2013-2014 Final Rankings
Before saying farewell to the 2013-2014 season in our Final Rankings, lets step back and reflect on what an unprecedented season it was. Eight prospects who appeared on our 2013-2014 Preliminary Rankings list graduated from prospect status during the season (Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, Radko Gudas, Mark Barberio, J.T. Brown, Richard Panik, Nikita Kucherov, and Andrej Sustr), while another two overage prospects also graduated (Ben Bishop and Alex Killorn). Palat and Johnson were named finalists for the Calder Trophy while Bishop was tapped as a finalist for the Vezina Trophy.
Put simply, it'll be decades before the Lightning ever have a prospect class like this go through the system again, if ever. Remember that as you read through these 2013-2014 Final Rankings, which reflect a talent pool that has been drained of the majority of its best players. True, there are still two of the best NHL prospects in the land on the list, but the drop-off after the first half dozen or so prospects in the rankings is dramatic now, which was reflected in AHL Syracuse's showing in the standings this season. It's a top-heavy group in desperate need of an infusion of new blood starting in June when Steve Yzerman and the Lightning's scouting staff holds three picks in the top-60 of the upcoming NHL Entry Draft. So, if they don't trade any of those picks for immediate help at the NHL level, do not despair, because the need for cupboard re-stocking is real and it's immediate.
Before jumping into the rankings, of course, there's the ever-present need to clarify the site rules pertaining to prospect status. Prospects who were under the age of 24 on opening night of the Lightning's season are eligible for the list. Skaters who have appeared in 41 NHL games in a single season or 82 career NHL games are considered graduated from prospect status. Goaltenders who have accrued 30 NHL decisions in a single season or 41 career NHL decisions are considered graduated from prospect status. NCAA-based players are eligible to stay as prospects even if they are 24 years of age or older.
Yes, this means Brett Connolly is considered graduated from prospect status. No, we're not going to bend the rules on a case-by-case basis. Yes, to paraphrase the old Churchill quote, we think it is the worst set of prospect ranking eligibility rules except all the others that have been tried.
With that out of the way, let's proceed…
1.) LW/C Jonathan Drouin, Halifax (QMJHL)
Occasionally you still hear a pundit or two trot out the name Seth Jones in criticism of the Lightning's selection of Halifax magician Jonathan Drouin, but it says something about the season Drouin had this year that he got sent back to junior and still silenced most of his critics. When you average 2.35 points per game in the regular season and then up the ante to 2.56 points per game in the playoffs en route to claiming the cover of THN's Future Watch, well, the haters get a little on the quiet side. You can probably ink Drouin onto one of the Lightning's top two lines next season and the engraver for next year's Calder Trophy probably would do well to practice his J's and D's. With puck skills that have been compared to the likes of Denis Savard and Gilbert Perrault, Drouin is recognized by many as the best prospect not in the NHL today. He makes defenders look stupid with his puckhandling ability and, although an adept scorer in his own right, much of his highlight reel includes amazing plays to set up teammates for easy tic-tac-toe goals. Drouin improved his defensive play while in Halifax this year and also cross-trained at center, giving the Lightning added lineup flexibility. Minor knocks about Drouin's lack of size and top-end speed still persist, but they've been non-factors to this point given Jonathan's sturdy construction and preternatural hockey sense. Put simply, Drouin has the look of a future top-10 player in the league with the only question being whether he or Stamkos will assume the role of Batman to the other's Robin.
2.) G Andrei Vasilevskiy, Ufa (RUS)
The Lightning not only have the player considered by many to be the best prospect outside of the NHL today in Drouin, but they also have the player considered to be the best goaltending prospect outside the NHL today in Andrei Vasilevskiy. Vasilevskiy made the jump to the KHL for Ufa's big league squad this year and did not disappoint. Despite being just 19 years of age, Vasilevskiy had a more than respectable 2.21 GAA and .923 save percentage in 27 regular season appearances before leading Ufa all the way to the conference finals where they were cut down by eventual champions Vasily Koshechkin and Metallurg Magnitogorsk. Vasilevskiy may be the finest goaltender to come out of Russia since Tretiak and some scouts consider him to be that nation's answer to Canada's Carey Price. Vasilevskiy combines excellent size and athleticism with calm, judicious, and nearly flawless positioning, and now that he's been signed we expect him to dominate in Syracuse of the AHL next season en route to eventually taking his rightful place someday in Tampa Bay.
