Armed with one of the top prospect pools in all of the NHL, the Tampa Bay Lightning are starting to reap the rewards of good drafting, particularly in the mid-rounds. In the past few years they have added high-ceiling players like Jonathan Drouin and Andrey Vasilevskiy in the first round, whom have been complemented nicely with former mid-round selections like Ondrej Palat, Radko Gudas, and Alex Killorn.
A position that once consisted of prospects who were largely unknowns has become an area of strength for the Lightning. Killorn was able to develop his game for four seasons at Harvard University. Last year was his first full season as a pro, and already Killorn has played 52 NHL games. In addition to Killorn, there is also Ondrej Palat, a fast-rising seventh round pick who seems to have earned his keep with the Lightning. He has been very productive playing mostly on the Lightning's third line.
But the best of the Lightning's left wingers, and their most skilled and promising prospect, is 18-year-old Jonathan Drouin. The organization opted to send the flashy winger back to Halifax of the QMJHL this season, in part to add strength and size and in part because of both Palat and Killorn are already establishing themselves on the left side. The team can afford to be patient with Drouin, whom they hope can eventually complement Steve Stamkos on the top line.
Promising, but unproven is what ties together a group of three left wingers all playing at different levels this season. In Russia, Nikita Gusev, is currently finding his game while he plays in the KHL. He is undersized, but has a pedigree of scoring success at the junior level, most recently scoring 76 points in 34 games for CSKA-Krasnaja Armija Moskva in 2011-12. Swiss-born Tanner Richard, who also spends time at center, is in his first season in the AHL with the Syracuse Crunch. A blossoming playmaker, last year with the Guelph Storm, Richard recorded 51 assists in 52 games. And there is also Finnish winger Henri Ikonen, who is reaching new offensive heights in his second year in the OHL. In his first season, the 2013 sixth round pick scored at under a point-per game-ratio with 51 in 61 games. Through 15 games in the 2013-14 campaign, Ikonen already has 24 points.
Philippe Paradis, still on an entry-level contract, is the only other left winger who still qualifies as a prospect in the Lightning organization. The 6'2, 212 pound forward plays a physical game, but lacks much offensive prowess.
Vladislav Namestnikov is the organization's most skilled center, a position that has been thoroughly improved through development at the pro level. Namestnikov, a first round pick in 2011, became acclimated to the trials of playing against men as he suited up as a rookie for the Syracuse Crunch last season. This year, with increased responsibility, the smooth skating Russian has 15 points through 10 games. He could get his first taste of NHL action should the Lightning's depth at center be tested due to injuries.
A more fitting example of the team's center depth thriving through AHL development is Tyler Johnson. Undrafted because of his diminutive 5'9 frame, Johnson was signed in March of 2011 after scoring 115 points in 71 games for the WHL's Spokane Chiefs. Just two short years later he made his NHL debut. While maintaining his offensive production in the AHL, Johnson improved in other areas of the game, enough so to have found a comfortable fit in the Lightning lineup this season.
Cedric Paquette may not have the offensive skill that Johnson does, but at 6'1 and 206 pounds, the Quebec native could certainly prove to be a useful bottom-six center if he can handle the AHL.
The organization also has a trio of centers at the collegiate level that have a certain level of promise. Jimmy Mullin (junior at Miami University of Ohio), Brendan O'Donnell (junior at University of North Dakota) and Matthew Peca (junior at Quinnipiac University) have all had varying levels of success in the NCAA. Peca has consistently scored around a point-per-game in his first two seasons, while O'Donnell and Mullin are both aiming to improve on forgettable 2012-13 campaigns. O'Donnell, a sixth round pick in 2010, has already scored three goals this season, surpassing last year's mark of two, while Mullin is looking to find the offensive touch that sparked such an impressive freshman season in 2011-12, when he scored 26 points in 37 games as a freshman. At least two, if not all three, will be signed at the end of this year or next, giving the organization an influx of pro-ready prospects.
There is also 2013 seventh round pick Saku Salminen, who is regarded more for his size and defensive tendencies than his scoring ability.
Russian winger Nikita Kucherov has been very impressive since he came to North America last season. Through his first 10 games with the Syracuse Crunch, Kucherov leads the team with 20 points. His 174 pound frame might prevent him from being an effective NHL player at this point, but he definitely has tremendous skill.
