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2014-2015 Final Prospect Rankings

It's a compressed run up to the 2015 NHL Entry Draft this week, thanks to the Lightning's deep playoff run all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. As a result, we'll be rolling both our 2015 Final Rankings and our 2015 NHL Entry Draft Preview all in the same day. So, happy binge reading.

This year was a mixed bag for the prospects of the Tampa Bay Lightning system. In terms of actually delivering players to the NHL, the team had three players reach graduation from prospect status (Paquette, Drouin, and Namestnikov), while three other current prospects (Nesterov, Marchessault, and Vasilevskiy) all saw time in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The team also can boast a fairly top-heavy slate of prospects dotted with a few crown jewels, most notably the afore mentioned Vasilevskiy.

Beyond their top prospects, the Lightning had a year of steady, albeit unspectacular improvement in the overall depth of the organization. The team grinded out a playoff berth at the AHL level with the Syracuse Crunch based largely on the play of a handful of young defensemen and middling level forward prospects. Unfortunately, absent some top-flight skill at the forward position, the team fizzled down the stretch of the year before being unceremoniously swept in the offseason. As such, replenishing skill at forward, particularly at center, might be a priority moving forward.

Before we reveal this year's 2015 Bolt Prospects Final Rankings, let's review the rules for eligibility once again. Churchill once said that democracy was the worst system of governance in the world, with the exception of all others that had ever been tried. That's about how we feel about our eligibility criteria. Only players under 24 on opening night of the Lightning's season are eligible for the list (sorry Luke Witkowski), with one exception (read on). Skaters with 41 or more NHL games in a single season or 82 career NHL games are considered graduated and are no longer eligible for the rankings (bye Vladislav Namestnikov). Goaltenders with 30 or more decisions in a single NHL season or 41 career NHL decisions are also no longer eligible for the rankings. Finally, NCAA players are eligible to be ranked for the duration of their NCAA careers regardless of their age.

With that out of the way, let's begin...

1.) G Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay (NHL)
Andrei Vasilevskiy represents several firsts for our list. Not only is he considered to be the best goaltending prospect in hockey, and possibly the best to come along in as many as 20 years, but he's also the only prospect on the rankings to ever have a Stanley Cup Final win under his belt. Vasilevskiy had some early struggles adjusting to the smaller rinks and net-front traffic in the AHL to start the year, but he exploded about a third of the way through the campaign and never looked back, even improving his puck handling in the process. With veteran Evgeni Nabokov crashing and burning in Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy got to Tampa earlier than expected, and it's unlikely he'll go back to the minors ever again. He still needs to improve his rebound control and puck handling, but his athleticism, work ethic, and overall mechanics are impeccable. He's a potential superstar in the making, and regarded by many as Russia's answer to Carey Price.

2.) D Anthony DeAngelo, Sault Ste. Marie (OHL)
Here's how you know Anthony DeAngelo is good: The young man had 25 goals and 89 points in 55 games this season, and that kind of production was the least surprising thing about his year. He's a point-producing machine, which was a fact already in evidence. No, the most surprising thing about his season was the improved maturity and defensive approach he brought to the rink in order to take a -34 rating from last season and reverse it to a +34 this season. Wow. That reversal helped earn DeAngelo a spot on Team USA's U20 World Junior Championship team and also led to his securing the CHL's Defenseman of the Year honors, as well. DeAngelo finishes his junior career at 1.02 points per game in the OHL and will likely move on to Syracuse of the AHL next year on his way to possibly becoming the righty offensive dynamo the Lightning have been missing from the backline since Dan Boyle was forced to leave town.

3.) D Slater Koekkoek, Syracuse (AHL)
It's a bit of a milestone for Slater Koekkoek that the 2014-2015 campaign marked the first healthy season he's had since 2010-2011. Now, hopefully having moved past three fairly serious shoulder injuries, Koekkoek's making steady improvement in becoming the solid two-way defenseman the Lightning projected he would be when they took him in the first round in 2012. Koekkoek was started slow, but ended up playing significant minutes on Syracuse's top pairing and posted a very respectable 26 points and a +7 rating in 72 games as a rookie pro. He also looked really, really good in a 3-game cup of coffee with Tampa Bay at the end of the regular season showing off his mobility, decision-making, and a bit of a physical edge, too. We hope Koekkoek will make a serious challenge to make the Lightning's roster out of camp, and we strongly suspect he'll be a regular in Tampa Bay by the end of 2015-2016 even if he doesn't. If he can stay healthy and continue to develop at the steady clip he has, there's no reason to believe he won't grow into a very reliable, 20-plus minute a night, two-way defenseman capable of playing in all situations. A true coach's dream.

