The Tampa Bay Lightning have had standout performances from a number of prospects this season both at the pro and junior levels. In the CHL, recent draftees Dennis Yan, Anthony Cirelli, Mathieu Joseph and Mitchell Stephens all had impressive campaigns. The organization also got contributions in Tampa Bay from players like Nikita Nesterov – who graduated from prospect status – as well as arriving talents Slater Koekkoek and Joel Vermin.
For the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch, Anthony DeAngelo and Matt Peca put together impressive rookie seasons. Then there is Nikita Gusev, a Russian star who has put up great numbers in the KHL for the past two seasons but whom the Lightning have yet to sign.
Even with some question marks, it’s clear the Lightning have one of the deeper prospect pools in the NHL. Hockey’s Future makes an annual tradition of handing out some awards to the players who stood out over the season.
Hardest Worker: Mitchell Stephens, C, Saginaw Spirit (OHL)
Stephens exemplified his work effort by making the Canadian World Junior team in December. It’s an impressive enough feat considering he was just 18 at the time, but he did it after recovering from a broken foot suffered in October. He returned to Saginaw’s lineup in early December and played two games in which he recorded five points and made enough of an impression at the Canadian camp to make the team.
Not the most skilled player, the Lightning thought highly enough of Stephens’ skating ability and work ethic to make him the 33rd pick in last June’s draft and it has paid off. He finished the regular season with 38 points in 39 games and has since appeared in five games for Syracuse on an amateur tryout offer, where he scored his first goal as a pro.
Hardest Shot: Dennis Yan, LW, Shawinigan Cataractes (QMJHL)
Though he has all-around offensive abilities, Dennis Yan is a shooter first and foremost. The QMJHL tracks dangerous shots and Yan was one of the league leaders in that category; he also had a shooting percentage of 16 and finished with 32 goals, which was third on the Cataractes. He scored 14 of his 32 goals in the month of October and his play tailed off toward the end of the season as checking became tighter, but he is always a threat on the ice with his shot. Currently, Yan has 14 points in 19 playoff games as Shawinigan faces the CHL’s top squad for the President Cup.
Best Defensive Prospect: Slater Koekkoek, D, Syracuse Crunch (AHL)
While first-year pro Anthony DeAngelo might have the highest ceiling, particularly on the offensive end, it’s Slater Koekkoek that could become a more impactful defenseman at the NHL level with his play at both ends of the ice. Removed from shoulder injuries that plagued his junior career, the 2012 first round pick has played consecutive healthy seasons at the pro level, including 12 games (nine this season) with the Lightning. He’s an above average skater and plays a physical style that should allow him to be a full-time NHLer as early as next season.
Fastest Skater: Nikita Gusev, LW, SKA St. Petersburg (KHL)
One of the main reasons the Lightning selected Gusev in the seventh round of the 2012 NHL Draft was his blazing speed. The Russian’s quickness and creativity was evident, but it was far from a certainty that he would develop into the player he has become. This season, Gusev’s combination of speed, shiftiness and offensive ability has led to his best season in the KHL yet. The 23 year old recorded 49 points in 56 regular season games and had 14 points (five goals) 15 playoff games with St. Petersburg eventually losing in the Western finals.
The Moose Jaw Warriors surprised many with their season this year. The team has a quality young core but a lot of their success was a result of skilled center Brayden Point, who managed to top last season’s offensive production despite playing 12 fewer games. Point hit the scoresheet 87 times in 60 games in 2014-15 and in 48 games this season led the Warriors in scoring with 88 points (35 goals, 53 assists). He has been one of the most dangerous forwards in the WHL for the past two seasons, but even more so this year. In the playoffs, Point had 16 points in ten games. He also captained the Canadian World Junior team.
Breakout Player for 2016-17: Anthony Cirelli, C, Oshawa Generals (OHL)
The hero of the 2015 Memorial Cup took a more prominent role with the Generals this season as the team lost most of its core to the AHL. Increased ice time allowed the crafty forward to lead the Generals in scoring with 59 points in 62 games and that trend should continue into next season, in what will likely be Cirelli’s final season of junior hockey. The Generals’ top five scorers are all eligible to return next season and Cirelli could very well be the catalyst in getting the team back into the playoffs. It wouldn’t be a complete shock if he garners World Junior Championship consideration either.
Most Improved Prospect: Tanner Richard, LW/C, Syracuse Crunch (AHL)
Richard could have earned this award last year as well; the 23 year old had just two goals and 15 assists in his first season as a pro, but last year improved that total to 13 and 25 and finished fourth on Syracuse in scoring. In his third season as a pro, however, Richard’s game has evolved and he has become a dynamic player for the Crunch. He led the team in scoring with 54 points (11 goals, 43 assists) in 71 games. He stayed out of the box as well, cutting his penalty minutes down from 135 the year prior to 57.
Overachiever: Mathieu Joseph, RW, Saint John Sea Dogs (QMJHL)
Entering the season, Joseph was ranked seventh on Hockey’s Future’s list of Lightning right wingers, but that has changed this season. Joseph, a fourth round pick in last June’s draft, recorded 42 points in 59 games last season and upped his point production to 73 points in 58 games this season, including 33 goals, which ranked second on the team. The Sea Dogs boast a potent lineup and came into the 2015-16 season with a wealth of second- and third-year forwards at similar levels, but Joseph has separated himself from the pack with his play this season.
Underachiever: Johnathan MacLeod, D, Boston University (Hockey East)
After an inspiring freshman campaign with the Terriers, Johnathan MacLeod became a bit of a detriment to his team at times this season. The 6’1, 203 lb rearguard had nine points and was a plus-19 in 37 games last year, but dressed for just 26 games this season, recorded two points and was a team-worst minus-four. Boston University could lose one or two of its talented defensive core next season which would give MacLeod a chance to play an increased role with the team, but he’ll have to earn it.
Highest Risk/Reward Prospect: Nikita Gusev, LW, SKA St. Petersburg (KHL)
Gusev is undoubtedly the Lightning’s most skilled prospect but he remains a question mark in the organization. There have been whispers he might consider coming to North America in the past, and they resurfaced early this season, but both parties have been quiet on the matter. He would come to the organization with quite the profile after his past two seasons in Russia – his point-per-game total is a notch above that of teammate Ilya Kovalchuk and he was St. Petersburg’s best forward in the playoffs. That said, Gusev will turn 24 this summer and if he doesn’t sign with the Lightning and instead re-signs in St. Petersburg or with another KHL team, it might be time to stop thinking about the possibility of him playing for the Bolts.
Prospect of the Month
Nikita Gusev has been such a big part of powerhouse St. Petersburg’s success. With former NHLers like Wojtek Wolski, Alex Radulov, Linus Omark and Igor Grigorenko on the roster, Gusev has risen to the top. The midseason acquisition is seventh overall on the team in postseason scoring with 14 points in 15 games, but is third in points per game. The Lightning have had prospects put up big numbers at the junior level in the past month (Point, Joseph) but what Gusev is doing against grown men in the second best professional league in the world is hard to ignore.