2015-2016 Final Prospect Rankings

The 2015-2016 season provided a mixed bag of results for the prospect pipeline of the Tampa Bay Lightning organization. A glass-half-full view would point out the organization weathered one of the most extreme stress tests to a club's depth imaginable. Entering the playoffs without its top goal scorer and second-best defenseman and eventually losing its No. 1 goaltender to injury for an extended period of time in the postseason, the Lightning still managed to advance to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals partly on the performance of some of its top young players.

A glass-half-empty view, however, would point to the disappointing performance of the team's AHL affiliate, which missed the postseason leading to the dismissal of Head Coach Rob Zettler and the hiring of new Head Coach Benoit Groulx entering the 2016-2017 campaign. That's not to say there weren't developmental successes to point to on the Syracuse Crunch roster. But, the smashing success the club had with their affiliate under Jon Cooper had given way to a far more modest, underwhelming new normal that was ultimately not acceptable to the brain trust of Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman and Crunch GM Julien BriseBois.

Put simply, a fair assessment might be that the team's more skilled prospects simply weren't progressing fast enough in Syracuse to press those ahead of them on the depth chart. It's also fair to point out on Bolt Prospects the team only graduated an anemic number of two prospects to the NHL this season: defenseman Nikita Nesterov and winger Jonathan Marchessault. That's down from three prospects a season ago and the staggering 11 prospects in the 2013-2014 campaign.

The 2016 offseason will represent yet another intense stress test of the organization's depth as key structural questions will be answered about the team's roster and cap situation due to the impending free agency of captain Steven Stamkos. Other top players like Ben Bishop, Nikita Kucherov, and Victor Hedman also have impending contract renewals in the next two years that will place pressure on the club to correctly identify its core pieces and lock them up with sustainable contracts allowing it to continue on as the elite franchise it has emerged as in the past few seasons.

However that shakes out, the team's pipeline will take on even more importance as it relies on its youth to fill the cracks. This puts an even brighter spotlight on the team's Entry Draft scouting and its developmental team in the AHL, starting with the June draft where the club will have three top-60 picks to add to the group we present to you in our 2015-2016 Final Rankings.

As is customary, the rules of the rankings are as follows: to be eligible for the rankings a player must be under the age of 24 on opening night of the Lightning's season. As such, a prospect like Luke Witkowski is considered an overage prospect for the purposes of the rankings. A skating position player with 41 games of NHL experience in a single season or 82 games of overall NHL experience is considered graduated from prospect status and is ineligible for the rankings. Hence, Jonathan Drouin is not in the rankings this season. Goaltenders who earn 30 decisions in a single NHL season or 41 overall NHL decisions are also considered graduated from prospect status and are ineligible for ranking as well. Finally, NCAA-based players are eligible for the rankings regardless of age for the full duration of their collegiate careers.

Terms and conditions aside, we begin the 2015-2016 Final Rankings with an obvious top choice...

1. G Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay (NHL)
Tampa Bay's goaltending situation remains the envy of most of the NHL due in no small part to the awesome potential of current backup netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy. Having won a Stanley Cup Final game as a rookie last season, the 21-year-old man-child saw his 2015-2016 season put on pause by offseason surgery to remove a blood clot from his collarbone region. Fortunately, Vasilevskiy showed few ill effects after missing roughly two months of the regular season and returned to action rotating between Tampa Bay and Syracuse as the team attempted to feed him a steady diet of starts to continue his developmental progress. By regular season's end, Vasilevskiy had posted a very respectable .910 save percentage in the NHL and a gaudy .935 mark in the AHL, but the biggest test was yet to come. In Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, after Bishop was forced to leave with an apparent high ankle sprain, Vasilevskiy was thrust into the spotlight, instantly becoming the team's starter and leading them to victory in relief in Game 1 and eventually all the way to Game 7. The team's ability to stretch the series to Game 7 was due in no small part to Vasilevskiy's heroics, as he gave them an opportunity in every game despite skaters being heavily out-possessed, out-shot, and out-chanced at nearly every turn. Vasilevskiy still needs to work on his rebound control and puck handling, but he's already shown he's an NHL-starting goaltender caliber player. That gives tremendous flexibility to the Lightning as they try to decide whether to allocate dollars toward re-signing Bishop long-term or toward other players like Hedman and Kucherov. Long term, the forecast still points toward Vasilevskiy living up to his lofty billing as a Russian version of Canadiens all-star goaltender Carey Price. He's done nothing to dissuade us, at this point, that he won't be that good someday.

