Like most teams hoping to contend for the Stanley Cup, the Tampa Bay Lightning haven’t had significant contributions from its young prospects, save for Vladislav Namestnikov, though the Russian center had already appeared in 47 career NHL games prior to this season.
Still, more than a few prospects have had the chance to get a taste with Tampa Bay, particularly between the pipes and on the blueline. For the second-straight season, both Andrei Vasilevskiy and Kristers Gudlevskis have dressed as a backup to Ben Bishop and appeared in at least one game. Meanwhile, Slater Koekkoek, Nikita Nesterov, and Luke Witkowski have all appeared in limited roles with the team.
Vladislav Namestnikov, C, 23
Though he graduated from Hockey’s Future prospect status early in the season, it is worth noting that Vladislav Namestnikov has provided secondary offense to the Lightning in what appears to be a breakout season. Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov have 20-plus goals while Namestnikov is third with 10; no other Lightning player has cracked double-digit goals through 56 games.
Namestnikov is tied for fifth on the team in scoring with 26 points and is also a team-high plus-15. His best game of the season came on Jan. 15 against the Pittsburgh Penguins, when he scored a hat-trick, including the game-winning goal in overtime. After 134 regular season games with Syracuse of the AHL, Namestnikov has not only cemented his spot in the NHL, but has become a key member of the team’s top-six forward unit.
Joel Vermin, RW, 24
A seventh-round pick in 2013, 24-year-old Joel Vermin received the call to Tampa Bay in November after 11 points in 15 AHL games to start the season. The Swiss-born winger recorded 33 points in 73 games in his first season in North America last year. Once he got the recall, Vermin skated in six games with the Lightning, recording one assist, but suffered a hand injury in a Dec. 14 game against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Vermin is now back and skating with the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch. He could see another recall if he plays well once healthy.
Nikita Nesterov, D, 22
After a postseason in which he showcased his mobility and offensive instincts from the backend, it hasn’t been an easy year for Nikita Nesterov, though the Russian rearguard seems to be finding his footing as of late. As expected, he made the team out of training camp but was later sent down to the AHL, where he played 10 games with Syracuse before being recalled.
In December Nesterov was playing under 14 minutes per game, typically playing bottom-pairing minutes. Since the start of 2016, he has been one of the team’s more reliable defensemen and his ice time has spiked dramatically; he has played more than 15 minutes in nine of 12 games, including a season-high 19:45 on Jan. 5 against the Calgary Flames. He has five points in 30 games this season and is a plus-five.
Slater Koekkoek, D, 21
Slater Koekkoek will turn 22 on Feb. 18 and the former 10th overall pick has played just four career NHL games, including just one this season. A lot of that is due to the organization’s depth at the position while it is still relatively early in the blueliner’s career. The most promising thing is that he has again stayed healthy, putting behind any shoulder concerns (Koekkoek missed parts of two seasons in junior with the same shoulder injury).
Luke Witkowski, D, 25
Witkowski is nearing the end of his status as a prospect. The 25-year-old has appeared in four games for the Lightning this season as an injury call-up but has spent the majority of the season in Syracuse, where he has nine points in 41 games. Witkowski isn’t exactly fleet of foot but plays a strong, physical game and could fit in on a team’s bottom pairing. His contract expires in June; at best he receives a one-year deal.
Andrei Vasilevskiy, G, 21
Big and mobile Russian goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy laid claim to the Lightning backup job last season and has stabilized the position behind Ben Bishop this season, save for an injury and 10-game conditioning stint in the AHL. He has proven himself at that level before and did again during the conditioning stint, posting a 6-3-1 record to go along with a .932 save percentage. In the NHL, Vasilevskiy has appeared in 15 games and has an 8-5 record, including a five-game win streak from Dec. 6 to Jan. 19. Vasilevskiy has long been assumed to be the goaltender of the future for the Lightning, but with Ben Bishop signed through 2016-17 he might have to wait another year, barring a major trade.
Kristers Gudlevskis, G, 23
Gudlevskis backed up Ben Bishop for a short period of time this season and started on Oct. 24 against the Chicago Blackhawks. He recorded a win and made 31 saves, allowing just one goal. Gudlevskis is 8-8-4 in 23 appearances with Syracuse of the AHL.
Top performing non-NHL prospects
The Lightning boast an impressive prospect base across multiple leagues, particularly in the CHL. In the past month, prospects from the QMJHL, OHL and WHL have had standout performances. Mathieu Joseph of the Saint John Sea Dogs and Dennis Yan of the Shawinigan Cataractes have continued their strong seasons, recording 13 and 14 points respectively in the month of January.
In the OHL, Anthony Cirelli has been the key cog offensively for the retooling Oshawa Generals. The lanky center had 15 points in 13 games in January and currently leads the Generals in scoring with 44 points in 47 games. Brayden Point didn’t exactly have a lights-out January with the Moose Jaw Warriors but is still producing at a strong rate, scoring 14 points in 10 games.
Former second-round pick Adam Erne is coming around after a disappointing start to 2016 with Syracuse of the AHL. He had a five-game pointless streak but has since rebounded with six points in his last 10 games, five of which were goals. Tanner Richard had a breakout month for the Crunch as well, totaling 13 points in 14 games in the month of January. The 22-year-old leads the Crunch in scoring with 31 points in 43 games.
Prospect of the Month, January 2016: Nikita Gusev
Though there has still been no concrete word on whether or not Nikita Gusev intends to come to North America in the near future, he has given the Tampa Bay Lightning plenty of reason to try and persuade him. Since being traded from Khanty-Mansiysk Yugra to St. Petersburg SKA the skilled KHL winger has recorded 35 points in 32 games. January was his best month to date; Gusev had points in nine of 11 games, registering 13 points, including a pair of three-point nights. He also participated in the KHL All-Star Game.
Photo: Taken in the 5th round (148th overall) in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, Nikita Nesterov is already looking like a draft-day steal for the Lightning.