Offseason Prospect Rankings

Now that the 2017 NHL Entry Draft and Lightning prospect development camp are in the past, it's time to update BoltProspects' prospect rankings. Usually we do the introductions to these rankings in a fairly formulaic fashion, with a quick overview of the general inertia of the prospect pipeline since our last rankings update followed by the usual legalese about our ranking eligibility rules. This time around, I'd like to take a step back, though, and address a couple of things that have come up in the last month or so. You can call this clearing the air, venting, keeping it real, whatever you like...

Issue number one is the trade of Jonathan Drouin, a former prospect whose athletic gifts we obviously had a lot of respect for on the website. Because of that respect of Drouin, the talent, we were really swept up in a maelstrom of bomb throwing and hyperbole by different factions in the fan base that just didn't represent the more mature, nuanced position we have on the trade. To put it bluntly, there were so many people on my Twitter mentions acting the fool that day, you'd have thought I died and moved to a market like Toronto or Montreal where BS and hype erupt into the hockey world en masse through some rip in common sense and the time space continuum, alike.

Our official editorial position? Listen up folks... you can be concerned about the potential pitfalls trading a talent like Jonathan Drouin inside the division without resorting to labeling Mikhail Sergachev some kind of B rate prospect, which he's not. He's a really, really good young player. And, vice versa, you can respect he Lightning's decision to move Drouin to free up some financial flexibility while picking up an excellent asset without resorting to calling Drouin a selfish, defensively challenged bust. That's not anything new in the life of an NHL fan base. There's always a segment that will bash and demonize a player the moment they get moved out of town as a way to justify and feel better about the move that was made, and sometimes a segment that will bash the guy coming in because their favorite player just got moved. But, c'mon folks, be mature about this. Please.

Are we scared about the potential Drouin could go on to flirt with winning a scoring title or two in division with Montreal? Yep. Only a blind partisan would deny the skill the young man has. Are we scared he's the kind of spiteful, ultra-competitive guy (and we mean that in the nicest way) who will probably do his very best to try to stick it to the Lightning every time he plays Tampa Bay while playing for a team that not only sees the Lightning four times a year but routinely meets up with them in the second round of the playoffs, too? Oh yeah. And, are we concerned that because Sergachev is a younger player and at a position that typically has a longer developmental track than forward that this trade could look extremely lopsided for a few years before it gets better? Yep. Here's the thing: Steve Yzerman may have done the absolute right thing in trading for Sergachev because, all things being equal, defenseman is a harder position to fill, and he may still have egg on his face a little while because Sergachev, like all d-men, may need those 300 or so pro games to really start to settle in and hit his stride in the league. Remember, it took Victor Hedman a long while to reach peak Victor Hedman – and we don’t think, at this time, that Sergachev is a truly elite defensive prospect like Hedman was (and Red Line Report viewed Hedman as a better prospect than Stamkos). 

These are all valid concerns for the website to raise, in we hope a somewhat respectful way. So quit blowing up my damned Twitter about how you hate Sergachev or you think Drouin is a bum. Don't make me waste time I don't wish to expend to figure out how to use the block button.

At the draft, we think we may have stepped on some toes with our pre-draft story where we had an idea Cal Foote would be the guy based on a needs-based drafting strategy to fill what appears to us to be a thinness in the righty d-men in the pipeline. Al Murray appeared to be... salty?... at the suggestion that Foote was selected for any other reason than that he was the best player available. We take him at his word that it was a coincidence, and respectfully ask for dibs when he eBays his draft lists when he retires as he suggested he might do in his post draft interview on the floor in Chicago. We're nerds for this kind of stuff. You're reading a story written by a guy who used to try to scour the web for Kazakhmys Karaganda box scores so he could track the exploits of former 9th round pick Vitaly Smolyaninov as he bussed it around the glamour and splendor that is the Kazakhstan elite league. And here's the thing: if serendipity delivers you the best player available at a position of greatest need in your organization's pipeline, isn't that a pretty fantastic alignment of the stars? We thought it was.

Likewise, I think we stirred up things further for pointing out the paucity of available independent scouting material on second round pick Alex Volkov. The second rounder, for those who missed it, is an overage forward prospect who was passed over in previous draft years and had limited experience this past season split between the Russian junior league (MHL) and their second division men's league (VHL) due to a broken foot. Because of that, it's pretty clear the heaviest weight in the Lightning's evaluation of Volkov was placed on a very short six game span in the annual CHL Super Series event where he joined the Russian U20 B team that tours around and plays QMJHL, OHL, and WHL all-star teams. And, yes, all reports we read about his performance in that series indicates he played a fantastic 200-foot game where he was dynamic in all three zones. He may very well be an absolute gem, but we would be irresponsible not to add the caveat that it's sometimes dangerous to put too much stock in a small sample set of prospect games in a one-off tournament or tour setting. See: Helenius, Riku at the U18 World Junior Championships in his draft season. Again, not predicting doom. Murray may be right and Volkov could very well be another Ondrej Palat type of player. But, we'd be irresponsible not to tell all sides of the story and make sure our readers are aware of the reasonable caveats in play here.

