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2016-2017 Midterm Rankings (1-10)

Introduction
Usually, we like to release our midterm rankings… well, you know … mid-term, but this has been an atypical year. When the World Junior Championships ended in early January, we had some movers and shakers on the list, but the Lightning were struggling so mightily at that time rumors were running rampant that Tampa Bay would go into full sell mode. We decided to wait until acquired prospects were added, but by the time Wilcox was out and Cernak in, the end of the junior hockey regular season was just around the corner. And that’s where we are now. So, with a tardy slip firmly in hand, here’s the list – finally.

For as bad as the Lightning have been for the majority of the season, this may be the most productive prospect season since Brad Richards and Sheldon Keefe were winning their league scoring titles and the original triplets (Palat-Johnson-Panik) were winning an AHL title. Syracuse has been in first place for most of the year, and while the prospects there have spent more time eating peanuts on planes between Tampa and Syracuse, there has been progress developmentally with the AHL guys. Add to that the season (graduated prospect) Nikita Gusev had, junior stars Raddysh, Joseph, Ingram, etc, and the emergence of Ross Colton in college hockey and it’s been a good year. But how do they all sort out in the rankings?

Glad you asked.

Before we begin, a reminder of the eligibility rules for the rankings. Only players under 24 years of age on the opening night of the Lightning season are eligible to be ranked. As a consequence, talented players like Gusev and Kristers Gudlevskis are no longer counted in the top 25. These "overage prospects" are not to be ignored, though, and add yet another level of depth to the team's pipeline. Skaters with 41 or more NHL games in a single season or 82 or more career NHL games are considered graduated and no longer eligible to be ranked. So, bye-bye Brayden Point. Goaltenders with 30 or more NHL decisions in a single NHL season or 41 or more NHL career decisions are also considered graduated from prospect status and no longer eligible to be ranked. This means you, Andrei Vasilevskiy. They grow up so fast. Lastly, NCAA prospects are eligible to remain on the rankings for the duration of their college careers, even if they are over 24 years of age.

Terms and conditions apply. Employees and family of Bolt Prospects are not eligible. No purchase necessary and no survey required to read. Re-read the last paragraph for full rankings rules.

With that out of the way, let's begin...

1. C Brett Howden, Moose Jaw (WHL) (2016-17 Preliminary Ranking: 4)
Age: 18
Vitals: 6-3, 192 lbs
Shoots: L
Acquired: 1st round, 2016
Season totals: 58 GP, 38-43-81, +14, 73 PIM

Howden jumps up to the No. 1 spot thanks to the graduations of Andrei Vasilevskiy (No. 1 in Preliminaries), Brayden Point (No. 2), and the curious case of Slater Koekkoek (No. 3 in Preliminaries). Howden barely missed making Team Canada for the WJCs but went back to Moose Jaw to captain them to second place in the East Division. Howden set career highs in all major categories despite playing 10 fewer games than last year. He finished his year with a 3-goal, 2-assist, 1-fight performance against Swift Current. He projects as a big scoring line center at the NHL level with a bit of a mean streak and a lot of character. His simple approach to the game will make for a quick transition to the pros at the end of next season, assuming he doesn’t make the Lightning out of camp next fall (doubtful, but never say never).

2. C/W Mitchell Stephens, Saginaw/London (OHL) (7)
Age: 20
Vitals: 6-0, 196 lbs
Shoots: R
Acquired: 2nd round, 2015
Season totals: 51 GP, 22-31-53, +21, 26 PIM

Making the jump from No. 7 to No. 2 is Mitchell Stephens, the do-everything forward for the London Knights. Saginaw’s captain was acquired at the OHL trade deadline for a hefty price London was willing to pay. Stephens played center for Saginaw, but has settled in as a winger with London. His role is a bit different as he’s more of a support player than the driver he was with the Spirit. He did a bit of everything with Team Canada at the WJCs, playing in a checking line role before moving his way up. He showed his underrated skill and trademark determination in the medal rounds for Canada, finishing the tournament with five points in five games. Stephens is a darkhorse to make the Lightning out of camp next year, but will more than likely start the year with AHL Syracuse. His versatility will make his run to the NHL a quick one.