3.) D Slater Koekkoek, Windsor (OHL)
If it wasn't for bad luck, Slater Koekkoek might not have any luck at all. Finally in an environment conducive to his development in Windsor, the former first rounder was blossoming this year. Koekkoek posted 15 goals and 53 points in 62 games to go along with a gaudy +44 rating en route to earning OHL First Team All Star honors. Then, unfortunately, a familiar fate ended his campaign as he suffered his third major shoulder injury in three seasons. Now he's back on the well-worn physical rehab trail with a view toward joining Syracuse of the AHL next season for his rookie pro year. Koekkoek's game blends good size and elite skating ability with excellent puck-moving instincts. He's not always overly physical, but criticisms of his defensive zone positioning were quieted this season as he started to look more the left-handed Kevin Shattenkirk clone some scouts thought he would be in his draft season. Given how thin the Lightning are at the position, keeping Koekkoek healthy and making sure he keeps ascending the development curve with Syracuse next season is a critical organizational priority.
4.) C Vladislav Namestnikov, Syracuse (AHL)
It was an up and down season for former first round pick Vladislav Namestnikov, who tasted the thrill of being one of the AHL's top players early in the season, the bitterness of injuries, and his first cup of coffee in the NHL, too. Namestnikov ended up with 19 goals and 48 points in 56 games in the AHL, doing most of his damage early in the campaign while forming a dynamic tandem with fellow Russian Nikita Kucherov and JT Brown. A broken hand then forced Namestnikov out of the lineup just before Kucherov was called up to Tampa Bay, leaving Namestnikov without the same dynamic running buddy as he had before the injury and inevitably leading to a drop in his production. That said, Namestnikov was still one of Syracuse's two best forwards and the strengths of his game are obvious. He's a plus skater with slick puckhandling ability and excellent instincts to dish and set up his teammates. Put him with a sniper on the wing like Kucherov and watch the points pile up. It's not all peaches and cream, though, as his four games with Tampa Bay revealed. Namestnikov's defensive game still isn't completely up to par and he could stand to continue to get bigger and stronger to stand the wear and tear of the pro game. That said, the Lightning always knew Namestnikov was going to be a bit of a long-term project, and nothing he's done so far dissuades us from believing he won't eventually reach his potential as a poor man's, second line version of Pavel Datsyuk.
5.) RW/C Adam Erne, Quebec (QMJHL)
Before you lodge a complaint that all of the Lightning's forward prospects are on the smallish, finesse side, please consider Quebec Remparts forward Adam Erne. The Connecticut native proudly models his game after Scott Hartnell, and although it's a stretch to say he plays his game with that much edge, he's certainly no shrinking violet. Erne posted 21 goals and 62 points in 48 regular season games with the Remparts this year before an early playoff exit led him to an ATO with Syracuse where he had 1a goal and four points in eight games. Erne plays a pro-style north-south game with surprising wheels for such a squat, wide frame and he possesses a good, hard shot and soft hands in tight for finishing. He goes to the dirty areas and doesn't shy away from contact to get his points. Like Drouin, Erne cross-trained at center this season for added lineup flexibility, but we still see his future as a smash-bang winger finishing off chances from the likes of Drouin, Namestnikov, and Filppula. Given how stacked the team is at forward, he'll likely go back to junior for one more season where he could have a monster year in the QMJHL before being a serious threat to make the Lightning in 2015-2016.
6.) G Kristers Gudlevskis, Tampa Bay (NHL)
After Kristers Gudlevskis exploded on to the hockey world's consciousness when he stood on his head for Team Latvia as they almost completed an Olympics upset of mighty Canada, some drew the easy conclusion that Gudlevskis' performance was a flash in the pan. But, fans of the Syracuse Crunch and Lightning prospect followers know Gudlevskis is the real deal. An overage prospect drafted last summer out of the Dynamo Riga organization, Gudlevskis drew instant comparisons to fellow prospect Andrei Vasilevskiy in camp for his world class athleticism. And, while he may not quite have quite the same calm, efficient positioning as Vasilevskiy, Gudlevskis repeatedly showed he's no slouch in that department. Ordinarily a .901 save percentage would be considered pedestrian for a netminder, but for Gudlevskis to finish seven games over .500 in his rookie campaign with four shutouts reveals how outstanding he was behind a Syracuse defense that struggled with consistency all year long. With Ben Bishop injured and Anders Lindback struggling, Gudlevskis gave a strong accounting of himself in the series against Montreal. Time will tell if it was good enough to slide into the backup role in Tampa Bay next season. Regardless, though, Gudlevskis should now be regarded as a legitimate prospect to be a future #1 goaltender in the NHL.