Which brings us to one final bit of food-for-thought from Al Murray, for whom we really do have the utmost respect and nothing but love for. In a Lunch With the Lightning video posted during Lightning rookie camp he mentioned what he felt was the general undervaluing of the Lightning blueline prospects on the internet, specifically saying our website by name. Our feelings are hurt, but in fairness, it's not like Al Murray pulled up our website on a MacBook Air and lit it on fire in protest whilst screaming at the top of his lungs to Caley Chelios and Rick Peckham, "Burn baby, burn!" With that said, I do feel the need to clarify/defend where we stand on some of the prospects he mentioned. 

First off, we're big enough to admit when a prospect really breaks through and exceeds our expectations. In this case, the person we specifically have in mind is Jake Dotchin, who shined the final 35 or so games of the Lightning regular season after being called up because of injuries on the big club. Did we undervalue Dotchin? Demonstrably, yes. Frankly, we didn't know he had that in him, given he'd never played at that high a level in the AHL or OHL. And for that reason, although we clearly admit fault in this case, we temper that by citing the magically unpredictable quality of sport. Every once in a while, out of the blue, things can just click for an athlete and they become more than they appeared they could be at any time prior to that. They get an unexpected opportunity at the bigs, they get paired up with an all-star, their confidence gets flowing, and they're suddenly playing at the best level they ever played in their lives. That's what happened to Dotchin, in our estimation, and that's what's fun about writing about professional sports, in general, and late round prospects like Dotchin or Palat or anyone else in particular. Every so often they defy the odds and exceed those expectations. That happens, even to wise and seasoned pros at this like Al Murray, hence why he presided over a draft where Dylan Blujus, who just exited the organization at the conclusion of his entry level contract, went in the second round, 121 picks before he selected Dotchin in the sixth round. That's not a recrimination, it's a reminder of what a fantastically inexact science all this can be.

And then there's the matter of Libor Hajek and Dominik Masin, who Murray also cited as players he feels we undervalue. Where did he get that impression from? In my pre-draft story I cited these two players as being "depth" players in the pipeline, which I think was misconstrued to mean I thought they were only going to be organizational depth players as pros. All I can ask is a fair re-reading of what was written, which is this: The Lightning have a handful of defensive prospects who we consider to be locks to be future NHL'ers. Those are guys like Sergachev (who remember, folks who are saucy because you bought a Drouin jersey, don't take it out on young Mikhail), Koekkoek, Dotchin, and now Foote. Behind those guys you have "depth" like Masin, Hajek, Thomas, and Cernak, which is to say these are guys we would want to see more development from before we start to pencil these guys into the future lineup with confidence. And, frankly, that's not an unreasonable editorial position to take, because these players inarguably need to develop further before they're ready for the NHL, and it's not a lock that development will absolutely take place. Again, ask Dylan Blujus. There's just a certain amount of natural attrition with prospects, particularly at that position, and it's not unreasonable to cop to that reality from the jump. 

Alternatively, or perhaps additively, we understand guys like Masin and Cernak, numerically, are pretty low on the rankings list. And, if all you looked at was the number beside a player's name, sure, you might come to the conclusion that player was somehow undervalued by the website. And you'd probably be right if this was an average organization. If this was YotesProspects or DucksProspects or God forbid FloridaPussyCatsProspects, that'd be a logical conclusion because those organizations don't have the depth the Lightning do. The Lightning are, last I thought about it, at least eight deep in really good NHL-quality forward prospects, along with the top tier defensive prospects ahead of players like Masin and Hajek. If you don't believe that, I ask you to refer to your Team Canada roster from your program from the U20 World Junior Championships this past season, where the boys from the great white north might as well have had a Lightning patch as their secondary logos on their sweaters. So, if you think about it, in a roundabout way, it's all Al Murray's fault Masin and Hajek aren't numerically higher in our rankings because they're getting pushed down by a lot of forward prospects. Shame on you, Al Murray.

Seriously, though, it brings me a particular degree of pain to have it suggested we undervalue Masin and Hajek, in particular, because amongst the three of us who pick the rankings those two guys are amongst my personal favorites. Masin, in particular, was a guy I mentioned in the run up to his draft as a guy I really wanted because of the style he plays and Hajek in some ways is kind of Masin's brother from another mother in that respect. You win championships with reliable two-way defensemen like Masin and Hajek who ruggedly mind their third of the rink and are good break out passers who can move it and get their forwards on their way out of the zone. These remain players we see as having ceilings as second pair guys in the NHL, drawing comparisons in their draft seasons by Red Line Report to Travis Hamonic (Masin) and Nik Hjalmarsson (Hajek), respectively. We haven't given up on these prospects, it's just an inarguable fact Masin didn't really start to progress as much until the second half and playoffs of his AHL season and Hajek had a somewhat uneven campaign where he missed making the Czech junior team. When you're in competition for ranking spots with guys playing out of their minds like Anthony Cirelli and Mathieu Joseph, that's the difference between being in and out of the top 10 of our rankings. When competition is stiff, minor blemishes become the lines of demarcation. 