3. D Slater Koekkoek, Syracuse (AHL) (3)
Age: 23
Vitals: 6-2, 198 lbs
Shoots: L
Acquired: 1st round, 2010
Season totals: 38 GP, 2-9-11, -2, 11 PIM

One of the most intriguing storylines in the Lightning organization this year has been the stalled development climb of former top-10 pick Slater Koekkoek. We think if Slater was a righty defenseman he’d be in Jake Dotchin’s place right now, but with lefties Hedman-Coburn-Garrison secure in their spots with Tampa Bay there wasn’t much room for Koekkoek, who plays on the left side. Much as he did with Jonathan Drouin last year, Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman saw Koekkoek sitting in the pressbox for games and decided to send him to the AHL for ice time. What Koekkoek needs more than anything at this point in his development is NHL seasoning. It would have been ideal for him to get that early and mid season this year so he was up to speed by the time the stretch run hit. As it was, he couldn’t find a spot on a struggling defensive unit despite fairly solid (and mobile) play. His pass out of the zone remains above average and even with the Lightning needing that ingredient in their game Koekkoek wasn’t being used. He’s been solid for Syracuse and is putting up numbers at a better pace than last year though still nowhere close to his OHL days when he was regularly on the scoreboard. The Lightning have been deliberately focusing on the defensive side of his game, which has shown improvement. Koekkoek lost a year or two of development with his shoulder injuries and now it feels like another one was lost in the pressbox. Koekkoek is a solid all-around defenseman, but didn’t climb to the No. 1 spot in these rankings because he’s not producing as much as we thought he was capable of offensively (at least compared to how much he drove play as a junior), but mostly because we’re not convinced the Lightning are prioritizing him as a prospect compared to others. And we really can’t figure out why not. We’ll find out if our theory is true or not when the Lightning submit their protected list for the expansion draft. As it stands now it may be between Koekkoek and Dotchin for the third and final defenseman spot.

4. RW Adam Erne, Tampa Bay (NHL) (6)
Age: 21
Vitals: 6-1, 209 lbs
Shoots: L
Acquired: 2nd round, 2013
Tampa Bay totals: 15 GP, 1-0-1, -4, 4 PIM
Syracuse totals: 39 GP, 12-14-26, -7, 42 PIM

Erne bounced back from another injury to produce well for the Crunch before getting called up to the Lightning. The power forward has a player type the Lightning sorely need, though Erne’s transition to the NHL has been rather slow. When he’s able to throw a few hits and unapologetically force his way to the front of the net he’s effective. He will disappear at times, but the foundation of what he brings continues to grow stronger. He was a consistent producer for Syracuse after a slow start and the Lightning could use his secondary scoring right now. He has more to give than what he’s shown at the NHL (or even AHL) level. He has the skill of a small player, but body of a power forward. It’s a matter of putting them together and playing fast. That will be the difference in being a top-6 or top-12 forward at the NHL level.

5. RW Taylor Raddysh, Erie (OHL) (8)
Age: 19
Vitals: 6-2, 207 lbs
Shoots: R
Acquired: 2nd round, 2016
Season totals: 58 GP, 42-66-108, +67, 37 PIM

The Lightning felt good about themselves picking up Raddysh in the second round considering he was coming off a 73-point year. All he did was go out and put up 108 points in his post-draft year, and he was putting up the points before Dylan Strome (Coyotes) and Alex DeBrincat (Blackhawks) were back on his line in Erie. Raddysh led the OHL in assists and plus/minus, finished second in points to DeBrincat, and sixth in goals. He has an NHL release on his shot and unlike his draft year, he’s quicker to choose to use it. Raddysh, who still has some skating concerns to improve upon, made Canada’s WJC team as an 18-year-old (five goals in seven games) so he should be a leader on the team for next year’s tournament. He has first line upside, but plays an all-around game that could benefit a team on any line. He has to return to juniors next year if he doesn’t make the Lightning, then could have some seasoning time in Syracuse after that. Connor McDavid's former linemate has big upside.

