2014-2015 Preliminary Rankings

By Pete Choquette

Introduction
Last season the Lightning had unprecedented success in establishing a rookie class at the NHL level, the likes of which may never be seen again. While that group continues on up top in Tampa Bay, the rest of the Lightning organization is left with the charge to reload rather than rebuild. With extra picks in the top-60 in the June draft this past summer, and more on the way next summer, the team has the ammunition to accomplish that goal. Plus, the results of this fall's camp showed the team may have had underrated strength in their remaining prospects with unexpected players making the club in the exhibition season. With all these factors put together, Bolt Prospects' staff has completed its fall tradition: the Preliminary Rankings for the 2014-2015 season.

Regular readers should know the rules, but we repeat them for those new to the rankings at every release. Players must be under the age of 24 on opening night of the Lightning's season to be eligible for the rankings. Skaters who have appeared in 41 NHL games in any single season or in a total of 82 or more career NHL games are considered graduated, and are not eligible for the list. Goaltenders with 30 decisions in any one NHL season or 41 or more career NHL decisions are also considered graduated, and are not eligible for the rankings. Last, NCAA-based players remain eligible for the rankings regardless of their age so long as they remain in school.

With the usual disclaimers out of the way, we begin...

1.) LW/C Jonathan Drouin, Tampa Bay (NHL)
It took a little longer than anticipated, but Jonathan Drouin has been worth the wait. After being sidelined for about a month with a broken thumb suffered in camp, Drouin has made his NHL debut and has not disappointed. With laser-quick hands and shiftiness to go with remarkable vision, it took less than two games for the top-ranked prospect in the system to make his way to the first line aside Steven Stamkos. We suspect he'll stay there. Drouin is a cornerstone talent with the ability to be top-10 in the league in scoring year-in and year-out for the next 15 or so years.

2.) G Andrei Vasilevskiy, Syracuse (AHL)
After engineering a deep playoff run with Ufa in last year's KHL playoffs, Andrei Vasilevskiy made the jump to North America this season where he began the year splitting starts in Syracuse of the AHL. Recognized by many to be the best goaltending prospect outside of the NHL, we expect Vasilevskiy to have a short period of acclimation before he establishes himself as one of the better netminders in the AHL. His mixture of size, athleticism, and positioning is rare, especially for a goaltender his age, prompting comparisons to Montreal's Carey Price.

3.) C Vladislav Namestnikov, Tampa Bay (NHL)
The surprise of camp was the rise of ex-first round centerman Vladislav Namestnikov, who not only made the team, but ran incumbent forward Richard Panik out of town in the process. Namestnikov spent the offseason putting on muscle, and the hard work has given him improved ability to battle along the wall and in high traffic areas. Namestnikov's speed, stickhandling skill, and playmaking ability allowed him to form a potent preseason duo with fellow Russian Nikita Kucherov en route to posting assist totals amongst the league leaders in the exhibition campaign. Now in the regular season, Namestnikov is playing 10-12 minutes a night and chipping in offensively, although his work in the defensive zone and the faceoff circles still requires polish. Once those elements of the game round out, the expectation is Namestnikov will be the team's future second line center for many seasons to come.

4.) D Slater Koekkoek, Syracuse (AHL)
Like Vasilevskiy, we expect big, mobile defenseman Slater Koekkoek to have a period of acclimation to the pro game with Syracuse of the AHL. But, make no mistake about it, the rearguard figures prominently in the future plans of the team. Now healthy after a third shoulder injury in as many years, the last of which cut short a breakout campaign with Windsor of the OHL, the hope is Koekkoek can live up to his full potential as a two-way, top-four difference-maker. Koekkoek has good size, elite mobility, and strong offensive instincts, which he started to balance with diligent defensive play in Windsor last year. It remains to be seen how much seasoning will be needed, given how much time Koekkoek lost to injury in his junior career, but eventually he'll be one of the anchors of the team's second pair in Tampa Bay.

5.) D Anthony DeAngelo, Sarnia (OHL)
The Lightning raised a few eyebrows, including some of our staff's, selecting talented lightning rod blueliner Anthony DeAngelo with their top pick in the June draft. So far, it's been a mixed bag. DeAngelo performed well in the team's rookie camp, prospect tournament, and training camp, displaying some of the offensive talent that attracted the Lightning in the first place. However, he promptly got himself suspended for 2 games after returning to Sarnia in the OHL, giving fodder for critics of DeAngelo's maturity and attitude. While we have concerns along those lines, to be certain, Bolt Prospects is more concerned about DeAngelo's defensive improvement relative to his ugly -34 rating in 51 games last year. Mind you, that's a pretty low bar to clear (you could roller skate over it), but if DeAngelo can continue to improve and show he can play a reliable game in his own third, he'll become a fixture on the Lightning power play and a big time point producer. The comparison to ex-Lightning defenseman Dan Boyle is apt, and we hope he reaches that potential.

