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Bolt Prospects' 2014-2015 Midterm Rankings

With the graduation of Cedric Paquette and Jonathan Drouin from prospect status here on Bolt Prospects, it's officially time for our annual mid-season ritual of releasing our Midterm Rankings. While the season to date has been marked by a few surprises, the overall shape and outline of the Lightning organization appears to be in line with our early season expectations. Fresh from a season that saw an unprecedented migration of high-quality talent from the AHL to the NHL level, the Lightning organization still enjoys a handful of highly regarded top-tier prospects. But, the amazing depth the Lightning enjoyed is still in the process of being rebuilt. And, with injuries playing a factor, that depth is being heavily taxed midway through the 2014-2015 campaign, particularly at the defenseman position.

The rules remain the same: Only prospects who were under the age of 24 on opening night of the Lightning season are eligible for inclusion in the rankings (our apologies, Luke Witkowski). A skater prospect is considered graduated if they play 41 games in a single NHL season or they collect 82 career NHL games. Goaltenders graduate with 30 decisions in a single NHL season or 41 career NHL decisions. Finally, NCAA-based prospects are eligible for inclusion on the list as long as they are in school, regardless of their age. With the rules out of the way, let's begin...

Note: All stats as of February 22, 2015 (Games played, goals-assists-points, plus/minus, penalty minutes; goalies listed with wins-losses-OT/SO losses, goals against average, save percentage, shutouts)

1.) G Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay (NHL)
With Tampa Bay: 10 GP, 4-3-1, 2.46 GAA, .912 sv%, 0 SO
With Syracuse: 24 GP, 14-5-5, 2.38 GAA, .919 sv%, 2 SO

Add "quick study" to the list of superlatives used to describe Andrei Vasilevskiy. The 20-year-old goaltender was considered by many to be the best goaltending prospect in hockey after leading KHL club Ufa on a deep playoff run last year. That glowing reputation took a hit early in his first AHL campaign, though, as Vasilevskiy struggled somewhat with the smaller rinks and increased net-front traffic of the North American game. The turning point seemed to be Vasilevskiy's performance in the Frozen Dome Classic in late November where he stopped 26 to lead Syracuse to a 2-1 victory over Utica in front of more than 30,000 in the Carrier Dome. From that point forward Vasilevskiy went 10-3-2 at the AHL level, eventually pushing the struggling Evgeny Nabokov out of his backup job in the process. Now ensconced with the Lightning, Tampa Bay fans are getting an eyeful of the talent that had many scouts calling Vasilevskiy the Russian Carey Price. He's the real deal: a future NHL starter if you've ever seen one.

2.) C Vladislav Namestnikov, Syracuse (AHL)
With Syracuse: 31 GP, 12-18-30, +7, 4 PIM
With Tampa Bay: 26 GP, 3-4-7, +3, 6 PIM

We believe Vladislav Namestnikov is an NHLer, but he has the unfortunate circumstance of playing in an organization that has about 14 forwards who can also make that claim. Namestnikov made the Lightning out of training camp after forming a dynamic duo with fellow Russian forward Nikita Kucherov. Kucherov eventually moved up to a line with Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson, though, leaving Namestnikov to labor in a fourth line role he's not ideally suited for. Namestnikov eventually gave way to the more gritty Cedric Paquette and was sent down to Syracuse of the AHL. He didn't pout, though. Namestnikov has flirted with a nearly point-a-game pace in the AHL en route to being named an AHL All-Star starter. Possessing of exceptional speed, puckhandling, and playmaking ability, Namestnikov stands out as the most skilled forward on a more meat and potatoes Crunch roster. In the end, we fully anticipate Namestnikov, now 22, to be up in the NHL next season where he will eventually fulfill his potential as a second line centerman.