2. D Slater Koekkoek, Syracuse (AHL)
Ex-first rounder Slater Koekkoek's season was in danger of being labeled a mild disappointment before a strong performance with the Lightning in the postseason greatly enhanced his stock. During the regular season, Koekkoek saw his offensive production sliced roughly in half as he continued in his role on the top pairing with the Crunch. And, while we expected him to start to run veterans like Matt Carle off the roster in the second half of the season, he was only given nine games of action with the Lightning in the season in spot call-ups where he played extremely sparing minutes. The postseason was far kinder, though. After veteran Anton Stralman went down with a broken leg and defensemen Nesterov and Carle struggled to handle the extra minutes, Koekkoek was quickly elevated from the team's Black Aces to a regular in the team's lineup. By the end of the playoffs, he had passed Nesterov and Carle on the depth chart with his superior athleticism and smarts. His offensive totals don't suggest it, but his skating ability and willingness to jump into the attack make him a Victor Hedman-lite type of defenseman the team should ink into its top-six next season. Long term, he's got all the tools to become a very productive two-way, top-four defenseman on the Lightning's blueline for many years to come.

3. D Anthony DeAngelo, Syracuse (AHL)
Ex-NFL coach Dennis Green might have the following to say about defenseman Anthony DeAngelo: "He is who we thought he was!" The American-born defenseman came into the organization with a reputation as a world-class offensive talent who desperately needed to find the defensive side of his game and occasionally struggled with a knock on his maturity. DeAngelo had 43 points in 69 games as a rookie pro to lead all Crunch defensemen in scoring. But, he also was a fairly ugly minus-18 and was a healthy scratch nine times throughout the campaign as rumors swirled that the coaches were struggling to get through to him. The organization is in desperate need of a righty power play quarterback and DeAngelo absolutely has the skill to be a big point producer in the NHL, but until he proves he can be at least a non-liability on the defensive side of the rink, he'll continue to find call-ups to Tampa Bay elusive. Next season represents an important opportunity for DeAngelo to get on the same page with his new head coach and show marked progress. If he does, we think he can eventually become an all-star in the NHL. If he doesn't, things start to get a little scary. Let's just hope he does.

4. C Brayden Point, Moose Jaw (WHL)
Brayden Point's junior career ended this season with the last of three straight seasons of at least 35 goals and 87 points capping a remarkable run at Moose Jaw that saw him post well over a point a game in parts of five seasons. He was also named Canada's captain for the U20 World Junior Championships this year where he also posted a point a game despite his team's disappointing sixth place finish in the tournament. Point's game is reminiscent of so many Lightning diamonds in the rough who have come before him like Cory Conacher and Tyler Johnson — he's an undersized centerman with great speed and elusiveness, good hands, and tenacity to spare. Expect him to be a huge asset to a Syracuse Crunch team in desperate need of more speed and skill at the center position. And, with the resume he's posted so far, many expect Point to eventually follow Tyler Johnson's path to become a scoring liner in the NHL.

5. LW Nikita Gusev, St. Petersburg (RUS)
Several years ago we lamented that then-Harvard forward Alex Killorn was like the shiny new present sitting under the Christmas tree every season that mocked us because we had to wait to unwrap it. Nikita Gusev's career is fast-tracking on that same feeling for us. The Lightning took a flyer on Gusev, a long-time teammate of Kucherov in the CSKA junior organization, as an overaged draft pick in the seventh round of the 2012 draft. Unable to secure KHL ice time with CSKA he bounced around a few stops before sticking with Khanty-Mansiysk where he emerged as a KHL All-Star performer 2 years ago with a 20-goal campaign at Russia's top level. This past season, Gusev proved that was no fluke by posting a second straight 20-goal campaign and earning another KHL All-Star berth in a season that saw his production go to another level after he was acquired at midseason by one of the league's premier franchises, SKA St. Petersburg. Gusev became a power play ace for St. Petersburg and eventually saw some time on the club's top scoring line down the stretch of the year and into the playoffs where he posted an impressive five goals and 14 points in 15 games of a deep postseason run. At just 5'9" tall, Gusev is tiny, but he’s quick, elusive, and has hands and vision that are absolutely NHL quality and have already made him a YouTube legend with some of his goals. Unfortunately for the Lightning, they'll have to wait at least another two seasons to lure Gusev over after Nikita signed a 2-year extension with St. Petersburg during the regular season campaign. He'll become an overage prospect here on Bolt Prospects next year, but he's still very much worth keeping an eye on as many signs point to Gusev blossoming with SKA into a point a game performer over the course of a full regular season campaign, which could translate into a productive scoring line NHLer down the road with the Lightning once they finally get the right to snatch him out from under the Christmas tree.