6.) G Kristers Gudlevskis, Syracuse (AHL)
Ordinarily, when you have a talent like Vasilevskiy in your system, you make him the clear-cut starter with your AHL club. However, as good as Vasilevskiy is, the Lightning have a second future NHL-caliber goaltending prospect in Syracuse in the form of Latvian Kristers Gudlevskis. Although not as polished positionally, Gudlevskis has similar size and cat quick athleticism, which he showed off last year in Tampa Bay during the playoffs against Montreal. Gudlevskis will split starts 50/50 with Vasilevskiy in Syracuse and we expect the competition between the two will be fierce and make both significantly better. It's an embarrassment of riches to have two goaltending prospects this good, and the Lightning may well see both become starting NHL goaltenders someday very soon.

7.) RW Adam Erne, Quebec (QMJHL)
Unfortunately, a wrist injury hampered Adam Erne during training camp and the exhibition season, costing the Lightning opportunities to view the former 2nd round pick in game action. It's healed now, though, and the 4th year QMJHLer is dominating the junior ranks in his final campaign there. Coming off a respectable half a point a game pace as an ATO player with Syracuse late last year, Erne is just a shade under 2 points a game so far with the Remparts, looking like a man amongst boys in the process. Although he's not particularly tall, the stockily-built Erne is strong as an ox and has eye-popping speed and burst for a young man his size. The Lightning have a ton of very skilled stickhandlers and playmakers, but fewer north-south, power style players. Advantage: Erne, who we suspect will make a natural candidate to line up with players like Drouin and Namestnikov down the road, potting plenty of goals along the way.

8.) C Cedric Paquette, Tampa Bay (NHL)
Although Paquette barely lost out in his bid to make the Lightning out of camp, early season injuries have led to "Dump Truck's" prompt recall to the big club. The big centerman was over a point a game with Syracuse prior to rejoining Tampa Bay, and we're honestly not sure what else he can learn at the AHL level. He's strong on faceoffs, strong in the high traffic areas, strong along the wall, and strong in the character and work ethic departments, too. If he was equally as strong as a skater, we might be talking about him in similar glowing terms to Erne. As it is, we still look at Paquette as potentially being the perfect checking line warrior for a team that needs more size and grit if they expect to perform better in the NHL postseason.

9.) LW Jonathan Marchessault, Syracuse (AHL)
Another surprise of training camp was the play of winger Jonathan Marchessault, who made a serious run at making the Lightning with some scintillating exhibition play. Acquired in an anonymous minor league deal at the deadline, the Lightning had eyed the formerly undrafted Marchessault for some time as a player that fits their mold of a low risk, high reward forward with tons of speed and skill that was overlooked by other teams because of his size. Marchessault formed an nearly unstoppable line in preseason with Kucherov and Namestnikov and showed he can keep pace with the speed of the NHL. If he can get on the same weight training program Namestnikov was this past summer, we think he could be the next minor league success story for Tampa Bay along the lines of Cory Conacher and Tyler Johnson.

10.) D Dominik Masin, Peterborough (OHL)
A Bolt Prospects favorite, Dominik Masin is a defenseman after our staff's heart. Selected in the second round of the June draft, Masin made the decision to leave his Czech club and join Peterborough of the OHL. And, while his plus-minus is hardly stellar in his first month of North American junior hockey, we see a lot of signs we like. Masin has decent size and strength and good mobility, both of which he has used to routinely make crushing hits for the Petes early in this campaign. He's quickly made a name for himself as a player to be feared coming through the neutral zone, and he’s somewhat exceeded expectations by scoring at over half a point a game thus far. Masin probably tops out as a #4/#5 defenseman in the NHL, but he could be a cult hero in Tampa Bay. Think of him as a slightly bigger, more well-rounded Radko Gudas. Yes. Bask in that thought.

11.) C/W Matthew Peca, Quinnipiac (ECAC)
NCAA prospects aren't necessarily for organizations that lack patience. Case in point: senior Matthew Peca, who has tantalized the Lightning for three-plus years with his speed, skill, and work ethic for Quinnipiac in the ECAC. Peca's been at or near a point a game player his entire NCAA career, and this year has started no differently with the Bobcats. He's one of the best players in the college ranks and a contract seems like a foregone conclusion once he graduates. Once he has one, he seems to fit the Lightning mold of undersized speed/skill players like Conacher and Tyler Johnson to a tee.