3.) D Anthony DeAngelo, Sault Ste. Marie (OHL)
With Sault Ste. Marie: 18 GP, 6-25-31, +19, 39 PIM
With Sarnia: 29 GP, 10-28-38, +1, 64 PIM

It's been a solid season of growth for defenseman Anthony DeAngelo, now of Sault Ste. Marie in the OHL. Coming into the season, the 2014 first round pick was dogged with question marks about both his off-ice maturity and his on-ice defensive play, the latter of which was signified by a frightening -34 rating with Sarnia last year. The 19-year-old DeAngelo has, for the most part, kept his nose clean this season en route to making Team USA's U20 WJC team and building an impressive double-digit plus rating between the Sting and the Greyhounds. Oh, and by the way, his scoring on a per-game basis is up, too. DeAngelo is running away with the scoring title for OHL defensemen. In other words, things are looking up for a top-tier righty offensive d-man prospect who often draws comparisons to former Lightning great Dan Boyle. He'll start his pro career next season, and given he has what the Lightning desperately need right now, he might make it to the NHL sooner rather than later, especially if he’s able to add weight in the offseason.

4.) D Slater Koekkoek, Syracuse (AHL)
52 GP, 3-13-16, +9, 32 PIM

It's been a season of steady progress for 20-year-old Slater Koekkoek as he transitions from junior to professional hockey. Formerly dogged by multiple shoulder injuries that compromised each of his last three seasons in the OHL, Koekkoek's settled nicely into his role as a minute-eating top four defenseman with the Crunch. While he hasn't put up the numbers of an offensive juggernaut, Koekkoek has shown himself to be reliable and steady defensively against top AHL competition. The next step for Koekkoek will be to show his offensive talents, which we know he has from some prolific numbers put up in junior, can translate to pro. Given the time he lost to injury, it's not entirely surprising Koekkoek is looking more like a project who will take a little longer to reach his ultimate potential. He's big, rangy, and talented, though, and he has the potential to be at least a 20-minute a night, second pair, two-way defenseman at the NHL level.

5.) RW Adam Erne, Quebec (QMJHL)
52 GP, 37-38-75, +18, 89 PIM

Flying under the radar a bit is ex-2013 second rounder Adam Erne out of Quebec in the QMJHL. Erne slipped to the second round in his draft season due to questions about his maturity, but his talent as a budding power forward has always seemed bullet proof. Erne's in the midst of a career season with the Remparts, dominating the QMJHL level and leaving a trail of destruction in his wake. Some may have seen Erne's failure to make the Team USA U20 WJC roster as a black eye on his season. We might argue, though, that his omission was a mistake by a Team USA braintrust that got a little too enamored with putting together the most youthful team possible at the price of some much-needed experience that the 19-year-old could have provided. Watch Erne closely next season when he makes the leap to the pro game, because he's an excellent candidate to make the Lightning. His grit is something the Lightning needs, and his scoring ability should translate well to the NHL level. After all, Erne was considered by some scouting services to be a first round caliber talent in his draft year, even drawing comparisons to the likes of Patrick Marleau.

6.) D Nikita Nesterov, Tampa Bay (NHL)
With Tampa Bay: 16 GP, 1-2-3, +6, 12 PIM
With Syracuse: 32 GP, 3-11-14, +4, 26 PIM

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the season so far has been the rapid progression of 21-year-old second year pro Nikita Nesterov. He struggled somewhat in his rookie pro campaign with the Syracuse Crunch last year, particularly with the strength and speed of the league. A solid offseason of training later, Nesterov looks like a new man, particularly in the skating department. He was named to the AHL All-Star Game before a rash of injuries forced a call-up to Tampa Bay of the NHL. We suspect the NHL game checks did a lot to sooth Nesterov's disappointment for missing the game, and he's looked relatively solid in his first go around in the bigs. He's shown himself to be mobile with excellent hockey sense in the offensive third of the rink. In the past, we made the comparison to current Lightning defenseman Mark Barberio, but he's ascended the learning curve faster than Barberio did. For that reason, it's not impossible to foresee Nesterov becoming a very strong point producer from the backline at the game's top level.