6. RW Adam Erne, Syracuse (AHL)
It was an uneven rookie pro campaign for ex-second rounder Adam Erne. He posted a respectable 14 goals and 29 points with 74 penalty minutes in 59 games, but the young power forward struggled to shake nagging injuries all season long and finished the campaign with a disappointing -18 rating. Although he was a second rounder in 2013, Adam Erne possesses first round talent with dominant strength and hands to pair with surprising burst and speed in open ice for such a solidly built player. Our issue with Erne the past couple of seasons has been consistency and his willingness to routinely go into the high traffic areas and cause havoc. When he does, Erne is a beast who is nearly impossible to knock off the puck down low and creates space and opportunities for his linemates. When he doesn't and he clings to the perimeter, he's a far less effective player. In fairness to Erne, though, he's the type of player who could use a playmaking centerman to feed him the puck when he goes to the net. Syracuse hasn't gotten consistent play in that respect since Vladislav Namestnikov donned the Crunchman logo, so perhaps the arrival of Point will help Erne moving forward into a critical sophomore pro campaign. At his ceiling, Erne could be a top two scoring line power winger with the perfect specs to feast on the playmaking abilities of the likes of Drouin and Namestnikov at the next level.

7. C/W Mitchell Stephens, Saginaw (OHL)
It was a very promising campaign for the Lightning's top pick in the 2015 NHL draft, Mitchell Stephens, despite a spate of injuries that cut his season with the Spirit down to just 39 outings. Despite playing 23 fewer games than a season ago, the hard-working center/winger posted just two fewer goals and 10 fewer points than his draft year campaign. That increased production per game on a bad team points to good things ahead that others may have missed in an underwhelming tournament for Canada at the U20 World Junior Championships, where he served as an extra forward for the club. The Lightning see Stephens in the same mold as Ryan Callahan (the good version): a hard working, tenacious forechecker capable of chipping in goals regularly and giving all of the intangible things that help organizations win, especially in the postseason. His ability to win faceoffs will be an asset to the organization when he eventually turns pro.

8. C Matthew Peca, Syracuse (AHL)
Along with the arrival of Point, Syracuse's other big hope at the center position for 2015-2016 should be the continued development of ex-Quinnipiac star Matt Peca. Peca, who like Erne came on toward the end of the year, posted a very solid 8 goals and 43 points in 65 games in his rookie pro campaign and was the only centerman on the roster with the mix of speed and skill that the team has desperately thirsted for since the likes of Namestnikov and Johnson moved on to Tampa Bay. If Peca, now 23 and an established penalty killer in the pros, can form a dynamic duo up the middle with Point next year, Syracuse's offense could improve dramatically. In the long run, Peca is yet another undersized forward prospect in the Lightning organization who punches above his weight class with a good mix of speed, skill, and moxie, attempting to follow the Tyler Johnson road map to the top level.

9. C Tanner Richard, Syracuse (AHL)
After three full campaigns with Syracuse in the AHL, we feel centerman Tanner Richard is getting fairly close to breaking into the NHL. Richard continued to steadily climb the development curve, having gone from 17 points as a rookie to 38 in his second year and 54 points in 71 games last season. Although not the biggest player, the Swiss-born forward has settled into a strong two-way role where he plays more physical than his size and relishes agitating the opposition a bit, too. Richard combines that style with solid-albeit-unspectacular skating and above average playmaking abilities that have made him a bit of an assist machine in both junior and the AHL. With Cedric Paquette struggling to get on track up top all last season and the Lightning’s need for faceoff winners like Richard, we wonder aloud how close Richard is on his heels. A late season rash of injuries led to Richard's call-up and he looked like he might make his NHL debut, but he has yet to find his way into the big club's lineup. Now that he's spurned the overtures of the Swiss league to re-sign with the Lightning organization for at least one more year, we expect he'll get that opportunity with Tampa Bay to prove he can be a valuable and versatile checking line centerman at some point next season.

