The Tampa Bay Lightning have done a tremendous job at drafting and developing since Steve Yzerman took over the general manager position in 2010. The team has more hits than misses in the early rounds and has found quality late-round players that have since filled significant roles with the team. Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov are two that immediately come to mind and both players were selected in 2011, the first draft that Yzerman and his staff had a full year to prepare for. It might also end up as the team’s best in the past decade-plus.
In recent years, the team has graduated top prospects Victor Hedman and Jonathan Drouin, but prospects of similar ilk continue to pop up. Andrei Vasilevskiy is widely considered the best young goaltender in the world and Anthony DeAngelo is a blueliner with plenty of offensive upside. Despite carrying a team that was largely drafted and developed in-house to the Stanley Cup Finals last season, the Lightning still boast an impressive prospect cupboard.
20. (NR) Anthony Cirelli, C, 6.5 D
Drafted 3rd round, 72nd overall, 2015
Like Cristiano DiGiacinto, Cirelli is a known hard worker who has made the most of the chances given to him in the past year. He managed to walk on to the eventual Memorial Cup winning Oshawa Generals and play a significant role with the team, scoring 13 goals and adding 23 assists in 68 regular season games. Despite needing to add size to his lanky 6’0 frame, he was able to elude injury and avoid plenty of punishing hits from larger players throughout the season.
Of course, Cirelli is most famous for his role in the final game of the season. He scored just one goal in 16 games for the Generals during the OHL playoffs, but scored twice in the Memorial Cup finals. Those two goals showcased his quick release as well as his willingness to go to the net. Without Cole Cassels and some of the other prominent players from last year’s team, Cirelli will be given a much more prominent role offensively in 2015-16.
19. (NR) Joel Vermin, RW, 6.5 C
Drafted 7th round, 186th overall, 2013
The Lightning have made the most of its seventh round selections, at least in terms of developing sound AHL players. Vermin was an example of that last season; the 23 year old Swiss native, in his first full season with Syracuse, finished sixth on the team in scoring and proved himself a capable and consistent forward, playing throughout the lineup. He will have a chance to play top-six minutes this season with Syracuse as he continues to develop his offensive game in North America. It will be the last season of his entry-level deal.
18. (NR) Cristiano DiGiacinto, LW, 6.5 C
Drafted 6th round, 170th overall, 2014
DiGiacinto’s greatest asset is his work ethic. In 2013-14, he earned his way onto the Windsor Spitfires after just nine games with the Hamilton Red Wings of the OJHL. He was unheralded and unheard of prior to the beginning of the season, but ended the year as a sixth round NHL Draft pick thanks to a 28-point rookie season to go along with 101 penalty minutes.
He is far from a power forward type at just 5’11, but is near 200 pounds and is strong on his skates. Last season, DiGiacinto scored 21 goals and improved his point total to 45, while still spending 100 minutes in the penalty box. He finished third in scoring on a rebuilding Spitfires team and will play a big role in 2015-16.
17. (14) Tanner Richard, C, 6.5 C
Drafted 3rd round, 71st overall, 2012
Richard drops slightly on the top 20 list of prospects not because of a tough season, but because of greater organizational depth following the draft. In fact, the Markham, Ontario native with a Swiss background had a breakthrough campaign in his second full season in the AHL. After a two-goal year in 2013-14, Richard scored 13 in 2014-15 and added 25 assists. A pesky winger who isn’t afraid to get involved physically, he also finished second on the team in penalty minutes with 135.
He was fourth on the team in scoring last year, and will play top-six minutes with the Crunch in 2015-16, providing protection to some of the team’s smaller forwards—like Jonathan Marchessault and Matthew Peca.
16. (13) Dylan Blujus, D, 6.5 C
Drafted 2nd round, 40th overall, 2012
The former Brampton/North Bay Battalion defenceman finished second among Syracuse defensemen in scoring during his rookie season last year. Blujus scored four goals and added 18 assists in 67 games. He was one of the team’s more reliable top four defenders, and despite racking up 113 penalty minutes in his final two seasons of junior, managed to limit his penalty time to just 18 minutes last season.