7.) C Brayden Point, Moose Jaw (WHL)
48 GP, 27-38-65, +8, 40 PIM

In the grand tradition of Lightning centerman Tyler Johnson comes Moose Jaw mighty mite and captain, Brayden Point. At the ripe old age of 18, Point has already established a reputation as one of junior hockey's most entertaining forwards, blending great quickness and a greater set of hands. His size and commitment to the defensive side of the game were major question marks, though, which led to his relegation to the third round of the 2014 draft where the Lightning promptly snapped him up. Good thing, too. Somewhat along the same lines as DeAngelo, Point's gone from a fairly ugly minus-27 rating a year ago to the plus side of the ledger this season. And, just like DeAngelo, he's actually increased his scoring per game in the process, which allowed him to make Team Canada's U20 WJC roster where he played well as the team's spare forward. Time will tell if Point, one of the most respected forwards in the WHL, can make the leap to the pro game as successfully as former Lightning forwards like Johnson, but there's little doubt he'll be entertaining to watch as he tries.

8.) LW Jonathan Marchessault, Syracuse (AHL)
With Syracuse: 46 GP, 13-28-41, +6, 24 PIM
With Tampa Bay: 1 GP, 0-0-0, -1, 0 PIM

Although he was somewhat of an afterthought in a little-heralded trade deadline deal that shipped Dana Tyrell to the Springfield organization, Jonathan Marchessault has quickly proven himself as a legitimate prospect with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Now 24 years old, Marchessault was one of the last forwards cut out of training camp and he's been Syracuse's leading scorer throughout most of the year. Cut from the same cloth as former Crunch players like Tyler Johnson and Cory Conacher, Marchessault brings to the table good speed, above average hands, and plenty of want-to. Now he just needs opportunity. Marchessault did get one quick cup of coffee with the Lightning earlier this season, but he'll need a more extended look to stick at the NHL level, which is a tough ask in a deep Tampa Bay organization. If he does get that opportunity, though, all bets are off.

9.) G Kristers Gudlevskis, Syracuse (AHL)
17-8-2, 2.70 GAA, .902 sv%, 1 SO

The good news is Kristers Gudlevskis has won the starting job with the Syracuse Crunch. The bad news is he didn't exactly get it the way we expected. Heading into the campaign after a nice season that included a strong Olympics appearance for Latvia and a good-looking late season call-up after an injury to Ben Bishop, Gudlevskis looked like a worthy adversary in Syracuse for the wunderkind Vasilevskiy. It didn't work out that way, though. Gudlevskis, who has always struggled a bit from a consistency standpoint, has had trouble with his positioning leading to more than his fair share of soft goals. He fell behind Vasilevskiy and onto Syracuse's bench before Nabokov's struggles eventually led to Andrei's seemingly permanent recall. With opportunity having fallen squarely in his lap and a save percentage that matches his AHL numbers from a season ago, the 22-year-old netminder is now at a crossroads. Will he live up to his athletic potential and reassert himself as a future NHL starter? Or will he condemn himself to the pages of history along with a host of other athletic young netminders who failed to show the maturity in their game to harness their quickness? We shall see.

10.) G Adam Wilcox, Minnesota (BIG10)
17-9-3, 2.50 GAA, .907 sv%, 4 SO

One person eagerly awaiting the answer to the question of Gudlevskis' conundrum may well be Minnesota junior Adam Wilcox. Wilcox, also 22, dominated the NCAA ranks as an underclassman, posting a ridiculous .932 save percentage last year. His play and gaudy numbers were so convincing, the former 2011 sixth rounder appeared to have worked himself into a position to possibly turn UFA in August and make a tidy payday as a result. Unfortunately, Wilcox's numbers have slid backwards this year, with a GAA that has gone up about a half a goal and a save percentage that has dipped by over two tenths of a point. Has the rapid statistical shift affected Wilcox's potential payday, and/or if Gudlevskis fails to rise to the occasion in Syracuse down the stretch does that open the door for Wilcox to make a run at the top job in Syracuse next season? Again, we shall see. We don't believe Wilcox possesses quite the same raw athleticism and upside that Gudlevskis does, but his calmer game and positioning may well translate to more long term success as a pro.