7.) LW/C Matthew Peca, Quinnipiac (ECAC)
After making it all the way to the NCAA championship game with the Bobcats as a sophomore, Matthew Peca took another step forward as a junior scoring 38 points in 40 games in a more prominent leadership role that called for a stronger two-way game. Peca now has 107 points in 118 career games heading into his senior campaign, which is a testament to the package of speed and slick puck skills he brings to the table. Expect Peca to be a serious threat to win the Hobey Baker next season before he signs with the Lightning. Peca will be 22 when he does, and following the Alex Killorn career track he should receive serious consideration to make the Lightning in either the 2015-2016 or 2016-2017 season.
8.) C Cedric Paquette, Tampa Bay (NHL)
As surprising as the emergence of Kristers Gudlevskis was this season, the rise of rookie pro Cedric Paquette was almost equally unexpected. Despite having an accomplished career as a scorer in the QMJHL, many were surprised when the man we affectionately call "Dump Truck" was drafted by the Lightning as an overager two seasons ago. Overcoming his skating limitations, Paquette became Syracuse's most consistent forward in his rookie year with 20 goals, 44 points, and 153 penalty minutes in 70 games. Dump trucks aren't fast. Dump trucks aren't pretty. But, dump trucks do work, and so does Paquette, who won the Lightning over with his grit, determination, and hard work. Those traits help Paquette leverage his other assets: his quick hands in tight and his strong faceoff ability, which led the Lightning to recall Cedric for the playoffs against Montreal. Time will tell whether the Lightning, which needs more grit, elects to keep Paquette on the team next season. But, whenever Cedric finally does make it back to the NHL, it's clear he's got the ability to contribute as a solid, no-nonsense checking line centerman.
9.) LW Jonathan Marchessault, Syracuse (AHL)
Although he was quietly acquired in a minor league deal at the trade deadline, the Lightning have high hopes for diminutive scorer Jonathan Marchessault. Two seasons ago Marchessault was one of the top rookies in the AHL playing for Connecticut in the Rangers organization, but his development got off track in almost two full seasons playing in the Blue Jackets organization. Enter the Lightning, who know just what to do with speedy, diminutive scorers with high motors and great hands. Ask Tyler Johnson and Cory Conacher. Marchessault will be relied upon to be one of the catalysts for resurgence in Syracuse next season, and if it happens you'll see resurgence in Marchessault's NHL stock, as well.
10.) C Cody Kunyk, Tampa Bay (NHL)
Like Marchessault, Cody Kunyk steps into a Lightning organization that knows what to do with his ilk. After posting 60 goals and 133 points in 148 games with the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, Kunyk was snapped up as a sought after free agent by the Lightning. As a part of the terms of his signing, Kunyk stayed with the Lightning the rest of the season and played limited minutes in the team's regular season finale, but he should be expected to spend the season with the Syracuse Crunch next year. Kunyk fits the mold: undersized scorer with a high motor and great hands, and the Lightning are hoping he, too, can follow the Tyler Johnson/Cory Conacher path to the NHL.
11.) G Adam Wilcox, Minnesota (BIG10)
Rounding out the Lightning's prospect goaltender trilogy is decorated Minnesota goaltender Adam Wilcox. The former Tri-City Storm backstop impressively bested his gaudy freshman totals in his sophomore year, posting a 26-6-6 record with four shutouts and a .932 save percentage. He was a Hobey Baker and Mike Richter Trophy (top goaltender) finalist for his efforts. Although he lacks the ultra-high end athleticism of Vasilevskiy and Gudlevskis, Wilcox does have above average athleticism and is highly competitive, which are two traits that have made him nearly unbeatable behind an uber-talented Golden Gophers squad. The expectation is that Wilcox, who has poise similar to former Bolt prospect Dustin Tokarski, likely will play out at least his junior year of college before signing with the Lightning. When he does, he looks to be a solid prospect with the potential to, at a minimum, serve as an NHL backup.
12.) LW Henri Ikonen, Kingston (OHL)
At this point, following the rousing success of Ondrej Palat and the budding successes of Cedric Paquette and Kristers Gudlevskis, it should be noted that overage draft picks in the Lightning organization tend to be pretty good. That seems to also be the case with Finnish-born winger Henri Ikonen, who surprised many when he stayed in North America last season with Kingston of the OHL. Ikonen had 25 goals and 70 points in 54 games, finishing second on the team in scoring behind only top draft prospect Sam Bennett. A Bolt Prospects favorite, Ikonen gets our seal of approval as an Ondrej Palat-mold forward with sneaky good skill whose savvy and compete level help compensate for some athletic shortcomings. He has a fine future as a speedy, complementary winger.