10. G Kristers Gudlevskis, Syracuse (AHL)
Lost in the hoopla of Vasilevskiy's top flight potential is the fact the Lightning have a goaltending prospect in Latvian national Kristers Gudlevskis who would be the envy of many team's prospect systems. Gudlevskis served as Ben Bishop's backup early in the season while Vasilevskiy recovered from surgery to remove blood clots and shined in his only start against defending champion Chicago. He rode the shuttle back and forth from Syracuse a good portion of the season as the club tried to find starts for Vasilevskiy and in the interim served as the Crunch's number one goaltender while posting a career best .907 save percentage. Gudlevskis' athleticism is good enough to be an NHL starter, but he's incredibly streaky and just as capable of ripping off five straight wins as he is going five straight allowing a softie. Things change for Gudlevskis as he heads into his fourth pro campaign and he remains blocked, for the moment, by Bishop and Vasilevskiy up top. We feel he's got the quality to be a decent NHL backup option right now, but he'll almost certainly have one ear to the ground for opportunities in Europe if he doesn't get to the top level pretty soon. You can bet KHL’s Riga will be calling at some point.

11. D Dominik Masin, Peterborough (OHL)
Just missing the top-10 is rugged two-way defender Dominik Masin, who will move up to Syracuse next year after two productive seasons of development with Peterborough in the OHL. With the Petes, Masin showed steady progress since a shaky first half of his first year in North America. This past season he improved from 26 to 40 points – most of them coming in the second half – and from a minus-13 to a very nice plus-24 rating. Masin's got good size, decent mobility, and he does not shy away from taking the body, which may be his most endearing quality. Masin minds his gaps and has no qualm with closing out a puck carrier with ill intent. Playing such a chippy game, we'd like to see him show a little more awareness with the puck because he has been lit up a few times by forecheckers looking for payback, but the Lightning have a lot of high hopes for Masin nonetheless. Think of him as a taller, more mobile, and more under control version of former fan favorite and fellow Czech Radko Gudas.

12. RW Joel Vermin, Syracuse (AHL)
One of the pleasant surprises of early 2015-2016 was the emergence of Swiss-born winger Joel Vermin. The slightly built 24-year-old earned his NHL debut this season on the back of a style of play that's becoming the prototype for Swiss wingers. That is to say, Vermin plays an honest, hard-working two-way game with a north-south flavor that is uniquely suited to the way the North American pro game is played today. Unfortunately, before he could be returned to Syracuse, he suffered injury and missed significant time that cut his contribution with the Crunch to just 37 games. Vermin's big challenge next year, his first under overage prospect status at Bolt Prospects, will be that his spindly frame may make it difficult for him to bulk up significantly to resist the rigors of the game at the next level. If he can do that, though, and find the game he had before his injury, we suspect he'll be one of the first recalls from Syracuse next season. He'll have the opportunity to try to stick as a contributing checking line winger with some flair.

13. LW Dennis Yan, Shawinigan (QMJHL)
Maybe the most controversial name in the Bolt Prospects ranking room this year was that of Shawinigan winger Dennis Yan. Coming to the Quebec league by way of Russia, Oregon, and points in between, the chippy, sniping winger has many of the tools to become a scoring liner in the NHL as evidenced by his 65 goals over the past two years in the QMJHL. Our biggest bone of contention is whether Yan is willing to get dirty enough in the high traffic areas with effort to succeed as a pro or if he'll continue to cling to the perimeter as he sometimes does with the Cataractes. He was a well-above-average performer the first half of the year, then fell off the face of the earth the second half unlike anything we’ve seen recently. His game returned in the playoffs, however, at least early. Like any young player, Yan also needs to get stronger and learn the finer points of the defensive side of the game, but above that if he could show a little more bravery and will in the tight spaces he'd almost certainly raise his stock even more here.

14. G Adam Wilcox, Syracuse (AHL)
All in all, it was a tough but productive rookie campaign for 23-year-old netminder Adam Wilcox, who served as the No. 2 much of the year for the Crunch. Signing out of Minnesota in the Big Ten, Wilcox got a bit of a rude awakening playing behind a team that was seemingly far more porous defensively than many of the powerhouse Golden Gophers teams. As such, Wilcox posted a .891 save percentage that could obviously use improvement, but we liked the way he battled and there were quite a few games this season where Wilcox kept Syracuse in the game under extreme levels duress. He also ignited Syracuse’s big midseason win streak. We think Wilcox is a tier below Vasilevskiy and Gudlevskis in athleticism, but his work ethic, vision, and mental approach seem sound and we do believe he could develop into at least a quality NHL backup down the road.