11.) C Tanner Richard, Syracuse (AHL)
53 GP, 7-20-27, +17, 109 PIM

Second to Nesterov, Syracuse's most pleasant surprise of the season may be pesky two-way centerman Tanner Richard. The Swiss-born Richard came out of junior as an overage 3rd rounder in the 2012 draft with a reputation as a pest with a penchant for racking up assists. Richards' rookie season last year was a painful struggle, though, as he learned he needed to approach the game as a pro with a newfound level of consistency and effort. Richard found his game this year, though, turning his upside down plus-minus rating last season into a team best so far this year while checking in as one of the team's top five scorers and a constant source of sandpaper and jam, as well. For a Lightning team that needs more players who approach the game with edge, the 21-year-old Richard has to hold a lot of appeal. His ceiling is as a solid two-way third liner who annoys the life out of his opponents and can back up his chirping.

12.) C Matthew Peca, Quinnipiac (ECAC)
32 GP, 5-25-30, E, 23 PIM

The end is near for 21-year-old Matt Peca. Now in the second half of his senior campaign with the Bobcats, the former 2011 seventh rounder is putting the finishing touches on one of the most prolific careers in his college's history. Although his goal totals are well down, Peca's points-per-game production is among the strongest of his career. While on the smallish side, Peca's incredibly quick and has great hands that make him an explosive threat on the rush. Like Marchessault, whenever he does get an extended opportunity in the NHL all bets are off, because his motor and talent make him a threat to stick when his chance comes. He’ll be an offensive catalyst for Syracuse next season.

13.) D Dominik Masin, Peterborough (OHL)
47 GP, 7-18-25, -11, 70 PIM

It's been a tale of two seasons for 19-year-old 2014 second rounder Dominik Masin. Making the transition from the Czech junior ranks to the OHL, Masin struggled mightily at the defensive end of the rink and had somewhat anemic offensive production in the process. He had flashes of brilliance, mind you, particularly in the provisioning of more than a fair dose of vicious open ice hits on his opponents. Masin played reasonably well at the U20 WJC's for Czech Republic in a purely defensive role, but it hasn't been until the last month that he's truly hit his stride at both ends of the rink. Possessing decent size, good mobility, and a taste for brutality, Masin has drawn comparisons to both Islanders rearguard Travis Hamonic and current Lightning defenseman Radko Gudas as a mean-spirited, uber-competitive #4/5 defenseman.

14.) RW Yanni Gourde, Syracuse (AHL)
53 GP, 18-21-39, +16, 44 PIM

At this particular point of the rankings, you should be wondering where Steve Yzerman and Julien BriseBois hide their illegal cloning facility where they turn out stacks of 5'9", fast, skilled, competitive forwards. Feel free to add 23-year-old Yanni Gourde to the list. After being signed as a free agent in the second half of last season, Gourde has been a consistent contributor offensively for the Crunch as Syracuse's second leading scorer this season. Like Marchessault and Peca, it's a question of opportunity for Gourde. If he gets it, his playmaking ability and ever-improving ability to light the lamp are a welcome addition to any lineup.

15.) LW Nikita Gusev, Khanty-Mansiysk (RUS)
54 GP, 20-16-36, +1, 12 PIM

The ultra-stealth prospect on our list may well be KHLer Nikita Gusev from Khanty-Mansiysk. A product of the CSKA junior organization, the 2012 seventh rounder played alongside current Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov in the MHL and alongside Kucherov and fellow Bolt Prospect Nikita Nesterov on the Russian national junior team. Here's the interesting part, though: Gusev's junior numbers actually blew the doors off of Kucherov's. Read that again and process the implications. Gusev's size and lack of an elite top gear managed to nearly cripple his draft stock, but his hands may be as good as anyone in the Lightning organization today as evidenced by his KHL All-Star Skills Competition breakaway performance that became an instant YouTube sensation. Gusev's put it all together this year in the KHL, hitting 20 goals for the first time in his career, and he's beginning to start to look like the next great Lightning Russian steal. The 22-year-old Gusev's KHL contract reportedly runs through 2015-2016, and it remains to be seen if the Lightning can lure him to North America once it does expire. But, the success they've had with Kucherov, Nesterov, and Vasilevskiy has to be a reason for great optimism.

