A quick reminder that all top 10 candidates must be no more than 25 years old as of October 7, 2015. The lists consider all skaters in that age group who have played in fewer than 40 NHL regular season games, with 25 games being the cut-off among netminders.
There was a time when Tampa Bay would regularly rank near the bottom of a ranking such as this. Much has changed since then and under the leadership of Steve Yzerman, the Lightning have a strong group of prospects and also many youngsters already contributing at the NHL level. You will not find the names of Nikita Kucherov, Cedric Paquette, Jonathan Drouin and Vladislav Namestnikov on this list, but they are part of a very strong core of young players that will have the Bolts competing for the Stanley Cup on a yearly basis. The names that you will see on this list will continue to add to the expected long-term success of the franchise.
- Andrei Vasilevskiy, G, Syracuse (AHL) 6’3”, 210 lbs. 19th overall, 2012
- Anthony DeAngelo, D, Sault Ste. Marie (OHL) 5’11”, 175 lbs. 19th overall, 2014
- Adam Erne, LW, Quebec (QMJHL) 6’1”, 210 lbs. 33rd overall, 2013
- Mitchell Stephens, C, Saginaw (OHL) 5’11”, 188 lbs. 33rd overall, 2015
- Nikita Nesterov, D, Syracuse (AHL) 6’0”, 194 lbs. 148th overall, 2011
- Matt Spencer, D, Peterborough (OHL) 6’2”, 203 lbs. 44th overall, 2015
- Dennis Yan, LW, Shawinigan (QMJHL) 6’1”, 184 lbs. 64th overall, 2015
- Slater Koekkoek, D, Syracuse (AHL) 6’2”, 184 lbs. 10th overall, 2012
- Dominik Masin, D, Peterborough (OHL) 6’2”, 189 lbs. 35th overall, 2014
- Matthew Peca, C, Quinnipiac (NCAA) 5’8”, 155 lbs. 201st overall, 2011
Players likely to lose eligibility
- Luke Witkowski, D, Syracuse (AHL) 6’2”, 200 lbs. 160th overall, 2008
- Kristers Gudlveskis, G, Syracuse (AHL) 6’4”, 190 lbs. 124th overall, 2013
- Adam Wilcox, G, Minnesota (NCAA) 6’0”, 171 lbs. 178th overall, 2011
- Brayden Point, C, Moose Jaw (WHL) 5’10”, 160 lbs. 79th overall, 2014
The future is now when it comes to Tampa Bay’s top prospect Andrei Vasilevskiy. The Russian netminder had a great first season in North America and by February had taken over from veteran Evgeni Nabakov as the Bolts back-up. After 25 games in Syracuse, he played in 16 games with Tampa Bay and also appeared in four post-season games, most memorably in the Cup final. While not quite as big as starter Ben Bishop, he has great size and uses it well to cover the net. Vasilveskiy also possesses good quickness, strong legs and is very good going from post to post. Rebound control is another a big plus to his game.
Heading into the season the feeling was that he would push Bishop for more starts, but that has been thrown into some doubt with the recent injury news. It is expected that Vasilevskiy will miss two to three months after recent surgery to remove a blood clot. Nonetheless, the expectation is that he will regain his previous form and assume the back-up role once again upon his return.
Despite the injury, the good news is that there is depth in goal for Tampa and look for Kristers Gudlevskis to take over the back-up role in Vasileskiy’s absence. The Latvian will always be remembered for his incredible performance against Canada in the quarter-finals of the 2014 Olympics, coming up just short in a 2-1 loss to the eventual gold medallists. Much like his Russian counterpart, Gudlevskis has great size and covers the net well. Also similar to Vasilveskiy, the biggest key to long term success is for him to continue gaining experience with the North American game.
Behind the Lightning’s European duo is now former Minnesota Golden Gopher netminder Adam Wilcox. He decided to forego his senior season and sign with Tampa Bay this off-season. With the injury to Vasilveskiy, he may now get an even heavier than expected workload to start off in the AHL. An aggressive goaltender who likes to challenge the shooter, he left Minnesota as the all-time leader in both save percentage and goals against average.
When it comes to defenceman Anthony DeAngelo there is little doubt that offence is the highlight of his game. Two consecutive seasons in the OHL where he averaged over a point per game will tell you that. An excellent skater with good straight ahead speed, he is extremely tough to beat in races for loose pucks. DeAngelo possesses great patience and vision with the puck along with a quick release on a good wrist shot. With his skill set, there is every reason to believe that he will quarterback a power play at the NHL level. He earned a reputation over the years as a selfish player who takes too many undisciplined penalties, but seems to have gained some maturity recently. He is an aggressive defender with good gap control, but there are some deficiencies to that side of his game. Fortunately he will have lots of time to work on the defensive aspects in the AHL to start his pro career.