12.) G Adam Wilcox, Minnesota (BIG10)
The Lightning's wicked goaltending depth is capped by standout Minnesota goaltender Adam Wilcox, but that depth comes with a twist. Wilcox continues to dominate behind a deep and talented Golden Gophers club, and while he may not have quite the size of Vasilevskiy or Gudlevskis, he does look like a solid NHL prospect with excellent positioning and work ethic. He never gives up on a play and he's darned near impossible to beat down low. Unfortunately, he also has the ability to read a depth chart, and with two very good goaltenders seemingly ahead of him in the Lightning's plans, he may opt to become a free agent by leaving Minnesota after this year, exploiting a loophole that would cause Tampa Bay to lose his rights. If he stays, though, our feel is that Wilcox has the look of a very good backup goaltender at the NHL level someday.

13.) C Brayden Point, Moose Jaw (WHL)
Some gentlemen prefer blondes. Others prefer brunettes. By this point, you should have realized the gentlemen in the Lightning's front office prefer small, quick, skilled forwards. A lot. Brayden Point is yet another example of the Lightning stealing a player later in the draft than his skill level suggests he should have gone because he fits in that particular mold. Although the defensive side of his game was nearly non-existent last year for the Warriors, there's no denying Point's speed and hands, which have drawn comparisons to current Lightning forward Valtteri Filppula. And, in a positive development, Point has gone from a -27 rating last year to firmly being on the plus side of the ledger this year, showing us he's starting to take the defensive side of the rink more seriously. That's good, because that part of his game is probably the biggest hurdle to meeting his potential, which could be as high as being a second line NHL center.

14.) LW Henri Ikonen, Syracuse (AHL)
Fresh off two solid campaigns with Kingston of the OHL, winger Henri Ikonen is in the midst of adjusting to the pro game with Syracuse of the AHL. Through 7 games, he has yet to post a point for the Crunch as he attempts to find his niche at the next level. Despite lacking size, Ikonen has pretty good speed and skill and shows willingness to stick his nose into the high traffic areas. If he can start to translate his game as a pro, we look at Ikonen as a future checking liner or complimentary winger who has enough talent to also chip in a point or two here and there.

15.) C Tanner Richard, Syracuse (AHL)
Richard spent much of last year going through the same transitional process Ikonen is currently experiencing. After having his way with junior hockey, posting assists by the bushel-full with Guelph of the OHL, the Swiss-born Richard found tougher sledding with Syracuse and the intensity level and routine demanded by the pro ranks. Richard's shown positive signs through rookie camps and the Lightning's prospect tournament, but it hasn't yet translated to the scoresheet as evidenced by his 1 goal in 7 games. If he continues to have good habits, it'll come, though. Richard was also compared to Valterri Filppula in his draft season, but we're not so sure the comparison is apt. Yes, he has good puckhandling and playmaking ability, but he also can play a sandpapery game too, when he wants to. He’s settling in as a nice checking line prospect with solid character and grit.

16.) LW Yanni Gourde, Syracuse (AHL)
One minor disappointment of the early Crunch season has been the play of undrafted free agent Yanni Gourde. Gourde came to Syracuse after having put up solid numbers in the ECHL and with Worcester of the AHL, but he has 1 helper through 7 games this year with the Crunch. You can cut and paste many of the same comments about players like Marchessault to Gourde's scouting report. He's smallish, but he's also quick and skilled. We just hope he's not suffering from fat cat-itis after finally getting an entry-level contract from an NHL team after wandering through the minor leagues for 2 years.

17.) D Dylan Blujus, Syracuse (AHL)
It's been a reasonably solid start to his rookie pro campaign for Dylan Blujus with Syracuse. The former 2nd round pick never quite lived up to his offensive potential with North Bay of the OHL, but there's still a lot to like about the American-born defenseman. Blujus has good size and excellent mobility, which gives him the look of a potential stay-at-home minute eater as a pro. When the Lightning originally took him, they probably hoped he'd be a two-way, second pair player, but we look on him now as more of a third pair guy who could spot in your top four, if need be, because he physically fits the part.

18.) D Johnathan MacLeod, Boston University (HEAST)
The Lightning went into the June draft looking to shore up their lack of depth along the blueline, and devoted all three of their top-60 picks to the position. The final of those 3 picks was unpolished, raw blueliner John MacLeod, who spent last season with the US National Talent Developmental Program in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Like many products of the Team USA system, what you get with MacLeod is a big, strong, well-conditioned athlete. He's got good size and he shows occasional flashes of physical brutality and offensive skill. He's a long, long way from being a finished product though. Fortunately, the Lightning have the luxury of time with NCAA-based players. MacLeod should spend the next 3-4 years at BU, and the Lightning will monitor how he progresses in what should be a very good developmental environment with one of the best programs in the U.S. college ranks.

