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Bolt Prospects' 2015-2016 Midterm Rankings

Introduction
Now past the All-Star Break of the 2015-2016 campaign, it's time for Bolt Prospects' Midterm Rankings. The year thus far might be summed up best by one word: adversity. Adversity has visited the big league club in the way of injuries, contractual uncertainties, and off-ice controversies. Nothing quite so soap operatic has besieged the Syracuse Crunch or the team's other young prospects, but adversity has found its way all the way down into the pipeline, as well.

Pre-season surgeries, disciplinary scratches, and yes, injuries too, have all played a part in shaping these Midterm Rankings. They've also tested one of the former strengths of the organization: it's depth. Make no mistake; the Lightning organization is far removed from the days of putting several NHL-caliber prospects into the league in a single season. This group is top-heavy and thin, which may be reflected in the Crunch's middling record throughout much of the season. As a consequence, the Lightning find themselves in desperate need of the development of one or two long shot diamonds in the rough, and a strong Entry Draft this June.

The rules for the rankings remain the same. Only prospects under the age of 24 on opening night of the season are eligible to be ranked. Skating position players with 41 games played in a single NHL season or 82 career NHL games played are considered graduated and not eligible for the rankings. Please note, for the sake of clarity, that only NHL regular season games are considered in the calculation, for anyone wondering why a certain Russian-born defenseman didn't graduate last season. Goaltenders who earn 30 decisions in a single NHL season or 41 career NHL decisions are also considered graduated and are not eligible for the rankings. Finally, NCAA-based players are exempt from the 24-year-old age rule for the duration of their college careers.

With the typical legal disclaimers out of the way, we begin...

1.) G Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay (NHL)
The first signal this season was going to be filled with adversity may have been the offseason discovery of a blood clot in Andrei Vasilevskiy's collar bone requiring surgery that knocked him out for the first couple of months of the campaign. The talented young Russian, who actually won a Stanley Cup Final game in relief last season, has struggled with consistency since his return, partly due to the difficulty of getting regular starts as Ben Bishop's backup. Vasilevskiy's stats are solid, and he's weathered the storm fairly well thanks to his outstanding mix of physical gifts and relentless work ethic, but his ascension to the number one starting role in the near term now seems a bit aggressive. We still believe he'll grow into his billing as "the Russian Carey Price," but that may require an extra year or two of apprenticeship behind Ben Bishop before he gets there.

2.) D Anthony DeAngelo, Syracuse (AHL)
"He's an NHL'er from the blueline in." Those words were spoken by former Lightning GM Rick Dudley about forward prospect Dmitry Afanasenkov a decade and a half ago to describe an offensively gifted player who was... challenged... at the defensive end of the rink. That same description was recently used in an internal staff discussion about defenseman Anthony DeAngelo. As a rookie pro, he's already average over half a point a game from the backline and has helped resurrect a Crunch power play that made grass growing seem dynamic just a season ago. However, he's also been a healthy scratch on occasion as Rob Zettler has had to exercise some tough love with his talented rearguard, who is still learning to mind his defensive responsibilities on a more consistent basis. The Lightning desperately need a righty power play quarterback, especially if Steven Stamkos stays in the organization long term, and DeAngelo definitely has the offensive chops to be a big point producer in the NHL. However, to consistently get big even strength minutes, his defensive play will have to improve. Therein lies the question about DeAngelo: Is he more an offensive specialist or will he become a well-rounded two-way defender who can be used freely in all situations? Time will tell.

3.) D Slater Koekkoek, Tampa Bay (NHL)
About this point in the rankings, we can imagine Slater Koekkoek chuckling, "You call that adversity?" Now clear of multiple shoulder surgeries, Koekkoek has settled nicely into his role as a top pair defenseman for the Crunch. This season hasn't been without its challenges for Koekkoek, though, who has seen his offensive productivity slip a bit as he's focused more on the defensive end of the rink. That's surprising for a player who, early in his junior career, was known to run a red light or two pressing the attack in the offensive third. Koekkoek's time in the NHL is coming. The Lightning will find it difficult to re-sign impending UFA Brayden Coburn due to cap constraints and Koekkoek seems like the likely heir apparent. Indeed, if the Lightning continue to press their way successfully into the playoffs, we'd expect Koekkoek to be up before the end of the year and possibly into the postseason to get additional seasoning to prepare him for that jump. He's looked dynamic in his cups of coffee with the Lightning, mixing outstanding skating and passing skills, a willingness to jump into the rush, and a penchant for taking the body. He'll be a top-four defender for Tampa Bay for many years to come, probably starting full-time in 2016-2017. He'll get his first chance for full-time duty in the next 3-5 weeks as a call-up for injured defenseman Jason Garrison.

