2013-2014 Preliminary Rankings

Written by Pete Choquette

Today we are releasing Bolt Prospects’ 2013-2014 Preliminary Rankings. Our rankings of the top 30 prospects in the Tampa Bay Lightning organization again reflect the bounty of what we consider to be the golden age of Lightning prospects. That depth is finally breaking through at the NHL level in the form of the seven rookies that made the Lightning's 2013-2014 opening night roster – six of which are included in our rankings. More impressively, none of those six prospects made the top three of our list, meaning the best is still to come. That's why it's no stretch to suggest the Lightning have the best prospect depth in the NHL today.

Before we start with the rankings, let's make quick work of recalling the eligibility requirements for the rankings. First, only players under the age of 24 on the opening night of the Lightning's season are eligible for the rankings. As a consequence, Alex Killorn, Dmitry Korobov, and Riku Helenius are now considered overage prospects for the purposes of the Bolt Prospects website. Furthermore, skaters which appear in 41 or more NHL games in a single season or 82 or more career NHL games are considered graduated and are therefore no longer eligible for the rankings, which is why Brett Connolly is no longer eligible for the rankings based on the 68 games he played with Tampa Bay in 2011-2012. Goaltenders with 30 or more decisions in a single NHL season or 41 career NHL decisions will be considered graduated and will no longer be eligible for the rankings. And, last but not least, all NCAA-based prospects shall be eligible for the rankings for the duration of their college careers regardless of age. It's actually not that complex a set of rules when you think about it, given we can cover them in a single paragraph.

So let's begin...

1. LW/C Jonathan Drouin, Halifax (QMJHL)
Retaining the top spot in our rankings is supremely gifted offensive dynamo Jonathan Drouin of Halifax. Lightning fans should not allow Drouin's return to the junior ranks to dampen their enthusiasm for the young forward. In fact, it may have been what was best for the 18-year-old forward given some of the (possibly unrealistic) national media expectations floating around for Drouin to play on the Lightning's top line, lead all rookies in scoring, and win the Calder Trophy. Given another year in junior, Drouin can concentrate on increasing his upper body strength, sharpening his defensive zone game, and even cross-training a bit at center to gain versatility. Those continued improvements to his game added to his Patrick Kane-esque skill set should put him in an even better position to achieve all those individual goals and make the Lightning an even better team overall.

2. G Andrey Vasilevskiy, Ufa (RUS)
After splitting last season between the MHL and the backup spot in Ufa, Andrey Vasilevskiy is taking a step up in responsibility this season with his KHL club. Now the clear-cut starter for Ufa, Vasilevskiy responded by putting together solid numbers and winning seven of his first 10 starts this season. Lightning fans should be pleased their future goaltending star is in about as good a development situation as possible outside of getting regular starts in Syracuse. Playing against grown men, some of whom are ex-NHLers, is only going to help Vasilevskiy's transition when he finally does make the leap to North America to begin his quest to become the Lightning's Russian version of Carey Price.

3. RW Nikita Kucherov, Syracuse (AHL)
They say first impressions are incredibly important. What did Syracuse fans get for a first impression of Nikita Kucherov? A hat trick. Kucherov has streaked up our list after a strong training camp that he's followed up by taking the rookie lead in scoring in the AHL and placing himself within the top-10 in the league in scoring. Kucherov is one of the most prominent pieces in a Lightning prospect Russian invasion that promises to sweep into Tampa Bay within the next couple of years. For Kucherov, the only question is whether his game translates to that of a 25-30 goal-scoring second line winger, or if he has the stuff to become a 40+ goal-scoring top liner at the next level.

4. RW Richard Panik, Tampa Bay (NHL)
Rookie Richard Panik is the first of six prospects in our rankings who made the Lightning's opening night roster. Of the six, Panik's probably had the second-rockiest transition to the league, but we still feel he has the highest ceiling of any of the young prospects making the leap this year. To date, he's been a bit tentative, possibly overthinking his system responsibilities, which has made him appear a step slow on the forecheck. Despite that, he's still had quite a few choice scoring chances and it seems like once he gets one, the floodgates may well open. Lightning fans have only seen about half of what Panik can do thus far, and can look forward to a Marian Hossa-type skillset that includes ridiculous hands, bullish strength, and a practiced ability to crawl under his opponent's skin.