19.) LW Brian Hart, Harvard (ECAC)
As the lone Ivy League representative on the list, Brian Hart is the only one in this group of prospects yet to play a regular season game this year. We're eager to see him get going, though, after a rookie camp where he started to show signs of growth following a pair of mediocre campaigns for the Crimson. A former 2nd rounder, Hart's got very good size, strength, and a booming shot. He drew comparisons to former NHL power forward Bill Guerin in his draft year, but he lacks the skating ability to really fit that description fully. Now an upperclassman, there's no more excuses: he needs to start playing a contributing role for Harvard if he's going to progress enough to lock up an NHL contract once he finally graduates.

20.) LW Joel Vermin, Syracuse (AHL)
After a yawn-worthy 2013-2014 campaign split between Bern of the Swiss NLA and an ATO with Syracuse, little was expected of ex-7th rounder Joel Vermin. He's been a pleasant surprise though in training camp and with the Crunch, showing the speed and persistent north-south game that prompted the Lightning to take a flyer on him. He's started out amongst the team leaders in points, and at 22 years old and after several seasons in the Swiss men's league, it makes some sense that the learning curve to adapt to North America has been somewhat less steep for Vermin. The talented winger could rise up these rankings quickly as the season progresses.

21.) C Brendan O'Donnell, North Dakota (WCHA)
One of the real revelations of the summer prospect camp was the play of ex-6th round pick Brendan O'Donnell, who is now in his senior season with North Dakota. With his superior experience and physical maturity, O'Donnell cut through his fellow prospects like a hot knife through butter, turning heads in the process. If he can continue that strong play with the former Fighting Sioux, and avoid the injury bug that has plagued him a bit in his NCAA career, he may very well get himself a contract after graduation.

22.) D Jake Dotchin, Syracuse (AHL)
With Luke Witkowski becoming an overage prospect and no longer eligible for these rankings, Jake Dotchin may be taking up his mantle as the later-in-the-rankings darling of Bolt Prospects. After being selected in the 6th round, the big project defenseman has steadily improved his skating and positioning, and earned a contract coming out of Barrie in the OHL. Now with Syracuse, he continues to show a propensity to play a fierce, rough and tumble game that's hard not to appreciate. Many of the same superlatives we've applied to Witkowski in the past fit with Dotchin: toughness, work ethic, and responsible play. As such, like Witkowski, Dotchin might be able to become a third pair, contributing defenseman in the NHL if he keeps developing.

23.) D Nikita Nesterov, Syracuse (AHL)
Oh, Nikita Nesterov. You leave us conflicted. On the one hand, Nesterov can run a power play very well, and he shows strong work ethic and a willingness to engage physically that defies the stereotypes of smaller, Russian players. However, we just can't overlook some of the other deficiencies in his game. He's struggled with his positioning and decision-making at times since coming to North America from Chelyabinsk in the KHL, and his lack of upper body strength seems to get exploited regularly by bigger forwards in the AHL. Could he project to be a Mark Barberio-type player at the next level? Yes. Are we sure he can get there? Ahhhhh, well, onto #24.

24.) RW Cameron Darcy, Cape Breton (QMJHL)
The Lightning took an interesting flyer in the 7th round of the June draft when they selected Cameron Darcy out of Cape Breton in the QMJHL. Although only 20 years old, Darcy's already a bit of a journeyman, having played for the USNTDP, Northeastern University, Muskegon of the USHL, and the Screaming Eagles. Darcy wanted a pro contract and had a decent camp with the Lightning, but Tampa Bay was close to the 50-contract limit and instead decided to return Darcy to the QMJHL for one more season. We expect him to tear it up there, though he’s off to a slow start. He is highly skilled and plays a good, honest, north-south game in the mold of Alex Killorn, although he doesn't quite have the same size.

25.) RW Cristiano DiGiacinto, Windsor (OHL)
The Lightning took another flyer in the 6th round of the June draft that may pay off when they selected pesky winger Cristiano DiGiacinto out of Windsor. DiGiacinto is the prototypical pesky checking liner, with particular talents in the art of instigation. His skating needs some work, but he makes up for it with hustle and he does have decent hands in tight. The comparison you often hear is to Chicago's Andrew Shaw, and the type of game he plays combined with his off-ice intangibles make him the type of player that can become a contributing member on elite, Cup-winning teams.

Contributors: Chad Schnarr, Timothy Bennett, Mike Gallimore