In closing, before I read off our typical fine print legal disclaimers about our ranking rules, I want to say a little something about the website and our approach. We started this website in the ashes of the lockout and went live with it in 2005, so we're about to hit 12 years into this little venture. We've never made a penny off the site. We've never given it over to advertising and any of the other garbage you see on other blog sites around the web. We try to be honest and respectful and we try to be straight up with people. We're not interested in hyperbole or throwing out click bait or inciting conflict for the sake of conflict. In the time we've been doing this the Lightning have been through two and a half ownership groups (thanks cowboys!), three general managers (only one of which has threatened to sue us after the fact, try to guess which one!), and three head scouts. We don't endure by some patronage relationship with the Lightning organization or by carrying Kool Aid for anybody. We endure by trying to tell the whole story, warts and all, and by being as transparent as possible with you about where we're coming from.

We have differences of opinion with the Lightning organization from time to time. Honest, respectful, reasonable differences of opinion. Sometimes these manifest themselves on draft night when there's a player that gets selected that has some red flags or caveats, and we have the responsibility to raise those issues with our readers. For Slater Koekkoek, it was a bum shoulder (and the fact Filip GD Forsberg had fallen in the team's lap!). For Anthony DeAngelo it was his off-ice attitude. These are two examples of guys where we respectfully may have disagreed with the picks because there were other prospects on the board that we felt might've been better. But, once the draft is over and we wrap up our event stories, we accept these young men into our extended family and we extend our support for their development and prosperity. And when some of our initial fears are confirmed, we take no joy in it occurring. That's why you didn't see a front-page story on BoltProspects about Anthony DeAngelo being on his third organization in two years now. That's just not how we operate, because at least when it comes to this endeavor, we're not spiteful, ultra-competitive guys like Jonathan Drouin. We try to remain humble. We try to remain supportive. We try to remain reasonable. And, putting that out into the world, we just hope we get that back in return. 

Now for the part you all were REALLY waiting for with all The Young and the Restless soap opera stuff out of the way... the rules! Our rankings only include players who were under the age of 24 on opening night of the season. So, if you're wondering why there's no Yanni Gourde sighting, that's why. Additionally, skater prospects who have appeared in 41 or more NHL games in a single regular season or 82 cumulative career NHL games are considered graduated from prospect status and are elevated to the exalted plane of existence that is BoltProspects Alumni. Likewise, any goaltending prospect with 30 or more decisions in a single NHL season or 41 or more career decisions is also considered graduated. Finally, NCAA-based prospects are eligible for the list for the duration of their college careers, regardless of their age. 

So, with that out of the way, let's see who may be overvalued and undervalued ...

1.) D Mikhail Sergachev, Windsor (OHL)
The big return in the Jonathan Drouin trade, Mikhail Sergachev enters our rankings in the top spot. Putting aside all other critiques about the trade and the considerable pressure, external to the organization, Sergachev is probably going to be under, it's hard to deny the quality Sergachev brings from the blueline. A former 9th overall pick, Sergachev made the Montreal Canadiens out of camp last season before being returned to the OHL after a 4-game cup of coffee. With Windsor, Sergachev was an integral part of the club's Memorial Cup championship where he looked like a man among boys. Sergachev has nearly all the tools you look for in a defenseman these days: he's big, he's mobile, he does have a bit of a mean streak, and he's intelligent in his puck distribution. We look at him as a fairly solid #2/3 defenseman prospect who, with Hedman anchoring the top pair, should probably settle nicely as the anchor of Tampa Bay's second pair for several years to come. Independent scouting services like Red Line Report compared Sergachev to Habs defender Andrei Markov in his draft year, and if that pans out Lightning fans may ultimately come to love the Drouin trade. One word of caution, though: Lightning head scout Al Murray posited at the Entry Draft his opinion/hope that Sergachev could have the kind of rookie season Ivan Provorov had for Philadelphia last year. We're not confident Sergachev is quite as offensively dynamic as Provorov, having never put up a point a game in junior like Provorov did twice. Therefore, a more realistic successful rookie campaign, for us, would be for Sergachev to make the team and eventually give the club solid, worry-free second pair playing time with some offense coming later in his career. 

2.) D Cal Foote, Kelowna (WHL)
The Lightning's top pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft enters our rankings in the second spot. Foote, of course, is the son of former Colorado defenseman Adam Foote and looks to us to be a solid, maintenance-free, two-way #3/4 future fixture on the second pair or higher. Foote's main attributes are his excellent size, polished understanding of positioning in all three zones, and above-average ability to distribute the puck both at even strength and on the power play. He's also got a low, heavy shot that forces opposing goaltenders to hand out rebounds like candy at Halloween. He's not as consistently nasty as his father, but he's not a guy the opposition should want to provoke either. The main critique of Foote is that his skating is somewhat mediocre, which we feel can be made up for by Foote's next-level ability to read plays and get his body into proper position ahead of time and the equally next level skating instruction the organization offers. Red Line Report compares Foote to St. Louis blueliner Colton Parayko. There's not a team in the NHL that wouldn't take a Parayko clone on their roster in a heartbeat. He's a solid pick we expect to see begin to pay dividends a few years down the road.