13.) D Dylan Blujus, North Bay (OHL)
Although he hasn't had the flashiest two seasons of development since being drafted, former second round pick Dylan Blujus has taken the slow and steady approach to earn his entry-level contract with the Lightning. Possessing great size and mobility along with the coveted right-handed shot, Blujus had a career high 30 points in 55 games this season to go along with a +12 rating. Blujus will now join the Syracuse Crunch next season where he'll add some much-needed athleticism to the team's back line. Given his considerable physical talents, don't be surprised if he logs a fair number of minutes for the Crunch in his rookie campaign as he continues to make his way toward becoming a potential third pair defender for the Lightning.
14.) RW Brian Hart, Harvard (ECAC)
The next two seasons are tremendously important in the development of Harvard power forward Brian Hart. Hart's numbers essentially stagnated as a sophomore, and as an upperclassman the onus will be on Hart to lead the Crimson in the locker room and on the scoresheet. Hart's got excellent size and a heavy, nasty shot, but there is concern about Hart's skating and, particularly, his slow first step and acceleration. That will have to improve over the next two seasons for Hart to earn his entry-level contract with the Lightning and prove that he is, indeed, the best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be.
15.) D Luke Witkowski, Syracuse (AHL)
It was a season of hard knocks for the young, inexperienced blueline of the Syracuse Crunch. And, while some of his contemporaries withered under the pressure, rookie Luke Witkowski persevered over the course of the season. By season's end, Witkowski was nearly even with a -1 rating and had posted 204 penalty minutes, showing off the edge and solid defensive game that made him a Lightning draft pick nearly six years ago out of USHL Fargo. Witkowski's game is the antithesis of flashy, but with his jam and leadership intangibles he's developing into just the kind of lower pair, stay at home defenseman that successful franchises need.
16.) LW Yanni Gourde, Syracuse (AHL)
It might be fair at this point to say Syracuse GM Julien BriseBois has a type. The Lightning organization made another signing aimed at revitalizing Syracuse next season when they stole winger Yanni Gourde off the Worcester Sharks roster. A former QMJHL scoring title winner and First Team QMJHL All-Star, Gourde is (stop us if you've heard this one) a diminutive forward with a high motor and good hands. Just like Marchessault and Kunyk, Gourde will be aiming to follow the Johnson/Conacher path to success within the Lightning organization.
17.) C Tanner Richard, Syracuse (AHL)
Unlike Witkowski, Tanner Richard struggled with adversity in his rookie pro campaign. Coming out of Guelph in the OHL where he seemingly sneezed out assists at will, Richard learned a hard lesson this year that professional hockey requires consistent effort to obtain consistent results. Richard, at his best, has good speed and slick hands with the surprising jam that many Swiss forwards seem to possess, and in his draft season he was even compared to current Lightning centerman Valtteri Filppula. But, Richard has a lot of work to do in order to reach that ceiling after two years of tepid development.
18.) D Nikita Nesterov, Syracuse (AHL)
Here's one of those players where Bolt Prospects and the Lightning organization may have a bit of divergence. The Lightning have very high hopes for Russian defenseman Nikita Nesterov, who had an uneven rookie season with Syracuse after coming over to North America from Cherepovets in the KHL. Nesterov had four goals and 16 points in 54 games and teased the potential as a power play quarterback that, along with his work ethic, is the cornerstone of his appeal. However, there are several other elements of his game that give us pause, including some heavy, sluggish footwork and a lack of upper body strength that leads to Nesterov routinely being overwhelmed by larger forwards. Indeed, at this juncture, we look upon Nesterov as, in many ways, the Russian version of Mark Barberio. Like Barberio, the underlying question with Nesterov will be whether or not his offensive contributions will be significant enough to make his presence in the lineup a net positive when weighed against some of his shortcomings. Time will tell.
19.) D Jake Dotchin, Barrie (OHL)
One of the real pleasant surprises of this year was Barrie Colts defenseman Jake Dotchin, who earned an entry-level contract with the Lightning after posting 36 points in 63 games to go along with a nice +22 rating. That's quite the statistical improvement next to the seven goals and 41 points Dotchin had over the 130 games of the previous two seasons. Dotchin is a classic late bloomer who the Lightning likely hope is the defenseman equivalent of Cedric Paquette, whose work ethic can overcome some of his skating shortcomings. Dotchin also possesses impressive upper body strength, jam, and the much coveted righty shot, and will likely start his professional career with Syracuse in the AHL next season.