5. C Tyler Johnson, Tampa Bay (NHL)
On the other end of the spectrum from Panik is reigning AHL MVP Tyler Johnson, who shook off a couple of slow games and now appears to be hitting his stride in the NHL. The centerman has deployed a well-rounded game that has mixed strong faceoff skills and responsible defensive play with the speed and world class shot that allowed him to put up monster numbers in the minors. It remains to be seen just how well Johnson's offensive game really translates to the NHL, and that will make the difference in determining whether Johnson can hold onto a top-three line role in the team's future plans.

6. D Radko Gudas, Tampa Bay (NHL)
To this point, Radko Gudas has done just about everything you could ask of the defenseman to elevate his game. In his first taste of hockey's top level last season, the defender was plagued by poor decision-making in the form of ill-advised pinches and running after hits that often led to odd man rushes the other way. Gudas has become more calculated in both departments, and it's led to the Lightning entrusting Gudas with around 20 minutes of ice time on most nights. That's the recipe for Gudas to develop into a clear cut, top-four NHL defenseman.

7. LW Ondrej Palat, Tampa Bay (NHL)
Smooth. That's the adjective that best describes the game of winger Ondrej Palat. After a disjointed first few games this season, Palat has settled into his new role in the NHL providing poised, intelligent play in all three zones that could only be described as... smooth. In the defensive zone, Palat's already become a forward Head Coach Jon Cooper appears comfortable in using in close games thanks to Palat’s excellent, responsible positioning. In the other two zones, Palat looks calm under fire with the puck, possessing puck-handling skills that allow him to make the right play nine times out of 10 without appearing to break a sweat. Like Johnson, it remains to be seen whether Palat can put up numbers to justify sticking on the top three lines in the NHL. At a minimum, the Lightning have a utility player in Palat who can play in any situation on just about any line and contribute, and you need players like that to compete for titles.

8. C Vladislav Namestnikov, Syracuse (AHL)
The gray beard of the Lightning's Russian invasion is former London Knight Vladislav Namestnikov, who erupted with a strong playoffs last season and has formed instant chemistry with countryman Kucherov early in this fall. Namestnikov looks to be the Lightning's second line center of the future, and his game occasionally shows glimpses of living up to the Pavel Datsyuk comparisons that were made during his draft season. He's quick, can stickhandle in a phone booth, and has great vision as a playmaker. The one notable exception to the Datsyuk comparison, though, is that Namestnikov is also a pest who can have the opposition's entire bench chasing after him by the end of a game.

9. D Slater Koekkoek, Windsor (OHL)
GM Steve Yzerman's decision not to select a defenseman in the summer draft may well have been a tacit endorsement of Windsor's Slater Koekkoek. Now rehabbed from a second round of shoulder surgery, Koekkoek has played well early in the year for Windsor. Koekkoek has good size and supreme mobility to go along with a great offensive skill set. He's now starting to temper that with better judgment and positioning in the defensive zone, which will hopefully (along with good health) lead Koekkoek to meet his potential as a future No. 2 defenseman at the NHL level.

10. D Andrej Sustr, Tampa Bay (NHL)
The meteoric rise of former UNO defenseman Andrej Sustr continues unabated. The lanky Czech blueliner was arguably Syracuse's best defenseman in the playoffs last season, and he followed that performance up by rocketing past one defenseman who was an ex-AHL Defenseman of the Year and another that Lightning traded a former first round pick for to claim a regular spot in the NHL lineup. Sustr, who is the main reason the Lightning passed on defensemen at the top of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, shows calm, smart play and positioning that combine with a zeal for joining the play and making things happen offensively, particularly with his vision and pinpoint passing. True, rails resent being called as skinny as Sustr and there's one or two shifts every few games where Sustr's skating looks like a newborn baby deer trying to find it's equilibrium, but the upside is undeniable. As he gains strength and even more experience, the righty shot with a 10-foot reach should become a regular 20-minute-a-night contributor. Our only question is whether Sustr is a 25-point a year player, or if he truly has the upside to become a 30-40 point-a-year player from the backline. Time will tell.