Blujus is expected to participate in the Lightning’s prospect tournament in Florida. Along with Slater Koekkoek, he will be one of the oldest, more experienced players in attendance. Also like Koekkoek, he has a chance to wear a Lightning jersey this season if injuries occur, but the puck-moving blueliner is likely to spend the year playing significant minutes in Syracuse.
15. (19) Nikita Gusev, LW, 7.5 D
Drafted 7th round, 202nd overall, 2012
A skilled Russian winger, Nikita Gusev took a huge leap forward offensively last season with his club, Yugra Khanty-Mansiysk. His point total increased from 14 the year prior to 37 in 2015-16 and he led the team in scoring, ahead of former NHL prospects Lukas Kaspar and Ben Maxwell.
Gusev has great speed and athleticism and combined with his goal-scoring ability, he can be a very dangerous forward if able to handle the rigors of the North American game. Unfortunately, Gusev still has one more season under contract in Russia and there are no concrete plans in place for his signing with the Lightning in the future.
14. (18) Matthew Peca, C, 7.0 C
Drafted 7th round, 201st overall, 2011
Peca had a remarkably consistent career with Quinnipiac University, one which came to an end last season with a 36-point campaign. He recorded a four-year low of just seven goals but his 29 assists was the second highest total he posted. Through 157 games, the 5’9, 175-pound pivot recorded 143 points.
He signed a contract with the Lightning following the end of his season and appeared in eight games with Syracuse of the AHL. He recorded four points in those eight games and two points in three playoff games with the team. Peca has a chance to slot alongside Marchessault as one of the top offensive players on Syracuse next season.
13. (NR) Dennis Yan, LW, 7.0 C
Drafted 3rd round, 64th overall, 2015
Dennis Yan was expected by some to be a late first round pick or early second so the Lightning have to be excited to have grabbed him in the third round. The pesky winger has great speed and offensive instincts; last season he scored 33 goals and added 31 assists to go along with 71 penalty minutes. He doesn’t quite have the frame, despite his 6’2 size, to project as a power forward in the NHL, but will certainly get under the opposition’s skin.
Yan and Anthony Beauvillier (NYI) will once again be the premier offensive duo in the QMJHL for the Shawinigan Cataractes this season. Last year the two 17-year-olds combined 158 points in 126 regular season games.
12. (10) Kristers Gudlevskis, G, 7.0 C
Drafted 5th round, 124th overall, 2013
With incredible goaltending depth last season in both Tampa and the AHL, Kristers Gudlevskis had to battle for the net. The 23 year old Latvian spent time in the ECHL for the second consecutive season and fared extremely well, posting a 7-4-0 record to go along with a .925 save percentage and 1.83 goals-against average. For the majority of the first half, however, he split time with Andrey Vasilevskiy in Syracuse.
Once Vasilevskiy was recalled, Gudlevskis earned the majority of starts for the Crunch; in 46 appearances he posted a 25-14-4 record as well as a 2.81 goals-against average and a .900 save percentage. He also recorded two shutouts. Though Vasilevskiy has not firmly established himself as an NHL goaltender, Gudlevskis will still have to earn the crease in 2015-16 and hold off rookie Adam Wilcox.
11. (NR) Matthew Spencer, D, 7.0 C
Drafted 2nd round, 44th overall, 2015
A physical and strong two-way defender, Matthew Spencer led Peterborough Petes defensemen in scoring last season with 30 points in 67 games. His improving offensive game is a nice complement to his already-impressive defensive instincts. His skating is above average and his big upper body allows him to impose himself upon incoming forwards with relative ease. He racked up 64 penalty minutes last season.
Spencer, along with fellow Lightning prospect Dominik Masin, will anchor the Petes’ blueline next season, playing significant minutes in all situations.