Tampa Bay well-stocked despite increasingly late draft position

By Chris Roberts
Photo: Anthony Cirelli was promoted to alternate captain in his second season as a member of the Oshawa Generals, scoring 12 points in his first 15 games with a letter on his chest. (Courtesy of Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

Photo: Anthony Cirelli was promoted to alternate captain in his second season as a member of the Oshawa Generals, scoring 12 points in his first 15 games with a letter on his chest. (Courtesy of Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

 

 

Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman has done a tremendous job of keeping the team’s prospect pool stocked, even as it continues to draft lower in the first round thanks to an improved big-league product. In fact, the Lightning opted to trade out of the first round in the 2015 NHL Draft; the move wasn’t the most popular at the time, but the early indication is that the team did well with its four second- and third-round selections.

The Lightning boast at least one dynamic prospect at each position. Yzerman used his first three selections in the 2014 NHL Draft on defensemen and used this past draft to restock his young forward core.

Left Wing

A lot of the Lightning’s left wing prospects provide more sandpaper and grit than goal-scoring ability, with one exception: Nikita Gusev. The 23-year-old was one of the top goalscorers in the KHL last season, scoring 21 in 55 games with Yugra Khanty-Mansiysk. He has great speed and an abundance of skill, but his arrival in North America is uncertain at best. He was recently traded to SKA St. Petersburg and has just one more year remaining on his contract, so if he does ever sign with the Lightning this summer would be the time.

Dennis Yan, a 2015 draft pick, doesn’t have quite the same level of skill as Gusev, but he can also play a physical game. He recorded more than a point per game last year in his rookie season with the QMJHL’s Shawinigan Cataractes, and through just nine games this year, already has 10 goals. Should he improve on the defensive side of the puck, he’s a player that can rise quickly through the organization.

A pair of prospects playing in the CHL could potentially turn pro next season, unless they play their overage season. Cristiano DiGiacinto began his draft year playing Junior A with the Hamilton Red Wings but has become an integral part of the Windsor Spitfires in the past two seasons. He has limited offensive capabilities, but is a wrecking ball on the ice. Bokondji Imama, a 2015 draft pick, has a similar skill set to DiGiacinto but is more of a pugilist. Both players have bottom-six potential at best.

At the pro level, the Lightning have a wealth of AHL veteran-type prospects still trying to navigate their way to the NHL. The NHL club is fairly well stocked at the position, so unless injuries occur it’s hard to foresee many openings. Henri Ikonen, a second year forward with the Syracuse Crunch, has the most promise of the bunch, but needs to build off a 13-point rookie campaign. Yanni Gourde and Philippe Paradis have a combined seven years of pro experience and need to show drastic improvement and consistency with Syracuse this season to be considered NHL hopefuls.

Center

Aside from defense, the center ice position is the Lightning’s biggest strength. There might not be a Steven Stamkos replacement among the bunch should the superstar not re-sign in Tampa Bay, but there are at least four or five with the potential to make a significant impact at the NHL level. Brayden Point, a third-round pick in 2014, stuck around for a look at the Lightning’s training camp this season, but was sent back to Moose Jaw of the WHL, where he has now assumed the role of the most dominant player in the league. Through seven games, Point had nine goals and nine assists with the Warriors. He’s undersized at 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, but the Lightning have a history of smaller players excelling at the NHL level. Mitchell Stephens and Anthony Cirelli were both selected in the 2015 NHL Draft, and the early return on both players is promising. Both have two more years of junior eligibility but are legitimate prospects with NHL potential. Stephens has strong leadership qualities, and while Cirelli is a little more raw at this point, his determination is his most impressive asset.

Vladislav Namestnikov, having made the Lightning out of training camp this season, will soon graduate from prospect status, but the Syracuse Crunch have a few players who could at one point play in Tampa Bay. Matthew Peca and Tanner Richard will be expected to provide offense in Syracuse this season, likely playing top-six roles. Peca is a rookie who recorded 30-plus points in each of his four seasons at Quinnipiac University, while Richard is a winger/center who took a big step forward in his development last season, recording 38 points and collecting 135 penalty minutes. He is entering the final year of his entry level contract.

Cameron Darcy, a 2014 seventh round pick, is in his first year of pro hockey, though he will turn 22 in March after playing his overage year in the QMJHL last season. Offense is his calling card and he needs to be in a top-six role to be effective; thus far, however, he has been a healthy scratch with the Syracuse Crunch. Jimmy Mullin is sort of a wild card, perhaps unlikely to be offered a contract following his senior season of NCAA hockey, but is an interesting story nonetheless. After three seasons with the University of Miami (Ohio), he redshirted in 2014-15 due to an injury and then transferred to Minnesota State for the 2015-16 campaign. He recorded 26 points as a freshman but has since accumulated just 22 points in two-plus season.