11. RW Adam Erne, Quebec (QMJHL)
Like Kucherov, Adam Erne knows how to make a first impression. Playing in his first NHL preseason game, the young power forward managed to score two power play goals and a shootout goal... and a 3-game suspension for a head shot on a St. Louis Blues player that promptly ushered Erne back north to Quebec City. The stocky, strong forward has incredible burst and speed and surprising hands in close, which has to make Lightning fans drool at the possibilities when considering future linemates like Drouin or Namestnikov potentially setting up Erne. The 2013 second rounder says he patterns his game after Philadelphia forward Scott Hartnell, but scouts see a bit more of the slick offensive game of Patrick Marleau than the bruising, blunt-force play of Hartnell. Either way, Erne could make a perfect compliment for some of the other skill pieces the Lightning organization has already amassed.

12. RW J.T. Brown, Syracuse (AHL)
J.T. Brown's road to the NHL hasn't been as fast or as glamorous as we once thought, but the former University of Minnesota-Duluth star is becoming a more well-rounded player on his way to Tampa Bay. Plagued with injuries on and off through his rookie campaign last season, Brown settled into a checking role with veterans like Mike Angelidis in the AHL playoffs providing his linemates with some speed and pace while learning a grittier, more defensive-minded game. Brown's taken that approach into his new role as complimentary winger on a line with Russians Namestnikov and Kucherov, a role which requires him to apply his speed and grit in all three zones. How does that translate to the NHL? Brown may well become a winger who can contribute anywhere on lines three and four in the NHL, and might just become a fan favorite in the process.

13. D Mark Barberio, Tampa Bay (NHL)
The good news is that Mark Barberio made the Lightning and suited up for opening night! The bad news is that he looked so far out of his depth that he didn't touch NHL ice in the few weeks that followed opening night. Barberio is at a crossroads. His skating is average and he can get overpowered in the strength department by bigger forwards, but he does have solid hockey sense, particularly in the offensive third, and he can run a power play like a boss. However, none of that matters if he looks like a deer in headlights in his own end at even strength. There won't be many more chances for Mark Barberio to prove to the coaching staff they can trust him. He's got to step up and seize one of them very, very soon. The fact he is waiver eligible may be keeping him in Tampa Bay at the moment.

14. RW/C Matthew Peca, Quinnipiac (ECAC)
One of the real revelations of last year's NCAA Frozen Four was the play of dynamic winger Matthew Peca of Quinnipiac. In very short order, Peca served notice to a national audience that he is one of the most dangerous players in the college ranks off the rush. Speed? He's got it. Handles? He's got those, too. Peca very quickly made more than a few college defensemen look silly in helping to take the Bobcats all the way to the NCAA championship game against Yale. Heading into this year, Peca is one of the early frontrunners for the Hobey Baker Award. It may be tough for Peca to win it on a Quinnipiac club depleted by graduations, but the Lightning have to be ecstatic they have a late round draft pick playing well enough to put himself into that conversation.

15. C Tanner Richard, Syracuse (AHL)
It is somewhat of an irony that the Lightning signed centerman Valtteri Filppula, who is the player that Swiss prospect Tanner Richard is often compared to. Like Filppula, Richard combines slick hands with a well-rounded, defensively responsible two-way approach to the game. Unlike Filppula, Richard provides a little edge to the menu, as well. What should we expect from the rookie coming out of Guelph in the OHL? If his 51-assist campaign last year is any indicator, lots of assists. It's what he's known for, though he told us at Tampa Bay’s camp he plans on shooting more to round out his offensive game.

16. LW Brian Hart, Harvard (ECAC)
Past Erne, the Lightning have another second round power forward prospect in the form of Harvard forward Brian Hart. Hart's got a big frame and heavy, heavy shot that he rode to a very solid freshman campaign with the Crimson, finishing tied for third on the team in scoring. He needs to work on his first step acceleration, but there's enough to Hart's game for scouts to compare him to former NHLer Bill Guerin. Presuming that Hart, like Harvard alum Alex Killorn, chooses to stay in school and earn his degree, he'll have three more seasons to perfect his craft before turning pro.

