in helping the team capture its first-ever OHL Championship. Nevertheless, it was a successful season across the board, and the future looks bright.
2015 Tampa Bay Lightning Prospect Awards
Hardest Worker: Cristiano DiGiacinto, LW, Windsor Spitfires (OHL)
The phrase “hard worker” is unavoidable when describing Cristiano DiGiacinto’s game. It might even be a little cliché, but it’s accurate—the 5’11, 196 pound winger plays a hard-nosed, rugged game and has had to put in incredible effort in the past two years simply to make the OHL. He was passed over twice in the OHL Priority Selection, but was given an opportunity in Windsor a month into the 2013-14 season. He parlayed that opportunity into a solid rookie season in which he garnered the attention of the Lightning scouts and was selected in the sixth round of the 2014 NHL Draft.
This season, DiGiacinto finished third in scoring on the rebuilding Spitfires with 45 points in 63 games, eclipsing last season’s total of 28. He also accumulated 100 penalty minutes, successfully getting under the skin of the opposition on a nightly basis.
Hardest Shot: Jake Dotchin, D, Syracuse Crunch (AHL)
Syracuse Crunch rookie defenseman Jake Dotchin has been improving his offensive game since being drafted by the Lightning in 2012. He scored 11 goals last year in his final year of junior, thanks to his booming, accurate shot from the point—despite scoring just seven goals throughout his first two seasons.
He has been an effective weapon on the point for the Crunch, scoring six times this season, which leads all Syracuse defensemen. At 6’3 and 207 pounds, he gets a lot of leverage into his shot, which is improving game-by-game.
Best Defensive Prospect: Nikita Nesterov, D, Syracuse Crunch (AHL)
Partly due to injuries in Tampa, but a lot to do with his sound defensive game, Nikita Nesterov has played 26 games in the NHL this season, his second in North America since arriving from Russia. He isn’t the biggest defender, but he plays a simple and aggressive game—combined with incredible skating ability. He has looked comfortable playing against the top players in the world.
With Tampa Bay, the Russian defender has scored twice and added four assists, while enjoying a plus-five rating. His strong play as a rookie is a carry-over from his performance in the AHL, where with the Crunch, he recorded 14 points in 32 games. Given the injury situation in Tampa Bay, he may see some—perhaps even significant—ice time in the post-season.
Fastest Skater: Matt Peca, C, Quinnipiac University (NCAA)
A diminutive yet skilled and speedy center, Matthew Peca recently wrapped up an impressive four-year campaign at Quinnipiac. Despite his 5’9 frame, Peca’s quick feet and decision-making ability helped him finish amongst the team’s top two scorers in three out of the four seasons he played. Throughout his four-year career, in 157 collegiate games, the Petawawa, ON native recorded 143 points.
Peca was recently signed by the Lightning to a two-year entry-level deal and has begun his pro career with the Syracuse Crunch. He picked up his first AHL point on Apr. 4, recording an assist on a Kevin Lynch goal in a 3-2 loss to the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
Prospect of the Year: Anthony DeAngelo, D, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (OHL)
It’s hard to ignore the feats of American defenseman Anthony DeAngelo this season; he may not be the most complete defensive prospect, but he led all OHL defenders this season with 89 points in the regular season—despite missing time due to his making the American World Junior team.
After being acquired by the Greyhounds from the Sarnia Sting prior to the OHL’s trade deadline, DeAngelo recorded 51 points in 26 games, including 15 goals, just two of which were scored on the power-play. He failed to record a point in his first game with the Greyhounds, but did so in the next 25 games, ending the season with the longest active point streak in the league. In 13 playoff contests, DeAngelo recorded 16 assists. He’ll turn pro next season.
Breakout Player for 2015-16: Vladislav Namestnikov, C, Tampa Bay Lightning (NHL)
After two impressive AHL seasons, Russian pivot Vladislav Namestnikov again started his season in Syracuse, where he recorded 35 points in 34 games. He has proven he doesn’t have much more to learn in the minors, and because of that has spent the majority of this season in Tampa Bay. In 42 games, he has recorded 16 points.