3.) C Brett Howden, Moose Jaw (WHL)
Brett Howden, quietly, had a very strong season developing for Moose Jaw in the WHL. The young centerman mowed past a point a game for the first time in his junior career while putting up 38 goals in 58 games for the Warriors. He capped his season with a very nice ATO cup of coffee with Syracuse in the AHL where he nearly averaged a point a game in short stints of both regular season and postseason play. When drafted, the general consensus of the independent scouting community was that Howden was a bit of a second/third line tweener and the amount of offensive upside the big pivot had was uncertain. We're becoming more bullish on Howden hitting the higher end of that developmental window. He's got excellent size and strength, surprising speed for a big man, and is showing ever-improving vision on the offensive end. He also brings to the table ever-improving play in his own end and leadership intangibles, as well. He should spend one more season in junior, where he may possibly play a big role for Canada's U20 WJC team before he embarks on his pro career full-time. We look at the window for his arrival to be in the 2-4 year range.

4.) C Anthony Cirelli, Erie (OHL)
Charging up our list is Anthony Cirelli, who nearly won his second Memorial Cup and continued to cement his reputation as a big game player en route to doing so. Cirelli began his season with Oshawa in the OHL before being traded to Erie's super team where he stood out on a very deep and talented club. That was never truer than the playoffs, where he had an explosive 15 goals and 31 points in 22 games. Throughout his career, the former third round pick has had a reputation for being a player who works his bag off on the forecheck, is extremely responsible in all three zones, and is very strong in the faceoff circles. What we've started to see the past couple of years is he's also started to develop a nose for finding the open spots around the net to create goals and scoring chances, including the commanding performance he and several of his fellow Lightning prospects put on for Canada's U20 WJC team this past season. In other words, like any good scorer, the puck has started to follow Cirelli. He's not without blemishes as he's a bit undersized and we wouldn't mind seeing him work on his first-step explosiveness and acceleration. He went scoreless in a six-game trial in the Calder Cup Final with Syracuse, but he had plenty of chances along the way. He's a darkhorse to make the Lightning out of camp this season and we'd expect to see him make it to the NHL sooner rather than later, i.e. in a 1-3 year window.

5.) LW Taylor Raddysh, Erie (OHL)
Another member of the Erie super team, Taylor Raddysh is coming off a 42-goal and 109-point season where he nearly put up two points a game. And, like Cirelli, he also put up 31 points in 22 playoff games for the Otters. So why is he at fifth in our rankings? Frankly, we'd like to see more game-to-game consistency from Raddysh. He's a big boy with great hands and obviously above-average vision in the offensive zone, but there's still the spare night he looks like a bit of a sleepy, gentle giant. His skating and the defensive side of his game also need a bit of work, which partly explains why Raddysh feasted on some of the inferior sides at the U20 WJC's for Canada, like Latvia, but faded a bit against some of the better teams on the international stage. Raddysh will move along to Syracuse of the AHL after one more season of junior where he'll look to round out the remaining deficiencies in his game. If he does so, he's got the look of a legitimate top-6 goal-scoring winger in the NHL starting in 2-4 years. If the Lightning get desperate for scoring help on the wing this September, watch out for Raddysh.

6.) LW/C Mitchell Stephens, London (OHL)
Unlike some prospects, no one's ever accused Mitchell Stephens of having any lack of effort or jam. In an organization filled with hard workers like Cirelli and Joseph, it says something that Stephens' effort level and work rate stands out among the best. He's all motor, as he displayed as a one-man wrecking crew around the opposition's cage for Canada in last year's U20 WJC's. Stephens split time between Saginaw and London of the OHL, cumulatively putting up over a point a game for the first time in his junior career. Don't expect to be blown away by his offensive flair, though. He's a guy who does a lot of his scoring from 15 feet and in by braving to go into high traffic areas to bag greasy (and clutch) goals. Fearless to the point of reckless at times, Stephens has had some injury issues over the course of his young career. That's not surprising for a player the Lightning have compared to current Tampa Bay winger Ryan Callahan. Stephens adds versatility, having played a lot of center in junior, too. We anticipate he'll be a real fan favorite in Syracuse starting next year and eventually work his way up to the NHL where he should settle as a high caliber third liner who can occasionally spot as a complimentary energy winger on a scoring line in need of a pick-me-up.

7.) D Slater Koekkoek, Syracuse (AHL)
We're now entering the pivotal season of Slater Koekkoek's career in the Lightning organization. After three years spent primarily with Syracuse in the AHL in which he's shown some sustained flashes at the NHL level, waiver-eligible Koekkoek will move up to Tampa Bay this year for a put-up or shut-up campaign. Koekkoek's overall development track has been a little bit puzzling. Coming out of junior, the Lightning knew they needed to settle down Koekkoek's core instinct to jump into the play and use his fantastic skating ability to make himself an option in the offensive third. They've certainly accomplished that, as Koekkoek has definitely tried to focus on his own end of the rink almost exclusively with Syracuse. However, it's when he's gotten to the NHL and the coaching staff has given him the green light to rove a little more around the rink that he's looked at his best. Athletically, Koekkoek should be a #2/3 defenseman, having drawn comparisons to a lefty Kevin Shattenkirk in his draft season. He hasn't put it all together yet, though, and with Victor Hedman and Mikhail Sergachev seemingly locked into the top two pair left side spots for a while, Koekkoek may end up a #5 in this organization simply because of the numbers game.

