Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman has done his due diligence through the NHL Draft over the past few years. Many of his first round picks, players such as Brett Connolly, Andrey Vasilevskiy, and Jonathan Drouin, all figure to be big components to the Lightning's success in the future. But it is his later-round picks and shrewd free agent signings that could make a more immediate impact for Tampa Bay.
The Bolts have a plethora of prospects playing at the pro level that are close to securing a full-time NHL gig, but also boast a group of high-profile CHL prospects which include first round picks Drouin and Slater Koekkoek. They are spread quite thin at the NCAA and amateur ranks, but have a group of forwards with some potential. Overseas, the club has a few long-term projects, outside Vasilevskiy, of course.
Top Pro Prospect
Alex Killorn, LW, Tampa Bay Lightning (NHL)
One of the biggest benefits to going the NCAA route – outside of the education – is the amount of time a player gets to physically develop and refine his game before making the jump to pro hockey. It certainly helped 2007 third round pick Alex Killorn. The Nova Scotia native played four full seasons for Harvard University, where he improved and became more comfortable offensively in each successive season. In 2011-12 he was far and away the team's leading scorer with 46 points. And after just 54 AHL games, Killorn seems to have secured a job with the Lightning – at least, for the time being.
Set to graduate from the prospect ranks defined by Hockey's Future this season, Killorn will be relied upon for secondary scoring on the young Lightning squad. Last season, in 38 games with the Lightning, he finished ninth in team scoring with 19 points, and given his propensity to increase his point totals with each season at a particular level, he could be poised for a breakout season in 2013-14. New Lightning head coach Jon Cooper is a big believer in Killorn, and should give him every opportunity to succeed this season.
Not your typical flashy Russian, Namestnikov can play a rugged, effective two-way game, but that is not to say he lacks skill by any means.
The 6'0, 179 pound center was a standout for the London Knights in the OHL, and had a decent rookie campaign in the AHL last season, collecting 21 points in 44 games. He is shifty and creative with the puck, and can set up his teammates for spectacular goals, but does have a tendency to hold the puck longer than he should.
That said, with several of Syracuse's top scorers from last season – Richard Panik, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Killorn – making the jump to the NHL, Namestnikov will be one of the top offensive players for the Crunch. He could potentially form a lethal combination with Brett Connolly, should the former sixth overall pick stay in Syracuse for an extended period of time.
Unsigned for 2014-15
J.T. Brown, RW, Syracuse Crunch (AHL)
Signed to a one-year deal, 23-year-old undrafted winger J.T. Brown will have to separate himself from the pack this season if he is to earn another contract and emerge as a legitimate NHL prospect.
After two offensively-charged seasons with the University of Minnesota-Duluth, Brown opted to forego his final two years of college eligibility to sign with the Lightning at the end of the 2011-12 season. He immediately stepped into the Lightning lineup, recording his first career assist through five regular season games. He performed well enough last season in the AHL to earn another one-year deal, but might not be so fortunate next summer if he does not show improvement in his game – both offensively and defensively – throughout the season.
Like Namestnikov, Brown see increased ice time with Syracuse, and could be one of the next in line for a call-up.
Top Junior Prospect
Jonathan Drouin, LW, Halifax Mooseheads (QMJHL)
Jonathan Drouin's skill level is already higher than most NHL players. In the past season and a half with the Halifax Mooseheads he has shown off his slick hands and smooth skating style, emerging as one of the top prospects in all of hockey. Pundits even debated throughout last season if he might be a better choice at first overall than Halifax teammate Nathan MacKinnon (COL).
So when Drouin, the third overall selection in last June's draft, was sent back to Halifax, it was somewhat of a shock, but nonetheless a smart, patient move by Yzerman and staff. The Lightning have a fairly large group of prospects at the pro level that are ready to be given a chance at securing a fulltime NHL gig, and Drouin will not only get another year to add size and strength, but he will get the opportunity to again dominate the QMJHL.
Last year Drouin posted a remarkable 105 points in just 49 games, but he will be without running mate MacKinnon, who has made the Avalanche to start the year. It may be tough for him to replicate those numbers, but he should compete to be the QMJHL's top scorer.
Adam Erne, RW, Quebec Remparts (QMJHL)
Adam Erne has scored 28 goals in both of the past two seasons. He will top that number this season – and then some. He had more assists last season than the year before, but that number could take a dip this year without Mikhail Grigorenko (BUF) or Logan Shaw (FLA).
At 6'1 and over 200 pounds, he plays a power forward type game and has an NHL-ready shot. His skill is unquestioned, but there are believed to be some maturity issues that he needs to overcome before proving himself to be a future NHL player. He was suspended one game by the Remparts last season for supposedly putting himself before the team. He can also be a bit reckless, and was given a three-game NHL preseason suspension in September for a hit to the head on Blues forward Vladimir Sobotka. Provided he keeps clean hockey his main focus, he should be a stud for the Remparts this season.
New Team in 2013
Slater Koekkoek, D, Windsor Spitfires (OHL)
Though he played two games with the Spitfires last season, Koekkoek will get a chance at a fresh start this season. The 6'2 defenceman has missed parts of the last two seasons with injury, and simply staying healthy this year would be considered a triumph for both Koekkoek and the Lightning organization.