16.) RW Carter Ashton, Syracuse (AHL)
With Syracuse: 7 GP, 1-2-3, E, 8 PIM
With Marlies: 12 GP, 4-4-8, -2, 8 PIM
With Leafs: 7 GP, 0-0-0, -3, 0 PIM

Welcome back, Carter. The 23-year-old former 2009 Lightning first rounder returned from a three-year stint in the Toronto Maple Leafs organization after being dealt for defenseman Keith Aulie. After 54 NHL games and a PED suspension with the Leafs, Ashton's struggled to meet his potential as a complimentary, north-south power winger on a scoring line. He'll be counted on to give Syracuse scoring punch after the injury of veteran Matt Blunden, and that may be the extent of his utility to the Lightning organization in this latest stint. But, still, he has size and physicality that the Lightning simply don't have a lot of right now, and under the right circumstances his experience makes him a somewhat attractive call up option. Will that phone call ever happen, though? Only time will tell.

17.) D Dylan Blujus, Syracuse (AHL)
44 GP, 2-10-12, +1, 12 PIM

The second tier of current Lightning defenseman prospects begins with former 2012 second rounder Dylan Blujus, who performed well in an increased role when Syracuse’s defense was decimated with injuries and call-ups. With good size, decent mobility, and the ever-coveted righty shot, there was hope Blujus would have a higher offensive ceiling when he was selected nearly three years ago. Those hopes have faded, though, and given way to Blujus, now 21 years old, as a quiet, steady stay-at-homer who plays within his limitations and plays an efficient game. It's an interesting reversal of fortunes for a player who was lauded as a Kyle Quincey-type #5/6 defenseman whose greatest asset was his ability to run a power play as a junior. Then again, considering Quincey's only topped 30 points once in his NHL career, maybe that initial comparison wasn't far off after all.

18.) RW Joel Vermin, Syracuse (AHL)
50 GP, 9-12-21, E, 10 PIM

The second Swiss-born player in our rankings is 23-year-old right winger Joel Vermin, who is in many ways a prototypical Swiss winger. That is to say, Vermin is slightly undersized but plays an honest north-south game with above average speed and willingness to head to high traffic areas. The simple and effective nature of his style made him an early season standout for the Crunch, and the 2013 7th rounder has remained a periodic contributor for the Crunch. He's not setting the world on fire, though, after a down season with Bern in the NLA last year. As such, it's fair to wonder if Vermin has much more upside or if he's hit his ceiling as a prospect.

19.) D Jake Dotchin, Syracuse (AHL)
34 GP, 4-8-12, -3, 58 PIM

If you're looking for the more rugged version of Blujus, look no further than 2012 sixth rounder Jake Dotchin. The 20-year-old rookie has overcome knocks on his skating to earn a pro contract and has proven himself to be a legitimate AHL-level stay-at-home defenseman despite some injuries in his premiere campaign. You're not going to get any end-to-end rushes out of Jake Dotchin, but that's ok. What the example of Luke Witkowski should prove is that a steady defender who plays an efficient game and is willing to answer the bell physically can have his day at the game's top level.

20.) LW Henri Ikonen, Syracuse (AHL)
52 GP, 5-6-11, +6, 37 PIM

We remain patient with 2013 sixth rounder Henri Ikonen, who came to Syracuse out of Kingston in the OHL. The quick, undersized, hard-working winger has had a solid-but-unspectacular rookie campaign for the Crunch thus far, paying his dues on the team's lower lines as a defensively reliable winger. The hope is that after a rookie period of adjustment, similar to Tanner Richard, the 20-year-old Finnish born winger can come into his own as an AHL sophomore. He projects as a potential checking line winger with above average skill who can chip in the odd point at the NHL level.