A former first round pick in 2011, Namestnikov has steadily improved over the past three seasons and has finally proved his worth alongside Tampa’s young talent. Namestnikov’s emergence might make a player like Alexander Killorn expendable in the off-season. The Russian’s two-way play should cement his spot in Tampa Bay next season, and his offensive ability should allow him a significant rise in ice-time.
Most Improved Prospect: Tanner Richard, LW, Syracuse Crunch (AHL)
Naturally, in his second season as a pro, the Swiss-born Tanner Richard was given a more significant role on the Syracuse Crunch this season. The scrappy winger not only showcased his ability to get under the opponents’ skin with 129 penalty minutes through 64 games, but his offensive production took a dramatic spike.
In 65 games as a rookie, Richard scored just twice and recorded 17 points; this season, he has put himself back on the Lightning’s radar with 12 goals and 37 points, to go along with a plus-eight rating. With key contributors like Vladislav Namestnikov and Mike Blunden playing just 30-odd games with the Crunch this season, Richard stepped up to provide extra offense, finishing fourth on the team in scoring.
Overachiever: Yanni Gourde, LW, Syracuse Crunch (AHL)
Undrafted and undersized Yanni Gourde exceeded any and all expectations this season with the Syracuse Crunch. The 5’9 Quebec City native split the 2013-14 season between the ECHL and AHL, so it is not as though he was going to be relied upon to lead the charge offensively for the Crunch this season—but that’s just what he did.
Gourde is second in team scoring behind fellow undersized forward Jonathan Marchessault; through 70 games, he has 27 goals (first on the team) and 27 assists. His offensive performance alone has, at the very least, put him on the Lightning’s radar heading into next season, though he’s still far from being considered a high-end prospect.
Underachiever: Dominik Masin, D, Peterborough Petes (OHL)
High expectations were placed upon 2014 second round pick Dominik Masin, but the Czech defender struggled to find his form through the 2014-15 campaign. Playing for a rebuilding Petes team, he was a minus-13, while recording 26 points in 48 games. As a high pick in the CHL Import Draft, big things were expected from Masin, but he fell short of expectations.
Still, the 19 year old is eligible to play one more season in the OHL, and he will likely do so as part of an improving Petes squad, one that also features impressive defensive prospect Matthew Spencer (2015). The pair should lead the charge from the back-end next season for the Petes, and we’ll get a more accurate assessment of Masin’s value.
Highest Risk/Reward Prospect: Slater Koekkoek, D, Syracuse Crunch (AHL)
A very strong AHL rookie season has revitalized Slater Koekkoek’s career, which is a strange thing to say about a 21 year old former first round pick. Koekkoek suffered multiple shoulder injuries over the past few seasons and the fact that he was able to stay healthy this season alone is a feat in itself. Add in the fact that, through 66 games, he has led the Crunch defensemen in scoring, and he’s done plenty to re-emerge as a top prospect.
In fact, Koekkoek was recently recalled to the Lightning and played three games, showcasing his high-end skating ability. He didn’t look uncomfortable by any means. Still, because of his injury history, concerns will follow Koekkoek for at least another season. He has the talent to become a top-four defender at the NHL level, but must continue to stay healthy.
Player of the Month – Adam Erne
The Quebec Remparts, the 2015 Memorial Cup hosts, survived a potential first-round upset and have advanced to the league finals. For this, the team can thank Lightning prospect Adam Erne—and, to a lesser degree, Zach Fucale (MTL).
Erne, who is in his last year of junior eligibility before he turns pro next season, scored 13 goals in 12 April playoff games, including four in a crucial Game 6 and 7 in the first round comeback. A winger who often takes faceoffs, Erne recorded a 57 percent success rate at the dot during the month as well. If the Remparts are going to compete with the strong Western and Ontario teams in the Memorial Cup, they’ll need Erne to continue elevating his game going forward.