4.) C Brayden Point, Moose Jaw (WHL)
After averaging 89 points a season his last two years of junior hockey, Brayden Point entered the year with the old, proverbial tough act to follow. Follow it he has, though, scoring points at a clip that projects out to over a 100 point campaign. Having earned his reputation as one of the most dynamic offensive players in the Canadian junior ranks, Point subsequently earned the role of captain on Canada's U20 World Junior Championships team. Unfortunately, he ended up being the captain of THAT Canadian U20 World Junior Championships team... the one that finished 6th at the tournament with its worst performance in 18 years. That's not a reflection on Point, though, who played fairly well at the tournament despite coming back early from a lengthy shoulder injury. He'll begin his professional career next season, likely with Syracuse, where he'll look to follow in the footsteps of Tyler Johnson as a diminutive centerman who doesn't let size be the determinant of how far he goes in his career.

5.) RW Adam Erne, Syracuse (AHL)
Bad breaks have also followed rough and tumble power forward Adam Erne around over the past couple of seasons. He entered this year recovering from wrist surgery and pretty quickly found himself back on the shelf after breaking a bone in his hand blocking a shot. So, he lost valuable training camp time and a month of time in the AHL, and he's been playing catch up ever since. Right now, the biggest challenge for Erne is learning to play a physical north-south style consistently after slipping into more of a perimeter-style game in the Quebec league last year. When he does play his power game, he's already shown himself to a be a beast on the puck – a mini Fredrik Modin who creates space for his teammates and havoc for the opposition down low in the offensive zone. Like Vasilevskiy, though, the adversity he's faced this season appears to have pushed his timetable back a year or two while he gains the developmental seasoning he needs to get all the way to his potential as a scoring line power winger. He’s starting to find his groove in the second half.

6.) D Nikita Nesterov, Tampa Bay (NHL)
After playing 17 playoff games for the Lightning last season, many on our staff were even surprised to learn Nesterov still hasn't graduated from prospect status here on Bolt Prospects. He entered the year as the team's number seven defenseman, but struggled with consistency early in the year while showing some of the bugs in his game that plagued his rookie year with Syracuse. Namely, Nesterov struggled with his decision-making and looked weak under the duress of forecheckers. As a consequence, Nesterov was sent down for a stint in Syracuse, which is a trick that appears to have ultimately worked. He still doesn't appear the steadiest defenseman in the league under forechecking pressure, but his poise and assertiveness in the offensive end are back to his levels from a season ago. Because of that, he's moved past Matt Carle on the team's depth chart and has routinely played about 15 minutes a night with the big club. The next step is for Nesterov's talents to translate to the kind of production we might expect from a third pair offensive specialist: 30-40 points a season as a solid contributor on the second power play unit.

7.) C/RW Jonathan Marchessault, Tampa Bay (NHL)
Adversity for some signals opportunity for others. Forward Jonathan Marchessault turned the rash of forward injuries in Tampa Bay and the club's offensive ineptitude into his ticket to a full-time gig in the NHL. In their absence, Marchessault established himself as a fairly consistent goal scorer, especially on the power play, in scoring line minutes. He's slight of build, but he has good speed and a great shot with a sharp, quick release that catches goaltenders off-guard. Unfortunately, with many of those forwards back from the ranks of injured reserve, Marchessault has seen his minutes curtailed. He'll have to find ways to contribute on the lower lines in the near term to stick in Tampa Bay. Either way, though, there's little doubt the pending unrestricted free agent will be an NHLer somewhere from hereon out in his career.

8.) C Mitchell Stephens, Saginaw (OHL)
Back to the theme of these rankings: adversity. Mitchell Stephens got a taste of it for a good portion of the first half of this year when he broke his foot with his junior club. That's too bad, because Stephens' production had elevated to nearly a point a game in the OHL this year. Fortunately, Stephens was still selected to represent Canada at the U20 World Junior Championships, where he mainly filled a lower line role as a physical role player and faceoff specialist. Unfortunately, well, read what was already written about 6th place and 18 years. In any event, now that he's back healthy Stephens can continue to develop with a view toward fulfilling the potential the Lightning see for him as a heart and soul two-way winger in the mold of Ryan Callahan.