8.) D Jake Dotchin, Tampa Bay (NHL)
Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa. No prospect has risen faster or perhaps more unexpectedly than rugged righty rearguard Jake Dotchin. Faced with a rash of injuries up top and in desperate need of help, the Lightning gave a cup of coffee to Dotchin midway through last season and never left. Dotchin became a fixture on Victor Hedman's pair and together they rolled through the final 35 games of the year en route to the Lightning playing around .700 hockey and nearly sneaking into the playoffs after nearly being given up for dead. Dotchin had a lot to do with the team's surge, and frankly we confess to never seeing that coming. Dotchin never showed us this level of play in junior or the AHL, which gives us some pause to consider whether or not he might just turn back into a pumpkin this coming season. The flaws in his game are still there: he's not the world's greatest skater. But, he's also strong as an ox, mean, and at least in that 35-game stint he showed a calmness and intelligence with the puck that made him a legit NHL'er. Sometimes in sports it all just comes together for a player out of the blue. Sometimes in sports two players like Hedman and Dotchin just fit together like peanut butter and jelly. We're not looking a gift horse in the mouth at this juncture, and we hope Dotchin, who we previously pegged to top out at more of a #5/6 defenseman, continues to play like a top four. For as perennially righty D-starved as the Lightning have been for a while, it would be a Godsend. 

9.) RW Mathieu Joseph, St. John (QMJHL)
Take Stephens and Cirelli's work rate with a tablespoon of Raddysh's offensive skill and you get winger Mathieu Joseph. The speedy winger capped his junior career with a personal best 36-goal and 80-point campaign with the Sea Dogs before losing his mind in the playoffs to the tune of a league-leading 32 points in 18 games. Joseph also provided considerable energy to Canada's U20 WJC effort where he was a game disruptor just like Stephens and Cirelli. Joseph, who dominated the 3v3 tournament at the Lightning’s prospect camp, comes into the Lightning organization as a pro next year an excellent skater with above-average creativity and hands. We look at him at this juncture as a PK-specialist and energy guy who has enough offensive flair to spot fairly often on a scoring line. He's a real darkhorse to make the Lightning out of camp this fall and he's another forward we expect to make it to Tampa Bay sooner rather than later in a 1-3 year window.

10.) C/W Matthew Peca, Syracuse (AHL)
Standing in the way of the ascension of younger forward prospects like Cirelli and Stephens may be the versatile old blue hair of our prospect group, Quinnipiac grad Matthew Peca. The former Bobcat had another solid campaign with Syracuse in the AHL last year, earning his first cups of coffee with Tampa Bay where he flashed at times before fizzling out and being returned to the minors. There's reason to hope that the now 24-year-old forward, who will become an overage prospect on the website in October, is on the cusp of making the big show. Put simply, there were moments in the Crunch's Calder Cup Final run that Peca took the club on his back with his work rate and creativity. He's not the biggest player and whereas he had relatively blazing speed in the NCAA he's had to learn how to deal with the pro ranks where everyone's a good skater. But he's smart, he's got above average skill, and he's a player we feel might be ready to make the Lightning as a lower liner who could even spot on a scoring line from time to time as needed.

11.) RW Adam Erne, Syracuse (AHL)
Another player right on the cusp of regular NHL duty might be talented, rugged winger Adam Erne. Like Peca, Erne also earned his first cups of coffee with the Lightning last year and stuck a little bit longer thanks in part to his rough-and-tumble play along the wall and around the opposing net and his above-average offensive creativity. Not the tallest of power wingers, Erne has a low center of gravity that makes him difficult to knock off the puck and a real bowling ball when he throws hits. What makes him a special prospect, though, is he's got fantastic hands and vision in tight around the opposing cage. He's got no fear of rifling his own shot and no problem picking out an open man at the far post or unattended in the slot. In other words, we're still pretty smitten with Erne's upside as a scoring line power winger. Health and consistency remain issues, though. Erne's style borders on reckless at times and has landed him on the trainer's table more than once. And, frankly, there are times his shift-to-shift, let alone game-to-game, intensity is a bit absent. Case in point was the Crunch's Calder Cup Final run where on any given shift Erne could look like a man among boys or simply fade into the background altogether. If the Lightning can get the best out of a healthy Adam Erne shift-to-shift, game-to-game, they may have an all-star NHL'er on their hands. If not, you're looking at a journeyman. If he lands in the middle, he lands on the bottom lines.

12.) LW Boris Katchouk, Sault Ste. Marie (OHL)
Somewhat in the vein of high-character forwards like Cirelli, Stephens, and Joseph comes Greyhounds bull-in-a-china-shop Boris Katchouk. The big winger flirted with a point a game this season for Sault Ste. Marie en route to potting a career high 35 goals. There's not a lot of complexity to Katchouk's game: his big, he's strong, and he's relentless. He forechecks like a demon. He hits everything that moves. He goes to the high traffic areas and defies his opponents to stop him. Sure, he's also a little bigger bodied than guys like the aforementioned Stephens and he's got an underrated shot and soft hands, but you don't need to go a heck of a lot further than that in describing him. He's the hammer. The other team's the nail. And, like the others, we like him as a very good second/third liner in the NHL who will be able to spot on the top line if it needs energy and the space his menacing style can afford. He'll spend one more year in junior, probably with a U20 WJC appearance, before he heads to Syracuse of the AHL.