After playing 120 career AHL games, 2009 second round pick Richard Panik seems to have proved himself a serviceable NHL forward. He has a big frame and knows how to use it effectively. He has shown impressive offensive touch with the Lightning, but his defensive game remains a work in progress.
J.T. Brown is another right winger with NHL experience, having played five games at the end of the 2011-12 season. He has fit nicely with Syracuse, but has yet to do anything to set him apart from the organization's bevy of talented wingers in line for a call up. Still, he adds strong depth to the position.
The Lightning are also really high on recent second round pick Adam Erne. The 6'1, 210 pound forward is in his third season for the Quebec Remparts and currently sits second in team scoring with 19 points in 17 games. Erne was figured to be a first round selection in last June's draft and it is no surprise why, as possesses a rare blend of size, physicality, and skill. The Lightning's depth at the position will allow Erne a year or two of development in the AHL.
Brian Hart is another right wing prospect with intriguing potential. The 6'3, 212 pound Harvard sophomore is looking to build off a solid freshman season where he managed 18 points in 30 games. Beyond Hart, there is also Danick Gauthier, who is currently playing with the ECHL's Florida Everblades, and Joel Vermin, who is currently playing in Switzerland. Both prospects are longshots at this point.
The Lightning boast a high volume of prospects on defense, and while none possess top-pair ceilings, there are more than a few potential capable NHL players in the group. Radko Gudas, in fact, seems to have more than established himself. The bruising Czech defender made his NHL debut last season, making a name for himself with his physical edge. Mark Barberio, like Gudas, has done enough to earn a job in the NHL, but has not quite been able to crack the Lightning's lineup on a consistent basis. The 23-year-old defenseman has played just six career NHL games, and has been in the press box for much of this season. He has been the Lightning's top offensive defenseman at the AHL level for the past three seasons, but he needs to improve his overall game before cementing his spot in the NHL.
Just as they have done with forwards Johnson and Brown, the Lightning have made the most out of undrafted defensemen. Last year the team signed the lanky Andrej Sustr (6'8, 200 pounds) following the completion of his junior season with the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Though he scored 25 points in 39 games for the Mavericks, he is not known for his offense. He is not inept offensively, but it is his simple defensive game combined with his long reach and physical play that has allowed to him sticking with the Lightning to begin the 2013-14 season.
Slater Koekkoek is perhaps the organization's brightest star on defense. Unfortunately, Koekkoek's development has been hampered by injuries over the past few seasons. The 2013-14 season will be his last in the OHL, and thus far with the Windsor Spitfires he has 11 points in 14 games. A full, healthy season could be a big boost for Koekkoek.
Dylan Blujus, a second round pick from 2012, is also in his last OHL season. Playing with the North Bay Batallion, Blujus has one goal in four games, having missed a month due to a knee injury suffered at Lightning training camp.
The Lightning also possess a trio of European defenders who could all one day play in the NHL. General manager Steve Yzerman has shown a strong willingness to select Russians and, at least for now, the risks have not materialized. In his first season in North America, 2011 fifth round pick Nikita Nesterov has six points in 10 games with Syracuse. Undrafted free agent signings Artem Sergeev and Belarusian Dmitry Korobov have also settled in nicely in North America, with the former having spent three full seasons with Val d'Or of the QMJHL.
Andrey Vasilevskiy has started just over half of the games for the KHL's Salavat Yulaev Ufa, posting a 7-3 record to go along with a 2.43 goals against average and a .916 save percentage. The former first round pick has great size and athleticism and will be better served getting starts in the KHL as opposed to the MHL, where he spent part of last season. By all accounts, he is expected to come to North America by next season.
While Vasilevskiy is the crown jewel of the Lightning's goaltending crop, the organization has some strong depth with Jaroslav Janus, Adam Wilcox, and Kristers Gudlevskis. With the now glut of goaltenders in the organization, Jaroslav Janus sits on the outside, having spent the last year and a half in the KHL. Gudlevskis, a fifth round pick in the most recent draft, has split time between the AHL and ECHL this season.
And finally, somehow improving upon last season's numbers is Wilcox. The University of Minnesota freshman goaltender posted a sparkling 1.88 goals against average and .921 save percentage last season, and through six games this season has gone undefeated with a 1.64 goals against average and .938 save percentage. Wilcox likes to play the puck and is an aggressive goaltender, but still very raw at this point.