4.) RW/C Adam Erne, Quebec (QMJHL)
Beyond DeAngelo, the next major reinforcement Syracuse Crunch fans can likely look forward to next season in the arrival of power forward Adam Erne from Quebec of the QMJHL. Erne was a man among boys this season for the Remparts, putting up 41 goals and 86 points in 60 games to go along with 102 penalty minutes and a +21 rating. Put simply, Erne overpowered the "Q" this year, bowling over defenders on the way to the high traffic areas where he used his soft hands to rack up big numbers. It wasn't all roses for Erne, who was a surprise cut by Team USA for the U20 World Junior Championships, but given how that team fared at the tournament and how Erne dominated in juniors, we think it's more of a reflection on USA Hockey's selection team than on Erne. He's a beast who has played center in the past but may make his bread in the NHL as a north-south winger who will feast off feeds from playmakers like Drouin and Namestnikov.

5.) D Nikita Nesterov, Tampa Bay (NHL)
No prospect rose faster this season than offensive defenseman Nikita Nesterov. A year ago the undersized Nesterov looked lost positionally and overwhelmed physically at the AHL level at times. This year, under the tutelage of Head Coach Rob Zettler and his staff, Nesterov became an AHL All Star as a pace-pushing offensive difference maker. Even better, when injuries beset Tampa Bay, Nesterov helped answer the call by playing 32 regular games and eventually earning a role as the team's number seven defenseman and playing in 17 playoff games to boot. Nesterov's come a long way in improving his skating, which has helped him to exploit his superior offensive skill set. Most appreciated is his shoot-first mentality on the power play, which helped shake up a stagnant PP unit in Tampa Bay at times during the regular season. He's still undersized and can be overpowered by stronger forwards and he sometimes gets caught up in the play, but overall Nesterov's positives have greatly outweighed the negatives. At this point, he looks to have made Mark Barberio a redundancy in Tampa Bay and he appears to be a nice, future third pair offensive defenseman who can be a very steady offensive contributor for the club for some years to come.

6.) C Brayden Point, Moose Jaw (WHL)
Like DeAngelo, there was very little that was surprising about Brayden Point's gaudy junior numbers this year. The diminutive center put up 38 goals and 87 points in 60 games en route to being named a First Team Conference All Star in the WHL. Brayden Point scores a lot. Water is wet. What was great to see, however, was Point's +/- improve from an ugly -27 last year to a +6 this season, as the young man took his role as team captain to heart by playing a more well rounded game. Point also earned a spot on Canada's U20 World Junior Championship team, earning Gold as the team's extra forward in a Spackle-like role. Point got a taste of the AHL level on an ATO with Syracuse because of the Warriors missing the WHL postseason, but he will go back to Moose Jaw for one last junior campaign this year. We expect him to once again score a lot of points, but the more interesting thing to see will be if he, as captain, can finally will that Moose Jaw franchise into being a serious contender in the WHL after three years of missing the playoffs.

7.) LW Jonathan Marchessault, Syracuse (AHL)
One of the most shocking moments of the Lightning postseason was when Head Coach Jon Cooper chose to elevate Black Ace Jonathan Marchessault for big club duty in the team's second round series against the Montreal Canadiens. Marchessault ultimately appeared in playoff games for the Lightning as crowning jewels in a very strong campaign. He led Syracuse in scoring with 24 goals and 67 points in 68 games, made all the more impressive by the fact he often lacked a playmaking centerman with Paquette and Namestnikov recalled to Tampa Bay. The diminutive winger is quick and crafty with a lethal sniper's release. Now 24, he's right on the razor's edge of making the NHL, but the numbers game in Tampa Bay may be too much for the undersized Marchessault to overcome.

8.) C/LW Matthew Peca, Quinnipiac (ECAC)
It's very rare you call a hockey player transformational, but that's what forward Matt Peca was in his four year career with the Quinnipiac Bobcats in the ECAC. Peca became one of the central characters in the rise of an insurgent small-school program as one of the biggest players in the NCAA ranks. Peca put up 42 goals and 143 points in 157 games with Quinnipiac and was named a First Team ECAC All Star in this, his senior campaign. Peca blends speed to burn and slick pucks skills as an incredibly threatening player off the rush, but as a pro he'll have to dip back into his board work tricks that helped him excel with Pembroke before his college days. Peca performed well for the Syracuse Crunch in the AHL in a late season ATO and will be counted upon to raise the speed and skill quotient of the team's forward corps starting next year.

