Lightning pipeline loaded with talent at AHL and major junior levels

By Chris Roberts
Photo: Since the Brayden Point was selected 79th overall by the Lightning, he has grown into one of the WHL’s premiere talents. (Courtesy of Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire)

Photo: Since the Brayden Point was selected 79th overall by the Lightning, he has grown into one of the WHL’s premiere talents. (Courtesy of Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire)

 

 

The Tampa Bay Lightning‘s prospect pool has maintained good health despite the continual graduation of top-notch prospects. A number of close-to-ready prospects played small roles with the team last season, while others like Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat emerged as top-six forwards. Players like Vladislav Namestnikov and Nikita Nesterov, still considered prospects, are expected to make the leap this season, but there’s still quality and quantity at other levels.

Prized defense prospect Anthony DeAngelo will make the jump to the AHL, while the team’s top four picks from the 2015 NHL Draft will play significant roles with their respective CHL teams. In fact, most of the Lightning’s more promising prospects will be playing either junior or pro this season—though there’s still a select few worth following in the amateur and Europe ranks.

Pro

Top Pro Prospect
Andrei Vasilevskiy, G, Tampa Bay Lightning (NHL)

After impressing in his first season in North America, Andrei Vasilevskiy will graduate from prospect status this season, but it will take a little longer than expected. The 6-foot-3, 205 pound Russian netminder will miss the first month or two of the season as he recovers from collar bone surgery he went through in early September. The Lightning will have to find a backup replacement during that stretch, but once he returns Vasilevskiy should be able to play more than the average backup behind Ben Bishop.

Last season Vasilevskiy ascended quickly to the NHL after posting a 14-6-5 record with Syracuse of the AHL and easily surpassing incumbent Kristers Gudlevskis. He has exceeded expectations at every level he has played throughout the past few seasons, and as one of the best goaltending prospects in hockey, there’s no reason to believe he won’t soon become a starting goaltender.

NHL-bound Prospect
Slater Koekkoek, D, Syracuse Crunch (AHL)

Oft-injured in junior, Slater Koekkoek stayed healthy in his first pro season and it did wonders for his development and status in the organization. The Winchester, Ontario native finished eighth in scoring for the Syracuse Crunch and led the team’s defensemen with 26 points in 72 games. He was also able to maintain the physical style of play he was known for in junior, proving he might finally be past his shoulder troubles.

Koekkoek also appeared in three games for the Lightning last season and didn’t seem out of place at all; there, he showcased his ability to keep up with the speed at that level, but was sent back to Syracuse as players came back from injury. This season Koekkoek will compete with Nikita Nesterov for a spot on the Lightning, and though he might begin the season in Syracuse once again there should be injury openings once again for Koekkoek. Once he sees the ice in Tampa, the former first-round pick has the ability to push someone out of a job.

Offensive Breakout
Henri Ikonen, LW, Syracuse Crunch (AHL)

It seems every year there’s a new breakout forward with Syracuse. While not to the extent of players like Tyler Johnson or Ondrej Palat, last year it was Tanner Richard, who increased his point total by 21 in his second year as a pro. This year’s candidate, also entering his second year as a pro, is Finnish winger Henri Ikonen. Like Richard, Ikonen was an offensive winger in the OHL (he scored 70 points in 54 games in 2013-14) and he struggled somewhat with little ice time in his first pro season.

Ikonen recorded 13 points in 59 games with the Crunch last season, but should be given an increased role with a few departing players this season. Vladislav Namestnikov, who spent 34 games with the team last season, shouldn’t be in Syracuse and Cody Kunyk, the team’s seventh-leading scorer, isn’t returning. Top scorers like Richard, Jonathan Marchessault and even Yanni Gourde might see time in Tampa Bay throughout the season, leaving a greater offensive opportunity for Ikonen.

Junior

Top Junior Prospect
Brayden Point, C, Moose Jaw Warriors (WHL)

This season will be a big one for the diminutive Brayden Point. With back-to-back 85-plus point seasons with the Moose Jaw Warriors, he has emerged as a proven point producer at the junior level, one who might be worthy of a top-six forward spot on this year’s Canadian World Junior team. Point suited up for his country at last year’s tournament and was the 13th forward, but still picked up four points in seven games.

In this summer’s showcase, Point had a six-point game against the Czech Republic, proving that as a returning player, he deserves a larger offensive role. With Moose Jaw, Point will be expected to carry the offense once again, particularly with the team’s second and third-leading scorers from last season, Jack Rodewald and Tanner Eberle, not returning. If the team isn’t competitive in the first half of the season, Point could become the league’s most wanted player at the trade deadline.

Offensive Breakout
Anthony Cirelli, C, Oshawa Generals (OHL)

The Memorial Cup hero is ready to take on a larger role with the Oshawa Generals this season. Last year Cirelli finished eighth on the team in scoring with 36 points in 68 games; this season as many as four of the players who finished ahead of him are unexpected or ineligible to return to the team. In fact, with Cole Cassels turning pro, Cirelli likely has the chance to play steady minutes centering either the first or second line in Oshawa.