13.) C Alexey Lipanov, KHK MVD2 (RUS2)
We think one of the sneaky-good picks of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft was the third rounder the Lightning used on centerman Alexei Lipanov. The center who captained the Russian U18 team to a bronze medal this year is an old-school Russian prospect, and we mean that in the best way possible. Although undersized and perhaps a tad soft in some showings, he's also an excellent skater with above-average creativity and skill and a polished 200-foot player with a high IQ and a good understanding of situational hockey. Lipanov, who is now the youngest prospect in the Lightning organization at 17 years old, split his season between KHK MVD's MHL (junior) side and their VHL (second tier men's league) farm team, where he helped contribute to bringing home a VHL championship. Not bad for a puppy playing against grown men. He'll cross the pond to play for Barrie in the OHL next season. He's drawn comparisons to NHL'er Nick Bonino as a two-way, rock-solid third line centerman with the possibility of raising that by a line, and we can reasonably assume he adds some leadership intangibles for the club's considerable Russian contingent.

14.) D Libor Hajek, Saskatoon (WHL)
Adding to the Lightning's nearly disgusting wealth of left side defensemen is Saskatoon blueline and ex-second rounder Libor Hajek. An assistant captain for the blades, Hajek plays a responsible two-way style that has been compared to NHL'er Niklas Hjalmarsson. He's a good skater who minds his gap control and uses his decent size to gain body position and win loose pucks. He's also an above-average puck distributor, which is a skill he probably didn't get to show off as much on a fairly abysmal Saskatoon team, which may have contributed to his missing the Czech U20 WJC roster. He should go back to Saskatoon for one more year before making his way to Syracuse to begin his pro career. We look at him as a #4/5 defenseman, but again caution that with Hedman, Sergachev, and Koekkoek ahead of him on the depth chart at left side D, he may be a little bit blocked by the logjam and could rise to a #3.

15.) D Ben Thomas, Syracuse (AHL)
One of the real pleasant surprises of the year outside of Jake Dotchin was the play of right side D Ben Thomas. We were a little surprised he got a contract after a somewhat lackluster junior career split between deep Calgary and a tragically bad Vancouver side in the WHL. He became a fixture on Syracuse's blueline this past season, though, displaying a fine two-way game both at even strength and on the power play. Thomas had a respectable regular season before a strong playoff campaign that saw him put up 5 goals and 13 points in 22 games. He's a good skater with respectable vision and ability to distribute the puck, which is half the battle in today's NHL. We're still a little concerned about his size and his defensive zone positioning as well as his first step acceleration, which is an even greater concern for an undersized guy. Still, he's shown enough to give you the thought perhaps he can advance to become a #5/6 defenseman in the NHL who can also play some point on the second power play unit, given another year or two of AHL polish.

16.) LW Alexander Volkov, SKA2 (RUS2)
Not since Mike Myers donned a bad wig and equally bad teeth has there been an international man of mystery quite like Alexander Volkov. That's a bit of hyperbole, but it's fair to say the overage Volkov was a bit off the radar of the independent scouting services when the Lightning burned a second round pick on him at the June draft. Volkov split last season between the MHL and VHL where he put up middling numbers and missed the U20 WJC's due to a broken foot suffered in the middle of the campaign. Why use a top-60 pick on Volkov? He had an excellent, albeit statistically understated, six game stint with the Russian U20 B team on their annual tour against the CHL all-stars in the Super Series where he flashed as one of the better players on the ice against some of the best in the QMJHL, OHL, and WHL. The Lightning are placing their wager that the impressive 200-foot game they saw in that six-game sample set is a glimpse into the pro Volkov can become. Toward that end, they've signed him up for Syracuse of the AHL next season and Al Murray has touted him as a potential Ondrej Palat-type complimentary two-way second liner. We want to see a little more before we jump head-long onto that bandwagon.

17.) D Dominik Masin, Syracuse (AHL)
It was an interesting rookie pro campaign for Dominik Masin with Syracuse in the AHL this season. Coming off a fine two-way season with Peterborough in the OHL, Masin settled into a more stay-at-home role on the Crunch's third pair where he experienced a bit of a roller coaster in adjusting to the speed of the pro game. Think of it as a three-act play: the first half of the regular season where Masin oscillated between looking overwhelmed and lost, the second half of the regular season where he started to look more comfortable in a simplified defense-first role, and the playoffs when there were times he showed flashes of being the equal of fellow prospects Koekkoek and Dotchin. There's a lot to like with Masin, who has drawn comparisons to NHL'er Travis Hamonic. He's got good size and strength and nice mobility. He minds his gap pretty well and isn't afraid to lay the body, and as the season wore on he got more comfortable distributing the puck on the breakout. His sophomore pro campaign is going to be pretty key, though. We hope to see the kind of calm defensive management of the game we saw in the playoffs mixed in with a little more offensive production as he potentially moves up into the Crunch's top four. If he can, like Hajek, we see the potential for a minute-eating #4/5 defenseman. Unfortunately, like Hajek (and including Hajek), there's plenty of lefty D in that competition.