9.) LW Nikita Gusev, Khanty-Mansiysk (RUS)
We love us some Nikita Gusev. After bouncing around Russian hockey for a few years, Gusev finally found a home the past couple of season with Yugra in the KHL and the results have been spectacular. Now a regular contributor, Gusev put up 21 goals and 37 points in 55 games in Russia's top men's league, eventually being named a KHL All-Star. There, he started to sew his legend by becoming a YouTube sensation with a Skills Competition breakaway goal that's worthy of your time and search efforts. Gusev's tiny and sometimes really struggles on the defensive side of the puck, but he's an absolute magician when it's on his tape. Our hope is that after one more year in the KHL, presuming an IIHF transfer agreement is really at hand, we might see Gusev cross the pond in 2016-2017. If he does, remember, he actually outscored Nikita Kucherov in the MHL in Russian junior hockey. Yes. Really.

10.) G Kristers Gudlevskis, Syracuse (AHL)
Inconsistency, thy name in Latvian is Kristers Gudlevskis. Fresh off a somewhat storybook 2013-2014 campaign where he starred for Latvia at the Olympics and eventually saw playing time with the Lightning in their brief playoff run a year ago. This year, he entered and lost a competition for the starting job in Syracuse with Vasilevskiy based largely on his roller coaster-like inconsistency that became a feature of Syracuse games after Vasilevskiy eventually departed to replace Nabokov in Tampa Bay. Gudlevskis' athleticism is matched by very few, but his positioning and discipline is far too spotty, leading to far too many soft goals for our liking. He ended the year spot on the .900 save percentage line, a point below his rookie campaign. At best, his development plateaued. At worst, you could say he took a step backwards. Either way, he's not quite the option we had hoped he would be a year ago and he desperately needs to get back on track this coming campaign.

11.) G Adam Wilcox, Minnesota (BIG10)
As with Gudlevskis, we had a lot of high hopes for Adam Wilcox entering the 2014-2015 campaign, but his year ended up being a bit of a head scratcher. After two years of putting up gaudy statistical numbers with Minnesota, he took a bit of a nose dive in that department as his GAA ballooned by 0.45 goals per game and his save percentage dipped by a full 20 points. Whatever the reason, Wilcox made the decision to leave school after his NCAA season was complete and sign a contract with the Lightning organization. In limited action on an ATO with Syracuse in the AHL at the end of the season, Wilcox didn't exactly sparkle, either. So, here's the question with Wilcox: we like his battle level and he had two excellent years with Minnesota to start his college career. However, we don't believe he possesses the same athleticism that prospects like Vasilevskiy and Gudlevskis do, meaning his mechanics and mental approach have to be that much better if he's going to make it to the NHL.

12.) D Dominik Masin, Peterborough (OHL)
It was a tale of two seasons for import Dominik Masin in his first year of North American hockey. Masin struggled mightily the first half of the year to adjust to the smaller ice surface and different style of play. By mid-January, his +/- descended to a season worst -21 before Masin went +8 in the final 16 games of the year. That's a respectable turnaround for a defenseman who also put up 7 goals and 26 points in his rookie campaign. Masin was a defensive stalwart for Czech Republic's U20 World Junior Championships team as well, often drawing the assignment against his national team's toughest offensive opponents. We expect big things from the high second rounder in 2015-2016 in Peterborough. He's big, mobile, and at times downright nasty. Now that he's acclimated to North America, we expect to see the total package from a physical two-way defenseman who can dominate at times at both ends of the rink.

13.) LW Yanni Gourde, Syracuse (AHL)
Your Syracuse Crunch leader in goals this season was a somewhat unlikely hero in the form of Yanni Gourde. The diminutive forward put up 29 goals and 57 points in 76 games and was amongst the league leaders in goals for much of the year before fizzling down the stretch, like much of the Syracuse attack. Gourde has bounced around the ECHL and AHL for most of his pro career, but seems to have found a nice spot with Syracuse where the coaching staff recognized that with the right linemates providing him space to operate, Gourde is capable of being a big scorer in the AHL. We have yet to see how that might translate in the NHL, though, and a diagnostic cup of coffee with the Lightning will need to be in the offing next year before we can accurately gauge what his future will be. That's a tall order, though, with others like Marchessault already ahead of him in line.