Right Wing

If any position could be called a weakness for the Lightning it would be on the right side, where, outside of Adam Erne, the organization lacks potential game-changers. That said, there’s depth at the position. Erne is in his first year as a pro, currently playing in Syracuse. He has the talent and pedigree to warrant a look in Tampa Bay soon, but the organization will likely exercise patience with the former Quebec Rempart given its win-now status.

Joining Erne in Syracuse is Joel Vermin, Brian Hart and Jonathan Marchessault. Both Vermin and Hart are still relatively young, while Marchessault, a more proven scorer, turns 25 in December. Hart, formerly of Harvard University, is a bottom-six option at best should he reach his potential, while both Marchessault and Vermin would need to play in the top six to be most effective; the problem is neither will likely reach their ceiling. Marchessault has had chances but his size (lack of) and inability to play defense has limited him to the AHLer thus far. Vermin, meanwhile, is in just his second season playing in North America after five seasons with Bern in the Swiss league.

The Lightning drafted a pair of right wingers in the 2015 NHL Draft, both in the fourth round: Jonne Tammela and Mathieu Joseph. Both players are several years away and have some filling out to do, Joseph in particular, who is 6-foot-0 and just 168 pounds. Tammela was selected 15th overall in the CHL Import Draft by the Peterborough Petes but opted to stay in Finland this season, playing with Kalpa of the Liiga. His offensive numbers will suffer playing in a men’s league; whether or not the decision will be good for his development is yet to be seen. Joseph, meanwhile, is off to a strong start with the Saint John Sea Dogs of the QMJHL. He’s part of an impressive core group of players that should have the Sea Dogs competing for a league championship in the next two seasons.

Defense

A trio of the Lightning’s prospects on the blueline already have NHL experience and could potentially carousel between the NHL and AHL depending on performance. Nikita Nesterov is the frontrunner having made the team out of training camp and is coming off of an impressive playoff performance last season. Should he falter, there is a pair of capable defenders waiting in Syracuse in Slater Koekkoek and Luke Witkowski. They only have 20 career NHL games between them but are on the cusp of breaking through as NHLers, having performed to expectation in the AHL. Witkowski is a little more seasoned at 25 years old, but is a bottom pair blueliner at best. Koekkoek, meanwhile, is a better skater and has much better offensive instincts than Witkowski. Staying healthy was his biggest issue throughout junior, but he played 72 games with Syracuse as a rookie last season, and seems to be past that. It would not be a surprise to see all three players suit up for the Lightning this season.

There are others in Syracuse that inspire confidence. First-year pro and former first round pick Anthony DeAngelo is arguably the most skilled among the group. It’s going to take him some time getting used to the speed and physical grind of pro hockey, but his offensive instincts and skill is second to none among rearguards in the organization. DeAngelo was awarded the CHL Defenseman of the Year award last season and recorded 89 points in just 55 regular season games split between the Sarnia Sting and Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. He’ll be a big part of Syracuse’s powerplay unit this season. Dylan Blujus, Jake Dotchin and free-agent signing Daniel Walcott will also provide some stiff competition for ice time in Syracuse. Blujus, a former second round pick, has the best chance of ascending to the NHL in the near future; the Buffalo native had 22 points in 67 games as a rookie last season.

Peterborough is a team worth keeping an eye on with both Matthew Spencer and Dominik Masin patrolling the blueline. Both players were second-round picks in the past two drafts and play a similar sound two-way game, though Spencer might have more offensive capabilities. Masin has just one year of junior eligibility left while Spencer has two. Ben Thomas of the Calgary Hitmen is also in his final year of junior eligibility, and the former fourth-round pick hasn’t quite been progressing as expected. He’s still relied upon to shut down the opposition with Calgary, but offensive opportunities have been limited thanks to the development of Jake Bean (2016) who has passed Thomas on the depth chart this season. Thomas had just two points through 12 games, while Bean, paired with Travis Sanheim (PHI), had 14 through 10 games.

Johnathan MacLeod is another player the Lightning can be excited about. He projects as more of a bottom-pairing shutdown defender, but he isn’t inept offensively and has the ability to make a good breakout pass from his own zone. MacLeod is in just his second season with Boston University. Ryan Zuhlsdorf, a 2015 pick, will head to the NCAA next season with the University of Minnesota, but this season he’s captaining the Sioux City Musketeers of the USHL, meaning the Lightning will have as much as five years to monitor his development before offering a contract.

Goaltending

Andrei Vasilevskiy is arguably the best goaltending prospect in hockey and has been for some time. The 6-foot-3, 207-pound Russian proved himself as a legitimate NHLer in 2014-15, but is out for at least two months after offseason surgery to remove a blood clot near his left collarbone.

With Ben Bishop and Vasilevskiy both capable of starting and under contract, there’s not much wiggle room for the other two goaltenders under contract to play in Tampa Bay. Kristers Gudlevskis has played one game in the NHL to date and has been decent in the AHL, but the Lightning brought in Kevin Poulin to backup Bishop while Vasilevskiy is out. Gudlevskis will likely play the bulk of games in Syracuse this season, with rookie Adam Wilcox backing him up.