18.) G Connor Ingram, Kamloops (WHL)
Connor Ingram capped a very solid junior career last season with an excellent campaign with the Blazers where he posted career-best numbers in GAA, save percentage, and shutouts before a brief six games in the playoffs where he had a gaudy .946 save percentage. So, there's little doubt the Syracuse Crunch are getting an accomplished junior goaltender next season, which he rode to the starting job for Canada at the U20 WJC's. Unfortunately, at the WJC's, Ingram wilted a little bit against international competition, giving us a little bit of pause. Ingram's a strong worker, battles hard in his crease, and has good temperament for the position. But, he's also a little undersized for the style Frantz Jean teaches and sometimes finds himself having to rely on his athleticism to improvise rather than his mechanics. He'll be brought along at his own pace behind veteran Michael Leighton with Syracuse next season. In the long run, we see his potential ceiling as an NHL backup, which is probably functionally true for most prospects in the Lightning system given Andrei Vasilevskiy is up top anyway.

19.) RW Dennis Yan, Shawinigan (QMJHL)
Dennis Yan capped his junior career with a career high (that's a good theme this year) 46 goals and 75 points for the Cataractes before going scoreless in a brief three game ATO stint with Syracuse in the AHL. He's a bit of a one trick pony, but his one trick is the raw currency of winning and losing games in the sport of hockey: scoring goals. We have a lot of concerns about Yan's overall game. He's not a 200-foot player, clings to the perimeter in the offensive zone at times, and has been accused of not being the best at sharing the puck. With that said: he's a good skater, chippy, and oh, he can finish. He finds the calm spots on the ice at the right times and he buries chances when they come his way. Our suspicion is that the next 2-3 years in Syracuse are going to be a difficult transition for Yan, and Benoit Groulx attempts to mold him into a proper pro. If he takes that coaching, though, he could absolutely become a NHL scoring line winger.

20.) D Erik Cernak, Erie (OHL)
The return in the Ben Bishop trade to Los Angeles, Erik Cernak was the third member of the Lightning's contingent on Erie's super team. That he didn't put up super numbers on that squad is pretty telling in terms of the type of player Cernak is. He's a pure stay-at-home defenseman. He has made strides since coming over to North America from Kosice's program in his native Slovakia. His skating has gotten less stiff and he's gotten quicker in his decision-making when moving the puck. Still, in a lot of ways he feels like the Slovakian version of Jake Dotchin as a big guy with decent skating whom the Lightning are hoping has some sort of early career epiphany and puts it all together as a pro. Barring that, though, we've set our expectations on Cernak being a third pair defenseman in the NHL who is a physical banger who plays within himself and keeps it simple.

21.) C/LW Ross Colton, Vermont (HEAST)
For a good long while, starting with Alex Killorn, the Lightning always had 1-2 prospects laying in the weeds on the American college track we liked to refer to as "stealth prospects." Now Tampa Bay seems to have a raft of them, some of whom barely got squeezed out of our top-25, the top of which is Ross Colton of Vermont. Colton proved his wares scoring over a point a game in the defensive-minded USHL with Cedar Rapids before excelling in his freshman campaign last year with 12 goals and 27 points in 33 games. That's two very respectable campaigns, back-to-back, against very respectable levels of competition. He's fairly average, size-wise, but is an above average skater with a good shot who plays a well-schooled 200-foot game and is smart. We'd expect him to spend at least another couple of seasons with Vermont before the Lightning come sniffing around with a contract, at which point it'll be a fairly short window to get to the NHL as a long-term scoring line project. Worst case scenario, these types of players are typically smart enough and willing enough that you can potentially mold them into checking liners once they get to the AHL, too.

22.) C Carter Verhaeghe, Bridgeport (AHL)
The Lightning organization's newest prospect is well-traveled centerman Carter Verhaeghe, who was acquired in a minor deal from the Islanders in exchange for the rights to netminder Kristers Gudlevskis. Verhaeghe, who turns 22 in August, was originally a third round pick of the Maple Leafs who has bounced around both the Leafs and Islanders organizations. Last season he split time between New York's AHL and ECHL affiliates, putting up very respectable numbers in both spots. Something about Verhaeghe's story reminds us of Yanni Gourde, who also put up respectable numbers bouncing between the AHL and The Coast before the Lightning finally gave him a chance to stick with the Crunch full time. Verhaeghe's got the reputation as a high-energy relentless forechecker who relishes puck retrieval and is generally a pest to play against. Average in size and not necessarily a banger, Verhaeghe's bag is getting opponents to turn it over and then using his above average hands and vision to generate chances. The Lightning took a flyer on him for a reason. He should be good AHL depth with the outside chance of taking a quick developmental step to being a lower line energy guy in the NHL.

23.) C Ryan Lohin, UMASS (HEAST)
Stealth prospect number two is Ryan Lohin. The story will sound familiar. Although not quite as prolific as Colton, Lohin put up very respectable numbers for Madison and Waterloo in the USHL in his final season in US junior before putting up an admirable 29 points in 41 games as a freshman in Hockey East. Like Colton, Lohin has fairly average size but is a good skater with a respectable 200-foot game and above average skill. And, like Colton, we'd expect him to play at least another couple of seasons for UMASS before the Lightning come poking around with a potential contract for another long-term scoring line project.