15. D Matthew Spencer, Peterborough (OHL)
Somewhat in the same mold as his teammate Masin, Peterborough defenseman Matthew Spencer blends decent size and mobility with some zest for the physical side of the position. However, unlike Masin, there's probably less offensive upside in Spencer, who saw his point totals drop to 24 from the 30 he posted last year, though he was playing in a stay-at-home role next to Masin. Despite that fact, his defensive game showed improvement as his +/- improved from minus-15 to minus-4 and we generally think his development is moving in the positive direction. Next year will be hugely important for Spencer. With Masin and others moving on, there will be even more ice time and responsibility for Spencer to take on with the Petes. How he handles the added load will speak a lot to his NHL upside, which we currently peg at a ceiling of a third pairing stay-at-home defender with some physical edge. He has the chance to blossom next year, reflecting his lofty status as a No. 3 overall OHL draft pick. The Lightning obviously believe in him, as they signed him a year early to an entry-level contract.

16. D Dylan Blujus, Syracuse (AHL)
Lurking at the outer edges of consideration as a call up for Tampa Bay next season might be righty defenseman Dylan Blujus. Now heading into his third pro campaign, the former second round pick has progressed into a steady second pair role with the Crunch where he also has been a decent contributor from the point on the power play. Blujus has good size and reasonable mobility, although he's still a little stiff in his pivots, and he's a player who we think understands his limitations and plays very well within them. At the next level, we think he definitely will be a stay-at-home, third pair, right side contributor who’s capable of moving the puck. And, depending on whether or not Luke Witkowski re-signs with the Lightning, he could be the first recall on the right side in the event of injury.

17. RW Mathieu Joseph, St. John (QMJHL)
We love us some Mathieu Joseph, an athletic 2015 fourth rounder who screamed out of anonymity to post 33 goals and 73 points in 58 games with the Sea Dogs last season, besting the production of third rounder Dennis Yan. An incredibly honest two-way player with outstanding work ethic, Joseph again showed no fear to get dirty in the tight spaces and he showed surprisingly soft hands when the chances he helped build came his way. If he continues to develop, we're extremely excited about the possibility of Joseph growing into a third line tweener capable of giving you enough offense to spot on a scoring line as a complimentary winger from time-to-time. Joseph was perhaps the surprise of the year from a Lightning prospect perspective.

18. LW Yanni Gourde, Syracuse (AHL)
It was a milestone season for Yanni Gourde, who earned a mid-season call-up and 2 games with Tampa Bay that included his first NHL assist. Unfortunately, that high point was tempered by a dramatic falloff in his production with Syracuse from 29 to 14 goals and from 57 to 44 points. Gourde's got decent quickness and hands, but he did look overwhelmed by the size, physicality, and speed at the NHL level in his cup of coffee with the Lightning. And, with fresh blood coming onto the roster, the 24-year-old heads into overage prospect status with the difficult task of trying to stay relevant as a potential recall, if he returns to the organization at all next season.

19. C Anthony Cirelli, Oshawa (OHL)
2015-2016 was a season where Anthony Cirelli was asked to step up and take on more responsibility and a bigger role with Oshawa in the OHL, and by and large he met the challenge. Fresh off a Memorial Cup championship run, the Generals saw a glut of talent move on and Cirelli move up the depth chart. He responded by improving from 13 to 21 goals and from 36 to 59 points and earned Oshawa’s captain’s C and a contract with the Lightning in the process. Cirelli, a slightly built late bloomer, plays a good two-way game with good skating ability, decent skill, and the potential to be a faceoff specialist. His work ethic is his calling card though, like much of the Lightning's 2015 draft class, and the Lightning hope he can continue to develop toward becoming a reliable third line, two-way pivot down the road.

20. RW Jonne Tammela, KalPa (FIN)
2015-2016 was a mixed bag for pesky forward Jonne Tammela of KalPa. He missed a large portion of the early part of the Liiga season with injury, but upon his return made his mark as a high-energy checking liner and tone-setter in Finland's top league posting career highs with 5 goals and 13 points in 37 games. That's why, despite losing out on a spot with Finland's U20 World Junior Championships team, the Lightning enthusiastically signed Tammela to a contract once his club season was over. Spectators in Syracuse next year could get the opportunity to watch a fast, tenacious forechecker with a bit of a mean streak and above average hands for a checking liner, though there’s speculation he could end up with OHL Peterborough, who holds his import rights. We've nicknamed him The Cobra because he (allegedly) spat on an opponent a couple of seasons ago in Finland and we expect him to add that edge, passion, and a bit of nastiness into the lineup for the Crunch next year. Long term, the upside of the 2015 fourth rounder is as a checking line winger capable of chipping in offensively while he incites the opposing team and their fans to chase after him with pitchforks and torches in the classic agitator role.

