By Pete Choquette (@jollymeangiant)
As noted in Bolt Prospects’ 2013-2014 Final Rankings, this past season was a banner year for the Lightning’s prospect system. Ten prospects, including eight prospects from our top-25 rankings and another two overage prospects, ultimately became contributors to the big club on their way to a surprising berth in the NHL playoffs.
That success may lull Lightning fans into a false sense of security about the team’s prospect system, but a look at the struggles of the Syracuse Crunch in the AHL this past season and a look at the significant drop-off after the first half-dozen remaining prospects in our top-25 rankings reveals there is much work to be done to restock the cupboard. Fortunately, the Lightning will go into this summer’s June draft with three top-60 draft picks, including a conditional first round pick acquired from the New York Rangers in the Martin St. Louis trade that was escalated from a second round pick by virtue of the Rangers advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Before saying farewell to the 2013-2014 season in our Final Rankings, lets step back and reflect on what an unprecedented season it was. Eight prospects who appeared on our 2013-2014 Preliminary Rankings list graduated from prospect status during the season (Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, Radko Gudas, Mark Barberio, J.T. Brown, Richard Panik, Nikita Kucherov, and Andrej Sustr), while another two overage prospects also graduated (Ben Bishop and Alex Killorn). Palat and Johnson were named finalists for the Calder Trophy while Bishop was tapped as a finalist for the Vezina Trophy.
Put simply, it'll be decades before the Lightning ever have a prospect class like this go through the system again, if ever. Remember that as you read through these 2013-2014 Final Rankings, which reflect a talent pool that has been drained of the majority of its best players. True, there are still two of the best NHL prospects in the land on the list, but the drop-off after the first half dozen or so prospects in the rankings is dramatic now, which was reflected in AHL Syracuse's showing in the standings this season. It's a top-heavy group in desperate need of an infusion of new blood starting in June when Steve Yzerman and the Lightning's scouting staff holds three picks in the top-60 of the upcoming NHL Entry Draft. So, if they don't trade any of those picks for immediate help at the NHL level, do not despair, because the need for cupboard re-stocking is real and it's immediate.
Before jumping into the rankings, of course, there's the ever-present need to clarify the site rules pertaining to prospect status. Prospects who were under the age of 24 on opening night of the Lightning's season are eligible for the list. Skaters who have appeared in 41 NHL games in a single season or 82 career NHL games are considered graduated from prospect status. Goaltenders who have accrued 30 NHL decisions in a single season or 41 career NHL decisions are considered graduated from prospect status. NCAA-based players are eligible to stay as prospects even if they are 24 years of age or older.
Yes, this means Brett Connolly is considered graduated from prospect status. No, we're not going to bend the rules on a case-by-case basis. Yes, to paraphrase the old Churchill quote, we think it is the worst set of prospect ranking eligibility rules except all the others that have been tried.
With that out of the way, let's proceed…
With the end of the Lightning and Crunch seasons, we conclude our Bolt Prospect of the Week award, an honor (virtually) given to one Tampa Bay Lightning prospect for their recent contributions on and off the ice.
The Bolt Prospect of the Week for April 23, 2014 is … Luke Witkowski, D, Syracuse Crunch (AHL – USA).
Twenty-eight Bolt Prospect of the Week awards have been handed out this season, usually for offensive production or goaltending mastery. Not this week.
This week’s award goes to a rarely appreciated player type, a stay-at-home defenseman.
Luke Witkowski finished his rookie pro season last week, taking another step toward his dream of playing in the NHL. Not every prospect can step right into the NHL. Most have to be grown, groomed, and guided along the developmental path to the big show. Witkowski, who is now six seasons removed from his draft year, was named the Syracuse Crunch’s Most Improved Player for the year last week. To celebrate, he scored his second goal of the season on Sunday, though it didn’t make any highlight reels.
Tampa Bay Lightning 50-man Organizational Roster for 2014-2015 (contract status via @capgeek):
The Syracuse Crunch’s 2013-2014 season was defined by hills and valleys.
The proverbial wheels fell off after a fast start, and by the time the Crunch recovered it was too late for a playoff push, leaving lofty pre-season expectations unfulfilled.
The Tampa Bay Lightning’s 2012 American Hockey League affiliate, Norfolk, hoisted the Calder Cup, and the Crunch won the Eastern Conference championship in 2013 but fell in Game 6 of the Calder Cup Finals last June.
“You have to keep the bar that high,” said Syracuse coach Rob Zettler. “As soon as you lower the bar or lower the standard, everybody takes their foot off the gas. That standard has been set here the past couple years. But more than that is the process, the effort, and the commitment level that it took to get to those places – those are the standards you have to keep in place and the winning takes care of itself.”