9.) C Matthew Peca, Syracuse (AHL)
It's been a solid-but-unspectacular rookie pro season for Matthew Peca thus far with the Syracuse Crunch. After a strong NCAA career where he helped put the Quinnipiac program on the map, much was expected of Peca coming to Syracuse this year. He's hovered around half a point a game for much of the season, occasionally flashing the high-end skill that made him a deadly threat one-on-one and on the rush in college. However, we feel he hasn't adjusted to speed of the AHL game just yet and that his skating may currently lack the burst necessary to carry him to the next level as a smallish centerman. With that said, Tyler Johnson didn't become Tyler Johnson as we know him until the second half of his rookie campaign. He might show another gear to his game in the second half, but the opportunity to see it will be delayed as he is currently out for about another month with an injury. Adversity.

10.) LW Nikita Gusev, St. Petersburg (KHL)
The real wild card of the Lightning prospect pipeline is diminutive Russian winger Nikita Gusev of SKA St. Petersburg. The Lightning took a flyer on Gusev at the tail end of the 7th round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft after watching him terrorize the Russian junior ranks alongside former MHL teammate Nikita Kucherov. Now 23, after struggling at first to break into the KHL, Gusev is a two-time KHL All-Star, a two-time KHL 20-goal scorer, and a legitimate superstar in that league. He was traded at mid-season this year from Khanty-Mansiysk to deep-pocketed, big market SKA St. Petersburg where he's exploded to over a point a game surrounded by talented ex-NHLers like Ilya Kovalchuk. That's the good news. The bad news is that SKA backed up the Brinks truck to sign Gusev to a two-year extension, which means he likely won't be able to come to North America until 2018-2019 at the earliest. Gusev's quick and supremely skilled, with fantastic hands, and a real penchant for playmaking. He's become a fixture on SKA's top power play unit as a consequence. He's tiny, though, and his attention to detail on the defensive side of the rink has been questioned. Still, with the Lightning developing a small cadre of talented young Russian players, Gusev seems like he'd be an excellent addition to that group a two or three years from now.

11.) G Kristers Gudlevskis, Syracuse (AHL)
After struggling with consistency for much of his first two seasons in North America, Kristers Gudlevskis appears to have taken the next step in his development. The once-streaky goaltender has settled into the top spot with Syracuse and had been posting, by far and away, his best save percentage since joining the team. He even stood on his head in an emergency spot start with Tampa Bay earlier this year where he helped steal a point on the road against defending champ Chicago. Gudlevskis' athleticism is only rivaled by that of Vasilevskiy in the organization, with his only stumbling block being consistent positioning and focus. Now that he's started to get that, he's looking closer to reaching his potential as a future NHL starter. The question is whether he'll have to move to another franchise to get that chance with Bishop and Vasilevskiy currently above him on the Lightning's depth chart.

12.) LW Dennis Yan, Shawinigan (QMJHL)
Dennis Yan's numbers may not be Brayden Point-gaudy, but the journeyman 18-year-old Russian who has already moved around from the United States to Canada in his young hockey career is well over a point a game this season. Yan's reputation is as a pure sniper who is a supreme threat to score on the rush. His hockey sense is still evolving, but is further ahead than the biggest negatives in his game, which include a reticence to get dirty along the wall or play in the defensive third of the rink. Still, in a game where goals are the raw currency of winning and losing, it's hard not to like what a finisher like Yan brings to the table.

13.) D Dominik Masin, Peterborough (OHL)
Without much fanfare, stay-at-home defenseman Dominik Masin is progressing nicely with Peterborough in the OHL. His offensive numbers are improving, but remain anemic, and he may never be a big point producer, though he's seen a remarkable jump in his +/- this year, going from -13 to a +27 as of when these rankings were written. He's mobile, he's physical, and he's solid as a rock defensively. Perhaps the only other downside of note is that the Czech U20 captain does have a propensity to take a few big hits as good as he gives them. Still, there's a lot to like there as a minute-eating defenseman a coach can rely on not to be digging the puck out of the back of his net all the time.

14.) D Matthew Spencer, Peterborough (OHL)
The Lightning will surely be hoping Masin's teammate, Matthew Spencer, follows a similar development curve over the next year or two. Spencer's already shown good improvement in the defensive side of his game even though his offensive numbers have slid off a bit relative to his draft season. His plusses are very similar to Masin's: he's mobile, he's got decent size, and he's not afraid to mix it up physically. If his defensive game continues to tighten up, the Lightning will have two very responsible defensemen in the pipeline capable of becoming stay-at-home stalwarts in Tampa Bay.