Nikita Nesterov is someone who was not really talked about a whole lot entering last season. That is not the case heading into this season after he appeared in 17 playoff games for the Lightning and played well in those outings. He is not a dynamic offensive defenceman by any means, but he does move the puck well and thinks the game at a high level. More in the mold of a two-way defenceman, Nesterov will certainly be in the mix to gain a full time spot with Tampa Bay this season.
Another defenceman in the two-way mold is recent draft pick, Matt Spencer. The 18-year-old will not wow you with any of his individual skills, but the sum of his parts should lead to a successful professional career. Not a great skater, but does have good enough mobility and makes a very good first pass out of the zone. He needs to fill out a bit in order to become a more physical defender at the pro level.
Spencer’s teammate in Peterborough, Dominik Masin is also part of the Tampa system. He was limited to just 48 games this past season due to injury, but should play a big role with the Petes this season if he can stay healthy. With good size and high hockey IQ, he is a tough customer that will be difficult to play against at any level as he moves up the ranks of the organization.
Slater Koekkoek had a very nice first pro season with Syracuse, leading all Crunch defencemen in scoring and also appearing in three games with the Lightning. The feat is especially impressive when considering that shoulder surgeries ended his last two junior seasons prematurely. He is a good puck mover who does not panic when put under pressure and is also a very good skater, but he could stand to become a bit more explosive with those first few strides. Koekkoek could mount a challenge for a roster spot this season, but with the depth on the blueline he will likely start the season back in Syracuse.
If there is another roster spot open on the blueline, it will more likely be taken by Luke Witkowski. The Western Michigan alumnus is a tough-as-nails, stay-at-home type with minimal offensive ability. He did not look out of place in a 16 game cameo with the Lightning last season.
There is plenty of offensive talent in the Tampa system and it starts with the 2015 QMJHL playoff MVP, Adam Erne. The native of New Haven was an absolute force in last year’s post-season, scoring 21 goals in 22 games. That was after netting 41 goals in 60 regular season games. He is a prototypical power forward who hits hard and is a handful to deal with down low in the offensive zone. A good skater with solid speed that he uses to his advantage on the rush. He is also a very good stickhandler and is quite comfortable skating up ice with the puck on his stick. His conditioning must improve and the next step for him is to prove he can put up numbers at the pro level. He will get that chance this season as he is all but assured to start the year in Syracuse.
2015 draft pick Mitchell Stephens is a very mature all-around player who brings a lot of grit and leadership ability to a team. He is a great passer and protects the puck well using good positioning. He has great speed and it will be interesting to see how much he produces offensively this season in the OHL in his third season with Saginaw. He might not end up being an offensive type player in the NHL, but is a very safe bet to make it there and chip in one way or another.
One of the most exciting players in the QMJHL this past season was Shawinigan forward Dennis Yan. He had a great, albeit short lived playoff run with seven goals in seven games as the Cataractes were upset by Halifax in the opening round. He is a good skater and has real high end skill, but needs to work on his consistency. With the amount of skill he possesses, he could end up being a steal for the Lightning as a third round pick. Yan is expected to be a big contributor on a team with QMJHL championship aspirations this season.
If you are looking for a consistent performer, then Matthew Peca is right up your alley. He had four very good seasons at Quinnipiac and is now ready to move up to the professional ranks. He got a brief glimpse of the AHL last season, with eight regular season and three playoff games. Peca has good puck skills and should be able to supply some offence in Syracuse with his quick release. His biggest asset may be his ability to play a two-way game and commit to the defensive side of the game.
Brayden Point is another intriguing prospect who has racked up the points in junior over the past few seasons. He possesses a strong shot and is a good passer, Point had four points in seven games at the World Juniors and should be a top six forward as a returnee on the squad this winter. With his small size, he will need to get stronger to play at the highest level.
While you may not find a ton of sure-fire superstars in this list, what really stands is out is the great depth in the organization. Every player discussed here has a real shot to not only make the NHL, but to play a key role on the Lightning moving forward. When you talk about teams that are regularly in contention it is often because they draft well and build great depth to plug in the holes on a yearly basis. That is exactly the type of model that the Lightning are building in western Florida.