14.) C Tanner Richard, Syracuse (AHL)
In his second pro campaign with Syracuse, Swiss-born centerman Tanner Richard started to turn the corner and show a glimpse of what he could be at the NHL level. After a maddeningly inconsistent rookie year marked by an ugly -9 rating, Richard nearly doubled his offensive production this season and improved his +/- to +12. Richard was a big point producer in junior who excelled as a playmaker, but he's finally settling into a new role as a pro. Now we project him as a grating, acerbic checking liner who is just as apt to agitate the living daylights out of his opposition as he is to help chip in the occasional scoring play. He's got a role model to emulate in the organization in Cedric Paquette, and if he follows that stylistic template, he could evolve into a fan favorite as a nice lower-line soldier in the NHL.

15.) D Johnathan MacLeod, Boston University (HEast)
Johnathan MacLeod had a rather impressive campaign, when put in perspective, as a freshman with Boston University. It's rare that 18-year-old freshmen make much of an impact in the NCAA, especially with big programs like BU boasts. MacLeod, though, appeared in 37 games and had a more than respectable +19 rating in his first season. That's impressive for the big, physical rearguard and portends good things to come. Selected as a second rounder this past summer, MacLeod's a project that the Lightning are hoping the BU program can refine into a real, two-way diamond in the ruff. Our take? Wait until MacLeod's junior year with the Terriers before you draw any initial conclusions about where he fits as a pro. Until then, he's an interesting physical specimen in an ideal developmental spot. Not bad.

16.) D Dylan Blujus, Syracuse (AHL)
Like Slater Koekkoek, we were pleased with the steady progress of former second rounder Dylan Blujus this year. Possessing good size and mobility, Blujus never really caught on as a point producer in the junior ranks with Brampton/North Bay in the OHL. So, coming into this year, we looked at Blujus as possibly being groomed as more of a stay-at-home type, minute eating defenseman. With those expectations in mind, we were pleasantly pleased with Blujus' 22 points and even rating as a rookie pro. He even saw a lot of time playing the point on the power play, but given how anemic the PP in Syracuse was this season, that might not be a resume stuffer to talk about. This coming season, we look forward to Blujus possibly earning more minutes with a view toward eventually developing into a third pair defenseman in the NHL.

17.) D Daniel Walcott, Blainville-Boisbriand (QMJHL)
In a very interesting move that followed the Eastern Conference Finals, the Lightning acquired the rights of former fifth rounder Daniel Walcott from the New York Rangers. A puck-moving two-way defenseman, Walcott is a bit of a late bloomer to hockey who has only played two seasons of junior hockey. With that in mind, the fact Walcott was named captain of the Armada is fairly telling about what intangibles he brings to the rink and his consistent production over the past two years speaks to his potential as a puck mover. With Nesterov presumably earmarked for the Lightning next year, Syracuse needed a lefty offensive defenseman to fill the void, and that's the role the 21-year-old Walcott appears destined to have.

18.) D Jake Dotchin, Syracuse (AHL)
For the first half of the season, the development of rookie pro Jake Dotchin charted fairly well or even better next to the steady improvement of Koekkoek and Blujus. A good-sized defenseman, Dotchin may not have the mobility of his fellow defensive rookies, but he plays with a more physical edge, as evidenced by his 114 penalty minutes. Unfortunately, an injury roughly halfway through the season seemed to throw off Dotchin's development curve, and his +/- nose-dived a bit down the stretch of the year with increased minutes. Like Blujus, we hope Dotchin can earn expanded minutes again and a bigger role with Syracuse next season on the road to possibly becoming a third pair defenseman someday in the NHL.

19.) RW Joel Vermin, Syracuse (AHL)
Joel Vermin had a solid rookie pro campaign for Syracuse after coming over from the Swiss NLA. With an honest north-south game and good speed to go along with some of the puck skills you'd expect from a Swiss-born player, Vermin made his greatest impact early in the year with the Crunch before tapering off a bit as the season progressed. Now 23, the window won't be open long for Vermin, though. To work himself into the discussion as a legit NHL prospect, he may need to almost double his production, and even that may not get him there given the glut of forwards in the Lightning organization. He’s entering the final year of his entry-level contract.