A steady defender with a propensity to deliver bone-crushing body checks, Koekkoek also has the skills to contribute offensively. He had a solid 23 point rookie season with the Peterborough Petes in 2010-11, and in his draft year scored 18 points in 26 games before suffering a season-ending injury.
The Petes were in a rebuilding mode during Koekkoek's time there, and he comes to a Windsor team just a season removed from missing the playoffs and finishing last in the West Division. However, the team should make the post-season this year, particularly if Koekkoek stays healthy, as he will be relied upon to anchor the team's blue line.
Top Amateur Prospect
Matthew Peca, C, Quinnipiac Bobcats (ECAC)
His point totals dropped somewhat in his sophomore season for Quinnipiac University last season, but Matthew Peca found the back of the net more often, scoring 15 goals as opposed to his seven the year prior. A seventh round pick who has tremendous skill, Peca's size will work against his NHL aspirations. At just 5'9 and 170 pounds, he will need to continue adding size and getting comfortable at the NCAA level before earning a NHL contract. Fortunately he has two more seasons in college to do so.
The 20-year-old already carries an impressive pedigree. In 2010-11 he helped carry the Pembroke Lumber Kings to a RBC Jr-A National Championship as he was named the tournament's top forward. And last year, he was a key cog for the top-ranked Quinnipiac team that reached the Frozen Four finals, before losing to Yale. If he can overcome his size issues, his ability to play multiple positions, take faceoffs, and play on both special teams should allow him to carve out some kind of role in the NHL.
Brian Hart, RW, Harvard Crimson (ECAC)
After two offensively dominant years with Phillips Exeter Academy, Brian Hart was selected by the Lightning in the second round of the 2012 NHL Draft, and promptly put his combination of skill and size to work for Harvard in the 2012-13 season.
As a freshman, Hart had 18 points in 30 games to finish fourth in team scoring. He is listed at 6'3 and 212 pounds, and should he learn to use his size more effectively, he should have no problem carving out a career in the NHL. This year, with Harvard's top two scorers from last season – Alex Fallstrom (BOS) and Luke Greiner – having graduated, Hart and fellow sophomore Jimmy Vesey (NSH) will be counted on to produce the bulk of the offense for the team.
Jimmy Mullin, C, Miami RedHawks (NCHC)
Fourth-round pick Jimmy Mullin stepped into the always competitive Redhawks lineup two seasons ago and finished third in team scoring with 26 points in 37 games as a freshman. Last season, instead of building on those numbers, Mullin regressed offensively, scoring just six goals and adding eight assists.
A diminutive forward at just 5'11 and 168 pounds, Mullin's size is a factor, but after playing two seasons in the NCAA and continuing to add mass, he should be in line for a more productive 2013-14 season.
Top European Prospect
Andrey Vasilevskiy, G, Salavat Yulaev Ufa (KHL)
Not expected to come to North America until the 2014-15 season, Andrei Vasilevskiy will continue to hone his skills in Russia this season. He played just eight games between the pipes for Ufa last season, after posting a phenomenal 1.93 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage in 27 games with their junior team. He also aided Russia's U20 junior team to a bronze medal, posting a 1.81 goals-against average and a sparkling .950 save percentage.
Goaltending has not been a position of strength for the Lightning since Nikolai Khabibulin held the fort a decade ago, and the organization hopes Vasilevskiy can solidify the position. Given his combination of size, athleticism, and his already impressive pedigree, the 2012 first round pick will be faced with high expectations when he does make the jump to North America. This season, he will aim to simply hold a roster spot on Ufa for the duration of the year.
First Year Pro to Watch
Saku Salminen, C, Jokerit (SM-liiga)
A seventh round selection this past NHL Draft, Saku Salminen appears set to play full time in Finland's top pro league, the SM-liiga. The soon-to-be 19-year-old started with Jokerit's U20 team last season, but finished the year playing 13 games for the senior squad. He scored just two points, but at 6'3 and 205 pounds, his size and skating ability makes him a prospect worth keeping an eye on.
He was an integral part of the checking line on Finland's U20 team at the World Junior Championships last year and will likely get the chance to play there again this season. Between that experience, and playing a checking-line role against grown men, Salminen should mature in a hurry. It will be a critical year for the Finnish center as the Lightning try to gauge what they have in Salminen.
Joel Vermin, RW, Bern (NLA)
Despite an impressive four goal performance at the 2012 World Junior Championships – the last of which he was eligible for – Swiss native Joel Vermin went undrafted in 2012. However, an eye-opening 35 point campaign in 2012-13 with Bern led to the Lightning brass taking a chance on the 5'11, 196 pound winger late in the 2013 NHL Draft.
In September Vermin signed a three-year entry-level deal with the Lightning, but will remain with Bern for the 2013-14 season. And while it is unclear whether his combination of speed and skill will transfer over to the small ice surface, specifically since he has a reputation for shying away from contact, he should have an offensively dominant year in Switzerland. He has played three seasons for Bern to this point, and his point totals have jumped by 12 and 15 in successive seasons. There is every reason to think he will have another jump in offense for 2013-14.