15.) RW Joel Vermin, Syracuse (AHL)
Although he didn't stick in the NHL like Marchessault, forward Joel Vermin was another player who turned the adversity of the Lightning's forward issues into an opportunity to raise his stock greatly with the big club. Despite being slightly built, the Swiss-born forward has proven himself to be an honest, hard-working player at both ends of the ice who isn't afraid to go to the dirty areas of the rink. He's a good skater with above average skill, and although he won't be confused for a future NHL scoring liner, he won't embarrass himself, either. Vermin's success in his 6-game call-up with the Lightning was crucial for a 23-year-old player with a limited window to make a splash, but it came at a price. Vermin had to undergo hand surgery after getting injured early in the 6th game and he'll likely miss a total of about two months before he finally returns to Syracuse. When he does, he'll add much-needed depth to the Crunch as they attempt to put together a playoff run.

16.) G Adam Wilcox, Syracuse (AHL)
Adam Wilcox's rookie campaign to date has been better than his numbers would indicate. The ex-Minnesota Golden Gopher has stood on his head regularly this year behind a somewhat porous Crunch defense, making highlight caliber saves on a routine basis. The problem for Wilcox, as with Gudlevskis as a rookie pro, is developing the consistency necessary to raise his save percentage above the sub-.900 range it's currently in and win games on a regular basis. Wilcox isn't quite as big or athletic as Vasilevskiy or Gudlevskis, but he's got a similar competitiveness work ethic that, along with excellent puck focus, leads us to believe he could develop into an NHL backup with time and seasoning.

17.) C Tanner Richard, Syracuse (AHL)
Coming on hard in the month of January has been centerman Tanner Richard, who has been over a point a game in the first month of 2016. Richard, a Swiss-born forward, came out of junior with the reputation of a playmaker who occasionally showed the grit of an agitator. As a pro, Richard doesn't have quite the speed or finishing ability to fit in as a scoring liner, so he's had to modify his game to fill more of a checking liner's role. He's adapted well, and now looks the part of a prickly third or fourth line centerman who plays bigger than he is, has excelled on faceoffs, and still has the talent to chip in points from time to time. If his hot month of January translates into a hot second half, we expect he'll shoot up the ranks and earn his first NHL games before the end of the campaign.

18.) LW Yanni Gourde, Syracuse (AHL)
Smallish winger Yanni Gourde, who led Syracuse in goal scoring last year, fulfilled a lifelong dream earlier this year when he got his first NHL call-up opportunity and first NHL point when injuries beset the big club. The 2-game stint with Tampa Bay was the crown jewel of an otherwise frustrating campaign that has seen Gourde's offensive production with Syracuse sink considerably, especially in goal scoring. Perhaps that was to be expected, considering Gourde never managed double digits in goals as a pro prior to his 29 markers last season, but its still concerning. With Tampa Bay, Gourde's lack of size made him ineffective on the forecheck and he didn't have the burst a smaller player needs to really set himself apart at that level as an offensive threat. As a consequence, we're lukewarm at best on Gourde's future as other forwards, like Richard, move to pass him on the list of potential call-ups.

19.) D Dylan Blujus, Syracuse (AHL)
Slow and steady wins the race. After a quiet, unremarkable rookie campaign with Syracuse last season, Dylan Blujus has continued to progress nicely in his second year with the club. With good size and decent mobility, and the much-coveted righty shot, Blujus has become a solid option of Head Coach Rob Zettler as a regular blueliner who helps anchor the Crunch's second power play unit. He doesn't have the pedigree of DeAngelo or Koekkoek and will certainly never be confused for an offensive defenseman, but he understands what he's good at and plays well within the limits of his own game. In our opinion, he's begun to clearly distinguish himself in the pecking order of the team's depth chart as the class of the second tier of defensive prospects below those former first rounders, and a potential call-up option in a couple of years if the Lightning need a righty who plays a steady, quiet game.