20.) LW Henri Ikonen, Syracuse (AHL)
It was a solid, unspectacular rookie campaign for Finnish 21-year-old Henri Ikonen, who came out of Kingston in the OHL. Playing in more of a checking role, Ikonen managed just 13 points in 59 games, but he did have a solid +8 rating that is indicative of a player who has always played an honest game in all three zones. His future in the NHL would also likely be as a lower line checking player who occasionally chips in offensively, but the next step to get there will be for Ikonen to earn more ice time and put up some expanded numbers with Syracuse next season.

21.) RW Cameron Darcy, Sherbrooke (QMJHL)
If there ever were such a thing as a journeyman in the junior ranks, it was Cam Darcy, who finished his time before pro with Sherbrooke in the QMJHL. Having bounced from US High School to the USNTDP to the NCAA to the USHL and eventually to the QMJHL, Darcy's tried to learn his craft at no less than six different spots over the last five seasons. An above-average offensive talent, Darcy put up 21 goals and 59 points in 56 games in the QMJHL this season, the bulk of which came after a contentious trade from Cape Breton. At the conclusion of the year, Darcy signed with the Lightning organization but did not appear in any games with Syracuse. Darcy has offensive talent, but we might be able to construe his inability to stay in one place very long partly as a function of his reticence to play the defensive side of the puck consistently to his coach's liking.

22.) RW Carter Ashton, Syracuse (AHL)
The first boomerang I can recall in Bolt Prospects history, the former first rounder who was once moved for defensive juggernaut Keith Aulie was reacquired from the Toronto organization to help bolster Syracuse's offense. Unfortunately, Ashton put up less than half a point a game in the AHL after his acquisition and did not play his way into a discussion for a late season cup of coffee like we might have hoped in an organization lacking in power forward prospects. Now 24, it's probably fair to officially label Ashton a bust after a PED scandal and failed stints with the Lightning and Maple Leafs. It's a shame because, physically, he should be an NHLer. His size and strength are excellent and his north-south style seems tailor made for the pros. You'd suspect, though, that within the next year or two he might be shoving off for offers from Europe given the trajectory of his career. In fact, rumors place him possibly joining the Swedish Elitserien this coming year.

23.) LW Philippe Paradis, Syracuse (AHL)
Creating space for the goal scoring exploits of Yanni Gourde for much of the year was massive power winger Philippe Paradis. A former first round pick of Carolina, Paradis started to show glimpses of the offensive potential that led to him becoming a high draft pick, but in the end he only managed 8 goals and 15 points in 34 games in an injury-abbreviated campaign. Paradis is also 24 but may not get the same overseas offers like Ashton is likely to receive. Given that, he might stick around the AHL a little longer where we'd like to see him leverage his physical gifts in a different role. Given his size and skating ability, we feel he could be an enforcer-type fourth liner at the next level.

24.) RW Brian Hart, Harvard (ECAC)
Three years into his NCAA career with Harvard, we just haven't seen a ton of development in power forward Brian Hart. Hart's numbers have stayed steady in the 15-18 point range in each of those campaigns and there is little we've seen that leads us to believe he's prime for an explosion. The biggest red flag with Hart is subpar foot speed, and although he is a big boy at 6'3" and well over 210 lbs., he loses the puck along the wall far too easily for our taste. Barring a shocking turnaround in his game as a senior, we'd be surprised if he's extended a contract offer after this coming year.

25.) D Ben Thomas, Calgary (WHL)
Once touted as a potential high draft pick, the play of fourth rounder Ben Thomas has plateaued over the past couple of years with Calgary in the WHL. Posting an identical 7 goals and 31 points in each of the last two seasons and nearly identical +11 and +14 ratings, you can't knock Thomas for inconsistency. The problem is we're just not seeing growth. He has a lot of tools that would lead us to believe Thomas could be a good puck moving defenseman, but he's never put up huge numbers at any level, even Bantam and Midget. Without plus offensive production to justify a contract, it's hard to see the Lightning signing a smallish defender who just doesn't seem to excel in any one aspect of his play. That's why it's going to be critical for Thomas to really step up his play this coming year if he's going to push himself into the discussion to get signed. Bear in mind, he's got fellow righties DeAngelo, Blujus, and Dotchin ahead of him on the future depth chart, so it's a really tough row to hoe.

*Chad Schnarr, Timothy Bennett, and Mike Gallimore contributed to this report