The Tampa Bay Lightning failed to make the playoffs for the second consecutive season and Head Coach Guy Boucher was eventually relieved of his duties and replaced by Jon Cooper, the coach of the Lightning's AHL affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch. Goaltending and defense proved once again to be the team weakness, as they dropped to 14th in the East, and locked up the third overall pick in this June's draft.
Top 10 Prospects:
1. Andrey Vasilevskiy, G
2. Tyler Johnson, C
3. Radko Gudas, D
4. Alex Killorn, W
5. Richard Panik, W
6. Nikita Kucherov, W
7. Slater Koekkoek, D
8. Mark Barberio, D
9. Vladislav Namestnikov, C/W
10. J.T. Brown, W
The Lightning have accumulated a talented collection forward prospects, several of them knocking on the NHL's door for full time duty. What the organization lacks is a legitimate top four shutdown defenseman at the NHL level. In 2012-13, the Lightning's top four consisted of Victor Hedman, Sami Salo, Matt Carle, and Eric Brewer. With Salo aging and Brewer appearing overmatched on most nights, this is an area in need of an upgrade. To address their defensive needs, the Lightning could possibly dangle one or two forward prospects as trade bait.
While subpar defense lost a lot of games for Tampa Bay in 2012-13, their goaltending failed to win them many games as well. However, after acquiring Ben Bishop in a trade deadline deal with Ottawa for rookie forward Cory Conacher, Lightning GM Steve Yzerman appears content in rolling into next season with a one-two punch of Anders Lindback and Bishop in net.
Tampa Bay's prospect pool was severely depleted prior to the arrival of Steve Yzerman and his staff. Over the last three years, the organization has made significant strides in rebuilding depth at all three positions.
At forward, the Lightning boasts one of the more talented prospect pools in the NHL. Alex Killorn was one of many young players to make their debut last season, while often seeing time on the top two lines. Tyler Johnson, Richard Panik, and Ondrej Palat all had fantastic seasons in the AHL and saw considerable time with the Lightning at various points of the season. Any or all three of these players could earn a permanent role in the NHL as early as next season, and if they do, the organization can look to Russian playmaker Nikita Kucherov and 2011 first round pick Vladislav Namestnikov to pick up the slack in Syracuse.
On the blue line, Tampa Bay has a solid collection of defensive prospects, led by the hard-hitting Radko Gudas and the offensively gifted Mark Barberio. Gudas had a solid season split between the AHL and NHL and played his way to a new three-year contract extension following the end of the season. He is expected to start in the NHL in 2013-14.
Barberio meanwhile is likely to start the 2013-14 season in the AHL. The Lightning hope that Barberio will develop into a quality offensive defenseman in the NHL, something which is in short supply on their current NHL roster.
The organization has one of best goaltending prospects in all of hockey in Andrey Vasilevskiy. The 19th overall selection in the 2012 draft has a bright future ahead of him and will most likely make his way to North America for the 2014-15 season. Extremely athletic and very poised at his young age, the Lightning firmly believes he is a franchise netminder in the making.
Behind Vasilevskiy is Jaroslav Janus, who remains an interesting prospect after putting up solid numbers in the KHL in 2012-13. Behind Janus is University of Minnesota goalie Adam Wilcox, who looked impressive by winning 25 games as a freshman this past season.
Although the Lightning have many offensively gifted forwards in the organization, they lack an elite scoring threat. Kucherov and Panik both project as scoring line wingers, but neither can be considered elite. Also, quite a few of these forwards currently lack the ideal size needed to compete in the NHL. Players like Johnson, Kucherov, Namestnikov, and J.T. Brown will need to and strength in order to matchup against bigger opponents.
While the organization needs to add a shutdown defenseman at the NHL level, they could also stand to add more offensive minded defensemen to their prospect pool. Outside of Barberio and Koekkoek, the Lightning are thin on puck-movers. Blujus and Sustr may prove to be serviceable contributors, but neither is likely to produce big numbers in the NHL. Nikita Nesterov projects more as a hard working, two-way defender, but should not be counted on for much offensive production.
This will be Yzerman's fourth draft with the Lightning, and he will be equipped with the 3rd, 33rd, 124th, 154th, 184th, and 186th overall selections. His first three drafts have yielded a nice collection of speedy, skilled forwards, and Yzerman clearly does not mind taking risks on Russian players if it means acquiring a high caliber prospect. Players like Vasilevskiy and Kucherov in particular would have most likely been selected earlier had it not been for their nationality.
The organization also seeks players with a high hockey IQ, strong character, and work ethic. Matthew Peca, Palat, and Cedric Paquette are examples of the type of player Yzerman and his staff look to select in the late rounds.
Out of 22 total picks in the past three drafts, Yzerman has selected 11 forwards, nine defenseman, and two goaltenders. However, there have only been four defensemen taken the last two years after going heavy on blueliners in 2010. With a deep draft in 2013, the Lightning could possibly come away with a solid offensive defenseman in round two. Whoever Tampa Bay selects, they will need to capitalize on their first two picks as the next one does not come along until round five.
Valeri Nichushkin, LW/RW, Traktor Chelyabinsk (KHL)
A big bodied power forward with tons of skill, Valeri Nichushkin has the tools to become an elite scorer in the NHL. He is a powerful skater with impressive size that he uses to get to the dirty areas to create scoring chances. The Lightning could benefit from adding some size on the wing and Nichushkin has the potential to be a big time game changer. If he is committed to playing in the NHL, it would be hard to pass him up with the third overall pick. Drafting Nichushkin could also help fill a void should the Lightning decide to part ways someone like Ryan Malone during the offseason.