24.) C Christopher Paquette, Peterborough (OHL)
It was a solid, albeit understated campaign for Christopher Paquette, cousin of BoltProspects Alumni Cedric "Dump Truck" Paquette. Christopher split his season between Niagara and Peterborough of the OHL after a mid-season trade and just missed scoring 20 goals for the first time as a junior, hitting 19 and 48 points in 66 games. He's still a while from where we'd like him to be, but the trend lines are headed in the right direction. Paquette's calling cards are his size and skating ability, which are both above-average. Where he still needs to improve is mixing it up more physically and continuing to progress offensively. Still, he's a toolsy 200-foot two-way centerman prospect with good size whom the Lightning hope eventually gets it to come together and progresses to be a lower line NHL'er.

25.) D Matthew Spencer, Peterborough (OHL)
Adding to the depth of the Lightning's right side defensive hopefuls is Matthew Spencer, who will join Syracuse next season having wrapped up his fourth campaign with the Petes in the OHL. Having only hit 30 points (on the nose) once as a junior, it's hard to make the argument there's a lot of offensive upside there as a pro. Still, there's a lot of tools there to suggest he may be able to progress and become a reliable third pair stay-at-home defenseman in the NHL. He's got good wheels for a big man, is willing to engage physically, and he showed slow and steady progress with his puck distribution over the full body of his junior work. Flashy? No. Power play guy? If you need a righty shot, he's got a decent one, but generally, no. But, he could still be a responsible third pair contributor once he gets his feet wet in the pro game with the Crunch.

HM.) D Nick Perbix, Elk River (USHS)
So, we had a little disagreement amongst the BoltProspects staff. I wanted to expand the list to 30, which we sometimes have done, because I think we have the depth right now to support it. The compromise was to stick to 25, but have some Honorable Mentions. The first of these is yet another "stealth prospect," June sixth rounder Nick Perbix out of the Minnesota high school ranks. A late-blooming overage pick, Perbix stands a full 6'4" and nearly 200 pounds and yet plays more of an offensive-minded game, seeing the ice very well distributing the puck deftly. It's not all peaches and cream, though. Perbix's skating is rough and he's still got a lot of jagged edges to his game from playing against lesser high school competition that need to be smoothed out. The plan is for Perbix to play for Omaha of the USHL next season before heading to St. Cloud State in the NCAA. So, this could easily be a 4-5 year wait before the Lightning even get Perbix into the AHL, let alone the NHL. Still, it may be worth the wait. Perbix flashed in rookie camp, revealing he does have some untapped talent the Lightning may well see become a top-4 defenseman down the road.

HM.) RW Jonne Tammela, Peterborough (OHL)
Unfortunately, 2016-2017 was a lost season for the prospect we affectionately call "The Cobra." Tammela appeared in just two games for the Petes before being shut down with injuries. That's a shame, because we expected him to have a decent year after being a regular contributor against grown men in the Finnish Liiga for KalPa. An undersized speedster with above average skill and itching powder-like annoyability, Tammela does have a pro contract and will attempt to make Syracuse out of camp. If he doesn't make it, he may return to Peterborough where he could show what might have been to the Peterborough faithful. We felt he was a good third line NHL prospect with possibly enough skill to spot, for energy, on a scoring line. Whether losing a year to injury torpedoed that remains to be seen. He may benefit from returning to Peterborough, where he could get ample ice time – but burn a year of his ELC in the process.

HM.) C Cole Guttman, Dubuque (USHL)
Another "stealth prospect," 18-year-old Guttman has already proven his offensive chops putting up over a point a game in the defensive-minded USHL with Dubuque. Although undersized, he's an excellent skater who knows how to put the puck in the net. He'll spend one more season with Dubuque before heading to St. Cloud State in the NCAA in the same freshman season as Perbix.

HM.) C Sammy Walker, Edina (USHS)
The final "stealth prospect" is diminutive waterbug center Sammy Walker out of Edina in the Minnesota high school ranks where he put up a gaudy 22 goals and 46 points in 25 games. A tiny speedster with great hands, Walker will probably transition at some point to Lincoln of the USHL full time next season to sharpen his game against higher level competition. He had a 4-game cup of coffee there last year. Walker's a penny stock who could pay off, because he's headed to join the top-flight Minnesota program in the NCAA in a couple of years. In an organization stocked to the gills with undersized forward success stories like Cory Conacher, Tyler Johnson, Jonathan Marchessault, and Yanni Gourde, Walker could be another to add his name to that lore. 

HM.) D Oleg Sosunov, Yaroslavl Jr. (RUS Jr.)
In the realm of big sleepers, few are bigger than 6'8", 243-pound Russian defenseman Oleg Sosunov. A 2016 6th round pick, Sosunov languished on the third pair of Yaroslavl's MHL team last year when he wasn't being held out of the lineup altogether. He skates very well for such a large man, and he does have a mean streak when provoked, but no one should confuse him for anything more than a very, very raw lump of clay after going scoreless in 32 games for Loko Jr. last year. So, here's the good news: he's joining Moose Jaw of the WHL to play with Howden next season, meaning he's potentially going to get a lot more games and a lot more minutes versus a higher level of competition than he got last year in the MHL. That's good. Expect a rough transition in the first half of the year, though, and then we'll see once we hit the second half. We're not in any way, shape, or form predicting the second coming of Zdeno Chara. But, 6'8" + can skate = could be pretty great.

Chad Schnarr and Timothy Bennett contributed to this report