21.) D Johnathan MacLeod, Boston University (ECAC)
29 GP, 2-6-8, +11, 48 PIM

The jury is still way out on 18-year-old 2014 2nd rounder Johnathan MacLeod, a freshman in the vaunted Boston University program. A product of the USNTDP, there's little doubt that MacLeod has the athletic potential to make it in pro hockey. He's big, he's strong, and he doesn't shy away from physical contact. The question? Is he a hockey player. Playing for BU, he'll get plenty of opportunity to hone his craft, after which the Lightning will get to see whether MacLeod's hockey sense ever fully catches up with his athletic talents. If it does, he may exceed some scouting services' initial prognostications as a #6/7 borderline NHLer.

22.) RW Philippe Paradis, Syracuse (AHL)
34 GP, 8-7-15, +10, 49 PIM

It's more than a little sad that rugged 23-year-old winger Philippe Paradis is suffering injury issues this season just as he was finally coming into his own as a professional player. Drafted in the first round by Carolina in 2009, Paradis ended up languishing in the Blackhawks organization before being acquired by the Lightning in a fairly anonymous trade for the rights to Kirill Gotovets. Athletically, there's a lot to like with Paradis' combination of size, muscle, and a bullet shot that can bring to mind visions of Andre Roy. Paradis has never fully embraced the enforcer's role, though, and it wasn't until this season that he found a consistent role on a scoring line with Syracuse opening up ice for linemates Tanner Richard and Yanni Gourde. We like “the wrecking ball” a lot, and we think he could possibly contribute as a 4th liner in the NHL someday. But will it be with the Lightning organization given his contract is up after this season?

23.) LW Brian Hart, Harvard (ECAC)
26 GP, 6-5-11, -1, 17 PIM

Things have not exactly gone swimmingly with the development of 2012 second rounder Brian Hart of Harvard. The junior power forward's team is enjoying a renaissance season overall, but he's remained mired with the same mediocre offensive production and uninspiring play. The pluses are that Hart has good size and a very heavy shot that is, unfortunately, seen with all the frequency of Sasquatch sightings. The downside is that Hart has very average skating and he lacks the puckhandling ability to be as strong a possession player as you'd like a forward his size to be on the forecheck. The hope was that Hart would evolve into a Bill Guerin-type power forward with age, but now that he's 21 that seems like a remote possibility. He'll need to kick his game up several notches as a senior next year just to earn a contract from the Lightning.

24.) RW Cameron Darcy, Sherbrooke (QMJHL)
With Sherbrooke: 27 GP, 16-21-37, -7, 37 PIM
With Cape Breton: 19 GP, 1-13-14, -6, 14 PIM

Then there's the peculiar case of 20-year-old North American junior journeyman Cameron Darcy. The American-born USNTDP product has moved around from the NCAA to the USHL to the QMJHL ranks before being selected by the Lightning in the 7th round of the 2014 draft. Darcy had hoped to earn a contract from the Lightning to start playing pro this year, but he was returned to the QMJHL where he was unremarkable in 19 games for Cape Breton before being traded to Sherbrooke. Darcy's numbers have exploded since joining the Phoenix as he looks to finish out his final junior campaign on a positive note. Darcy's a good athlete with above average skill who makes a nice option for the Lightning to fill out their roster for Syracuse next season. Just remember, though, Cam Darcy's a ramblin' man who never likes to stay in one place too long.

25.) LW Dalton Smith, Syracuse (AHL)
47 GP, 11-5-16, -11, 62 PIM

On the opposite end of the spectrum from Paradis is Dalton Smith, a 2010 Blue Jackets second rounder that's still somewhat struggling to find his way in the AHL. Acquired quietly in the deal that included Tyrell and Marchessault, Smith came to the Crunch with a well-deserved reputation as a middleweight tough guy who exhibited reasonable hands in his draft year as a junior. Given the Lightning's lack of size and toughness and that Smith is still just 22 years old, there seemed to be an opportunity for Dalton to grow into a good spot with the Lightning. It hasn't happened yet this season, though. Smith, who started the year hot offensively, has been criticized for inconsistency and his plus-minus rating has been easily amongst the worst in Syracuse all season long. He could be a Chris Neil-type agitator/middleweight at the next level, but time is running out for him to prove it.

*Pete Choquette, Chad Schnarr, Timothy Bennett, and Michael Gallimore contributed to this report