20.) G Jaroslav Janus, Bratislava (RUS)
Jaroslav Janus' swan song on our prospect rankings sees him checking in at #20 after a rough year on a talent-depleted Slovan Bratislava team. Without the services of former NHLers like Miroslav Satan in the first half of the year, Slovan toppled on the KHL table and took Janus' numbers with them, dropping his save percentage from .928 in his rookie KHL campaign to a cringe-worthy .898 save percentage. That drop-off aside, the Lightning know what Janus can do. He's got plus athleticism and pretty good positioning and his role in helping the Norfolk Admirals win the Calder Cup three years ago hasn't been forgotten. But, with the triumvirate of Vasilevskiy, Gudleskis, and Wilcox possibly ahead of him on the prospect depth chart, one has to wonder if Janus will ever see North American shores again.
21.) RW Joel Vermin, Syracuse (AHL)
Another one of the Lightning's overage draft picks, Swiss forward Joel Vermin joined the Syracuse Crunch late last season after finishing his NLA campaign with Bern. It was a frustrating season for Vermin as he toppled from 35 points in the previous year to just 18, and he'll look to turn his fortunes around with the Crunch. The scouting report for Vermin is pretty standard for Swiss wingers: he's undersized with good speed, above average hands, and a surprising amount of jam in a north-south style game. Syracuse will have no shortage of players like Vermin with Marchessault, Kunyk, and Gourde fighting for playing time, as well.
22.) LW Dalton Smith, Syracuse (AHL)
Acquired in the Marchessault trade, Dalton Smith brings added muscle to the Syracuse Crunch lineup. A former Blue Jackets 2010 second round pick, Smith has good size and decent hands in tight and shows a willingness to drop the mitts. His skating is a complication, but with the Lightning in search of more grit and last year's Pierre-Cedric Labrie experiment failing to pan out due to injuries, don't be surprised if Smith gets a look sooner rather than later. Also, we hope Lightning fans won't hold it against Smith that Red Line Report compare him in his draft year to... Chris Neil. Yep.
23.) LW Nikita Gusev, Khanty-Mansisysk (RUS)
After bouncing around from the CSKA organization to the Khabarovsk organization, highly skilled mite Nikita Gusev finally found a KHL home this season with Khanty-Mansiysk. He played sparingly in the first half of the year due to his defensive shortcomings, but Gusev saw more ice time as the year wore on, and his statistics followed suit. By year's end he had a fairly respectable eight goals and 14 points in 44 games. Gusev put up ridiculous numbers as a junior in CSKA's organization as Nikita Kucherov's linemate, and if he's discovered the link between competent defensive play and more ice time, he might turn the corner and put up good numbers in the KHL, too, paving the way for the Lightning to show interest in bringing him to North America. The onus is on Gusev, though.
24.) D Artem Sergeev, Syracuse (AHL)
The last of Syracuse's rookie defensemen in our rankings, former Val-d'Or Foreur Artem Sergeev struggled through the adversity of a campaign where he finished with a -11 rating. It's too early to give up on Sergeev, though, who also had three goals and 10 points in 68 games. He has good size and plus mobility with the much coveted righty shot. Now that he's had a first taste of the AHL level, next season will be a good gauge to see whether North American pro hockey is really going to be his cup of tea. The key for him will be holding on to a roster spot in Syracuse, who suddenly has a hoard of young defensemen.
25.) LW Danick Gauthier, Florida (ECHL)
After languishing without much of an opportunity in his rookie season, opportunity knocked for Danick Gauthier last year. With Vladislav Namestnikov injured and Nikita Kucherov recalled to Tampa Bay, Gauthier got the call to fill in on the scoring lines for Syracuse in the AHL, but could not deliver the goods consistently to stick in that role. Gauthier was eventually returned to Florida of the ECHL where he had five goals and 17 points in 30 games after posting three goals and seven points in 19 games with the Crunch. Gauthier is a bit of an enigma. He's got decent size, but isn't overly physical. He's got decent hands, but outside his final season with Saint John in the QMJHL, when he had 47 goals and was subsequently signed as an attractive free agent, he's never posted big numbers anywhere he's been. The final season of Gauthier's entry-level deal is next year, meaning it's about to be now or never for the Quebec native.