20.) C Anthony Cirelli, Oshawa (OHL)
A year ago, centerman Anthony Cirelli was a walk-on turned third line centerman for the eventual Memorial Cup champions. This season, Cirelli's been asked to step up and take on a larger role on a team that has seen two of its top-three scorers from a season ago move on to other teams. Cirelli's responded well to the challenge, leading Oshawa in scoring and already surpassing his scoring totals from a season ago. Cirelli's smallish and doesn't have high-end burst, but like most of the Lightning prospects from his draft class he's got extremely high character and work ethic. As a result, Cirelli was just named captain for the Generals. Look for the late bloomer to likely play one more year of junior before the Lightning bring him in at the AHL level, at which point we will see if Cirelli tops out at more than a lower line character player.

21.) D Johnathan MacLeod, Boston University (HEast)
It's probably not a stretch to call Johnathan MacLeod's season to date with Boston University a bit of a sophomore slump. After playing regularly, and reasonably well, as a freshman, MacLeod's ice time and production have gone down this season with the Terriers. In fairness, his whole team is struggling a little bit to adapt to life without Jack Eichel, but we expected more from MacLeod. Step 1 is staying in the lineup. Fortunately, he's got a couple of years of college eligibility left to sort his game out before he has to progress to the pros. MacLeod was drafted as a project, with good size and athleticism, and we'll wait to see if he finds the toolbox to put those tools in before projecting him in the long term.

22.) RW Mathieu Joseph, Saint John (QMJHL)
One of the really unheralded success stories of this season for the Lightning's prospects has been the rapid ascent of winger Mathieu Joseph. The Saint John forward has already blown past his production from a season ago and has been one of the Sea Dogs' top two scorers for the bulk of the campaign. That's a positive sign for a player who was known as more of a plucky checking liner who could chip in offensively a year ago. Joseph's got a ton of athletic ability, a pretty good shot, and plays a fearless north-south, pro-style game. That makes him a versatile commodity a la Bolt Prospects alumni Alex Killorn who should be a coach's favorite once he goes up to the next level.

23.) RW Jonne Tammela, KalPa (FIN)
Injuries cost Jonne Tammela the first couple of months of his Liiga season with KalPa and probably also cost him a realistic shot at making the Finnish U20 World Junior Championships team. Tammela's season hasn't all been negative, though. After returning to KalPa, he helped key a mid-season run that saw KalPa get up into the all-important top-6 on the league's table. Coincidence? No. Tammela's speed, skill, and grit made him an important checking line fixture with the team, and once he left for Finnish junior team camp and missed a handful of games due to injury, the team sank out of the top-6 again. Since then Tammela has risen as high as the team's second line and seen a similar jump in his ice time and offensive production. As such, don't be surprised if he makes a big run down the stretch and into the Finnish playoffs. What happens after this year will be equally intriguing. Peterborough holds his Canadian junior rights and they could make a play to import the North American style winger, who would almost certainly become a scoring line player for the Petes if he doesn’t start in Syracuse. His skating ability and stickhandling combined with his outright nastiness on the forechecking make him an intriguing player we'd love to see hop the pond soon.

24.) D Ryan Zuhlsdorf, Sioux City (USHL)
It wasn't long ago we thought of Tanner Richard as the Lightning prospect who couldn't help but sneeze assists as a junior player. Now that distinction may belong to Sioux City defenseman Ryan Zuhlsdorf. The University of Minnesota commit doesn't have a goal yet this year, but he's already matched his point total from a season ago in less than half the games based solely on his penchant for earning helpers. That's indicative of Zuhlsdorf's strength as a smart, mobile, puck-moving defenseman who keys the rush with good breakout passes that help tilt the ice in his team's favor. Unfortunately, as a below-average sized defenseman, Zuhlsdorf can be vulnerable under forechecking pressure and he's missed most of the month of January with a concussion. The good news is, with up to four years in an NCAA strength and conditioning program forthcoming, he's got plenty of time to build his body to withstand the rigors of the pro game that will come after.

25.) D Jake Dotchin, Syracuse (AHL)
Once on par with his fellow rookie from a season ago, Dylan Blujus, blueliner Jake Dotchin has fallen off the pace this year a bit. A rugged player who never shies away from a hit or a fight, Dotchin has seen his ice time and production sink in his sophomore campaign. His physical style has also resulted in a handful of injuries that have kept him out of the rink from time to time in his first two seasons in the league. The organization needs players like Dotchin who supply the edge that it sorely lacks, but he has a ways to go in his positioning and his skating to make the eventual leap to the NHL.

*Pete Choquette, Chad Schnarr, Timothy Bennett, and Mike Gallimore contributed to this article.