17. D Nikita Nesterov, Syracuse (AHL)
At this point you're surely wondering if Steve Yzerman is secretly hoarding all of the "V's" in a high stakes game of hockey scrabble. Nowhere is the Lightning's Russian invasion more acutely obvious than on Syracuse's blueline, which features two rookie Russians and a second year AHL Belarusian. Nesterov has the highest hopes of the group after playing significant time with Chelyabinsk in the KHL last season and serving as a fixture on the top pairing of Russia's recent junior teams. He's not big. He's not super quick. But, nonetheless, the Lightning love Nesterov's competitiveness and the ability he has to work the power play. That makes him an ideal candidate to one day form a five man Russian unit with many of his fellow prospects in Tampa Bay.

18. G Adam Wilcox, Minnesota (BIG10)
Goaltender Adam Wilcox has started his sophomore campaign off with similar results to his freshman campaign, posting sterling statistics and an equally sterling win-loss record. Life is good when you're an athletic, competitive goaltender playing behind a well-coached, talented, Don Lucia-led team sprinkled with plenty of fellow NHL prospects. Expect another two or three seasons of Wilcox chasing titles in the NCAA with the Golden Gophers before he makes a splash with the Lightning in the pro ranks.

19. C Cedric Paquette, Syracuse (AHL)
It's hard not to root for Dump Truck. Paquette had 27 goals and 83 points in 63 games with Blainville-Boisbriand before joining the Syracuse Crunch late last season where he ripped past several prospects on the depth chart to appear in three playoff contests. Now settling into his fist full professional campaign, Crunch fans are getting to witness what the dump truck is all about. Paquette has decent size and strength and hands down low in the offensive zone, and he works his tail off. That's the good side of the dump truck moniker. The downside? He has all the acceleration and top end speed of a dump truck, too. Paquette will be put on the Pierre-Cedric Labrie Skating Improvement Plan (read: Barb Underhill) moving forward. If it works, he could well become a gritty third or fourth liner like Labrie in the NHL some day.

20. D Dylan Blujus, North Bay (OHL)
Another contributor to Steve Yzerman's defenseman-less draft gamble is Dylan Blujus of North Bay, who didn't get off to a rousing start after suffering a knee injury before training camp. Now back on the ice for the Battalion, the Lightning really need Blujus, like Koekkoek, to come through in order to bolster their defensive depth. Can Blujus do it? Absolutely. He has a good size and mobility and the all-coveted righty shot, earning comparisons to NHLer Kyle Quincey. That's been good enough for USA Hockey to invite Blujus to their junior developmental camp, but the Lightning need Blujus to turn it up another notch this season as he seeks a contract and a spot in the pros a year from now.

21. LW Henri Ikonen, Kingston (OHL)
Sixth round overager Henri Ikonen of Kingston is already making the Lightning look like geniuses. Ikonen's change of plans, which involved skipping a return to Finnish SM-liiga team KalPa to rejoin Kingston, has given him a stage to prove he's one of the better players in the OHL this year. Through nine games, Ikonen already had 21 points, helping lead a resurgent Frontenacs squad that looks ready to make noise this year. The hill is a steep one for Ikonen given the forward depth the Lightning have compiled, but his ability to play in all situations and in all three zones is a coach's dream, meaning one day we might expect a press conference where Jon Cooper exclaims, "I like Ike-onen."

22. D Luke Witkowski, Syracuse (AHL)
It took all of four games for Luke Witkowski to step up and show the leadership intangibles that helped him clinch a Lightning contract last season. The rookie blueliner, after seeing some early season defensive struggles on a team dotted with young defensemen, took it upon himself to shoulder some of the responsibility to step up given his four years of NCAA experience. That's the kind of person you want in your room. Nothing about Witkowski's game is particularly flashy, but he plays an honest stay-at-home game, stands up for his teammates, and he's accountable. In other words, he's the type of defenseman every team loves to take to war every night.

23. G Jaroslav Janus, Bratislava (RUS)
You have to feel for goaltender Jaroslav Janus. The Lightning were interested in bringing the Slovakian defenseman back from the KHL after a solid season with KHL Slovan Bratislava, but a valid contract with Slovan kept Janus anchored in place. Now that anchor may be dragging Janus' NHL hopes underwater. Bratislava failed to replace former NHLers like Miroslav Satan and Lubomir Visnovsky in their lineup, and that's contributed to a precipitous drop in the KHL standings that has taken Janus' statistics with it. It's particularly lamentable when you consider the early season struggles of Cedrick Desjardins in Syracuse, coupled with a Twitter kerfuffle, have left the door open for a goaltender to assume the number three spot in the Lightning organization. That won't be the athletically gifted Janus though, unfortunately.