21. D Daniel Walcott, Syracuse (AHL)
While he may be Canadian by birth, Daniel Walcott became the Swiss Army knife for the Syracuse Crunch last season. At times beset by injuries and recalls, the Crunch turned to Walcott to help fill in the cracks as both a defenseman and a winger and he availed himself as competent in both roles in his rookie pro campaign. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. Walcott, a former Rangers fifth rounder acquired by the Lightning late in postseason last year, came to the club with the reputation as a good athlete with strong leadership intangibles. Although smallish by the standards of a typical NHL defenseman, he has good mobility and above average skill. He'll look to settle into more of a regular role with the Crunch next season with the long-term goal of developing into a two-way, third pair contributor for the Lightning … unless he’s a forward. Stay tuned.

22. D Johnathan MacLeod, Boston University (HEAST)
One of the biggest disappointments of the season was the sophomore slide of 2014 second rounder Johnathan MacLeod. After playing regularly as a freshman with the Terriers last season, MacLeod seemed to lose the faith of the coaching staff last season and became a regular scratch falling from 37 to 26 games as a sophomore. That's not a good sign considering MacLeod was drafted as a project with the hope he'd develop steadily in the NCAA ranks. He's got good size and is a good athlete, but he's largely unpolished and desperately in need of ice time if he's going to continue to progress. If he does, he was pegged in his draft year as a potential third pair stay-at-home defenseman in the Ben Lovejoy mold.

23. D Ryan Zuhlsdorf, Dubuque (USHL)
Come to Ryan Zuhlsdorf for all your primary and secondary assist needs. The smallish Minnesota commit posted 0 goals and 28 helpers in 46 games this season split between Sioux City and Dubuque in the USHL. Zuhlsdorf plays a fairly simple game showing good mobility and exhibiting a good first pass out of the zone. That's not a bad foundation to build off of, but he definitely needs several seasons with the Golden Gophers to flesh out his game before he becomes a serious option for the Lightning organization. This past season he was an offensive defenseman with the Musketeers before being picked up Dubuque for their Clark Cup run and played a third-pair conservative role for them. Long term, they have to hope he grows into at least a sixth or seventh defenseman in the kind of role occupied by Nesterov and Mark Barberio with the club over the past few years. There’s potential to grow higher.

24. D Jake Dotchin, Syracuse (AHL)
At the start of the season, blueliner Jake Dotchin may well have been neck-and-neck with Blujus in the race to catch up to Witkowski as a righty call up option for the Lightning. By the end of the campaign, though, a clear separation developed with Dotchin falling a bit to the wayside. The more rugged of the two prospects, Dotchin saw his ice time fall as his defensive play and heavy-footed skating simply didn't show the improvement the organization had to be hoping for. Dotchin's a tough customer, as evidenced by the 234 combined penalty minutes he's racked up in his first two pro campaigns. That may point toward Dotchin's only realistic path to the NHL: as a tough guy. To do that, though, he still needs to tighten up his skating and keep simplifying his defensive game to have any realistic shot.

25. D Ben Thomas, Vancouver (WHL)
One of the bigger shocks of the late season for us was the ATO play and eventual signing of ex-2014 fourth rounder Ben Thomas. The undersized defenseman saw his offensive production in the WHL stagnate over the past three seasons while be put up an ugly minus-35 rating between Calgary and Vancouver this past year. Still, in desperate need for righty blueline help, the Lightning gave an ATO to the undersized defender and he played well with four points in 8 games to close the year with the Crunch. Thomas disappointed scouts with his mediocre production and underwhelming defensive play in his draft season, but there was a time when there was a lot of hope in NHL circles that Thomas could develop into a productive offensive blueliner. When he wasn’t getting ice time in Calgary he was moved to Vancouver, who gave him significant minutes. We're operating under the assumption that hope still lives in the Lightning front office where they are likely thinking that Thomas, like Zuhlsdorf, can grow into a sixth or seventh defenseman in the NHL as a righty version of Mark Barberio or Nikita Nesterov.

Missing the cut: Henri Ikonen, Brian Hart, Cameron Darcy, Kris Oldham, Bokondji Imama.

Note: Chad Schnarr and Timothy Bennett contributed to this report