The team obviously won’t be quite as dominant as last season but they should still be a playoff team and any success from there likely hinges on what type of player Cirelli can be in his second full season of junior. He was one of the biggest surprises in the OHL last season and he’ll be facing tougher checking and defenses this season, but the lanky forward has passed every obstacle he has faced thus far.

Bounceback Prospect
Dominik Masin, D, Peterborough Petes (OHL)

Czech defenseman Dominik Masin didn’t have an awful season in his first year with the Peterborough Petes, but he didn’t exactly meet expectations as a second round pick known for his offensive ability. Injuries also played a part in his slowed development. His seven goals, however, still led the team in scoring from defensemen and he was just four points behind Matthew Spencer, who was recently drafted by the Lightning.

If Masin can stay healthy he, along with Spencer, will be the Petes’ top defense pairing this season. At the very least, both will see significant time on the power-play and penalty kill, if not paired together at even strength. Masin should feel more comfortable in his second season in North America, particularly after getting his feet wet in the Lightning’s prospect tournament earlier in September.

Amateur

Top Amateur Prospect
Johnathan MacLeod, D, Boston University (Hockey East)

Johnathan MacLeod flew under the radar at BU last season, which was a good thing for the defensively-sound rearguard. Playing on an offensively solid team, the freshman was a plus-19 and recorded nine points in 37 games, which was the fifth highest amongst the team’s defensemen. He played primarily as a bottom-pairing defender, but provide a steady, stable force there. Joining such a strong program allowed him to ease into his first season and should help him in his second year.

Though the Terriers will be losing Jack Eichel, the team’s defensive core, which includes Matt Grzelcyk (BOS) and Brandon Hickey (CGY) will return for another season. MacLeod, who led the team in penalty minutes last season, will again likely play bottom-pairing minutes this season.

Offensive Breakout
Ryan Zuhlsdorf, D, Sioux City Musketeers (USHL)

Though committed to the University of Minnesota, the 6-foot, 188 pound Zuhlsdorf will return to Sioux City of the USHL this year where he will captain the team. Last season as a 17-year-old Zuhlsdorf finished second on the team in scoring by a defenseman with 22 points in 56 games, behind only Neal Pionk, who was named the USHL Defenseman of the Year.

Pionk is moving on to the University of Minnesota-Duluth this season so Zuhlsdorf will unquestionably be the Musketeer’s number one defenseman. Playing more minutes with the team’s top unit both on even strength and on the powerplay should help increase his point total significantly, not to mention the fact that he now has a year of experience in the league under his belt.

Unsigned for 2016-17
Jimmy Mullin, C, University of Miami (Ohio) (NCHC)

Jimmy Mullin’s collegiate career has been a rollercoaster ride, to say the least. The 23-year-old should have graduated last season but was redshirted due to an injury that kept him sidelined, making him eligible to play his senior year in 2015-16. But rather than suiting up for the RedHawks this season, Mullin has transferred to Minnesota State.

Expectations, however, are certainly tempered for Mullin. Despite a very impressive freshman campaign in 2011-12 in which he finished third on his team in scoring with 26 points in 37 games, he recorded just 21 points in the next season-and-a-half. A season away from the in-game action certainly won’t help Mullin and there will be questions about his health. It will take a very strong rebound season for the former fourth round pick to earn a contract by season’s end.

Europe

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

The Lightning have just three prospects playing overseas, but that doesn’t mean Gusev is in this spot by default. The former seventh-round pick has really developed into a leading offensive player in the KHL with a tone of skill. Last season he broke out offensively, increasing his point total from 14 the year prior to 37, which was enough to lead his team – his 21 goals also led the team.

Gusev is in the final year of his contract with Yugra Khanty-Mansiysk and the timing couldn’t be better for the Lightning. Under the most recent CBA, the team loses his rights by June 1st, 2016—so a deal would have to be worked out by then. Judging by his development and the team’s ability to bring over Russians in recent years, it will be interesting to see how the situation plays out. Already through four games this season in the KHL, Gusev again leads his team with five points.

Unsigned for 2016-17
Saku Salminen, C, Jokerit (KHL)

Like Gusev, Salminen is a former seventh-round pick, but his strength lies more in his size and defensive ability rather than his offensive skill and creativity. Finally able to find a permanent spot on a Liiga team last season with HPK (loaned from Jokerit), Salminen scored three goals and added five assists in 36 games. This season he is back with Jokerit playing in the KHL.

In his first game with the team on Sept 10 Salminen played just under eight minutes on the fourth line. His contract with the team is up at the end of this season but he has until 2017 to come to an agreement with the Lightning, should the team consider him worthy of a contract. He’ll need to earn more minutes and responsibility with Jokerit for that to happen.