24. G Kristers Gudlevskis, Syracuse (AHL) & Florida (ECHL)
The goaltender who might stand to benefit from any void in Syracuse might be recent Everblades goaltender Kristers Gudlevskis. The big, athletic Latvian netminder came to North America after limited action with Dinamo Riga in the KHL last year. In rookie camp with the Lightning, he struck many as Andrey Vasilevskiy Lite, which he's carried through thus far in the ECHL. It's no coincidence the Lightning are acclimating a former KHLer at the position to help provide leadership for when Vasilevskiy finally joins Gudlevskis in North America.

25. D Artem Sergeev, Syracuse (AHL)
A sleeper in the Lightning prospect pipeline may be former Val-d'Or blueliner Artem “Dino” Sergeev. The talented Russian has decent size and good mobility and spotted as a power play specialist with the Russian junior team last year while displaying his booming righty shot. In terms of measurables, he's actually better than Nesterov in terms of size, upper body strength, and skating. And, he's seemed to progress every year he's been in North America, which was more than enough to convince the Lightning to sign the undrafted free agent two summers ago.

26. W/C Jimmy Mullin, Miami-OH (NCHC)
After seeing his statistics suffer from a sophomore slump, Miami Redhawks junior Jimmy Mullin is off to a point-a-game start this year. That's not surprising given Mullin's skill level. He's a good skater with great hands and vision who definitely has upside as a pro-level scorer. We fully expect him to get back on track as an upperclassman and get himself into the conversation for a Lightning contract and a spot in Syracuse in the next year or two.

27. LW Nikita Gusev, Khanty-Mansiysk (RUS)
Nikita Gusev bounced from Khabarovsk back to CSKA and eventually to Yugra in the KHL, and still hasn't seemed to find a home in the league. The diminutive offensive star quickly fell to the fourth line after joining Khanty-Mansisysk and has played sparingly with the club, perhaps due to deficiencies in his defensive game. Make no mistake, the longtime teammate of Nikita Kucherov can fill it up offensively. But he's got to earn ice time for that to matter, and right now with Yugra that's not happening.

28. RW Joel Vermin, Bern (SUI)
There's good news and bad news in the world of overage draftee Joel Vermin. On the good side, the Lightning signed Vermin to a contract with a view toward bringing him to North America next season. On the bad side, he's followed up that announcement by posting a whopping one assist in the first dozen games of Bern's NLA season. Yikes. Like a lot of Swiss league players, Vermin has a good skillset and plays a fairly honest north-south game. He had 13 goals and 35 points in 47 games last season, all career highs, but given the clunker start he's off to you can't help but wonder if buyer's remorse is creeping in at Channelside.

29. LW Philippe Paradis, Syracuse (AHL)
When the Lightning acquired Paradis from Chicago in exchange for the rights to Kirill Gotovets late last season we were admittedly skeptical. The former Carolina first rounder had already passed through three organizations and a stint in the ECHL before making his way to Syracuse. Now, though, we may be changing our tune as Paradis is beginning to find a role with the Lightning organization. Paradis has good size, is willing to scrap, and has a surprising shot, making the former power forward prospect an ideal candidate to one day take over the enforcer-like role from Pierre-Cedric Labrie in Tampa Bay. The upside to that? He skates like a former first round pick, meaning his speed won't be a liability at the next level.

30. LW Danick Gauthier, Florida (ECHL)
The final spot in our rankings is claimed by power forward Danick Gauthier, who finds himself an unfortunate victim of the Lightning's unprecedented forward depth. The former Saint John Sea Dog had a pretty solid rookie campaign with Syracuse last year, putting up five goals and 10 points in 38 games in a lower line role. However, he found himself passed on the depth chart by the likes of drafted prospects Richard and Paquette, and subsequently moved down to the Everblades to start this season. Now Gauthier will work to help the Everblades win games while he bides his time and waits for another opportunity to stick in Syracuse and climb the ladder. Life in the minors.

Contributors: Pete Choquette, Timothy Bennett, Chad Schnarr, Michael Gallimore