6. C Anthony Cirelli, Oshawa/Erie (OHL) (17)
Age: 19
Vitals: 6-0, 181 lbs
Shoots: L
Acquired: 3rd round, 2015
Season totals: 51 GP, 25-39-64, +36, 12 PIM

Cirelli had the biggest jump in the rankings in recent memory, jumping from a too-low No. 17 to No. 6. His walk-on-to-Memorial Cup hero story is well documented, but his story doesn’t seem to have an end. Cirelli worked his way up to first line center with the Gens and was named captain. Then he made team Canada for the WJCs and had seven points in seven games. The Lightning signed him and this OHL trade deadline he was dealt to the Otters for their playoff run. Cirelli has settled into a No. 2 center spot with Erie behind Dylan Strome (Coyotes) and has five points in two playoff games as of the time of this writing. Cirelli has the character, smarts, and defensive acumen of Brayden Point, which will endear him to the Crunch and/or Lightning next season. He’s a player who refuses to take no for an answer and has all the intangibles to have a long NHL career. He has to add significant weight to speed his transition to the pros, so perhaps the South Beach Big Mac Diet is on the Cirelli dinner table this summer.

7. C Matthew Peca, Syracuse (AHL) (9)
Age: 23
Vitals: 5-9, 174 lbs
Shoots: L
Acquired: 7th round, 2011
Season totals: 59 GP, 10-25-35, -9, 14 PIM

Peca jumped from nine to seven on the list despite the fact his offensive production is even-to or even a little behind last year’s pace. There’s more to hockey than stats, as everyone knows, and Peca continually passes the eye test. He’s played 10 games with the Lightning this year, notching a goal and an assist while playing mostly a defensive role. Peca has an impressive skillset – so much so that his stats, even at Quinnipiac, don’t seem to match up with how good he really is. Windows only stay open so long and with Cirelli and Stephens coming into Syracuse next year, and Howden the year after, Peca will have to fight off a group of new guys fighting for limited spots in Tampa. Point has already passed him on the depth chart. Peca has to continue to gain weight and assert himself more offensively if he wants to take advantage of NHL opportunities ahead. That will be the difference in him being a smart, skilled NHLer or a tweener.

8. LW Boris Katchouk, Sault Ste. Marie (OHL) (10)
Age: 18
Vitals: 6-3, 190 lbs
Shoots: L
Acquired: 2nd round, 2016
Season totals: 66 GP, 35-29-64, +18, 46 PIM

With the success of Taylor Raddysh, it’s easy to forget Katchouk was taken before him in last summer’s second round. Katchouk didn’t make Team Canada or put up over 100 points like Raddysh, but he has had an excellent season for the Soo Greyhounds. Katchouk, who many pundits projected to be a first rounder, elevated his goals total from 24 to 35 this year while earning the conference’s “Best Penalty Killer” nod by OHL coaches. Katchouk led the league in shorties with seven and shorty assists with six. He is regarded as one of the league’s best two-way wingers and is likely to be on Team Canada next winter (he is also considered Russian, by the way). He represents what the Lightning seem to be moving to with their wingers – 2-way skilled guys with compete levels off the charts. All have a bit of size, too: Katchouk is 6-3, Raddysh 6-2, Joseph 6-1, Stephens 6-0, Howden 6-3, Erne 6-1. Look for Katchouk to find his way into the top 5 of these rankings next year. He’ll return to the Soo and could top 40 goals.

9. RW Mathieu Joseph, Saint John (QMJHL) (13)
Age: 20
Vitals: 6-1, 172 lbs
Shoots: L
Acquired: 4th round, 2015
Season totals: 54 GP, 36-44-80, +37, 57 PIM

Joseph, a Bolt Prospects favorite (yes, we have those), jumped from 13 to 9. He finished last year at 21. We believe, Mathieu. We believe. The Lightning do, too, as they signed him to a contact this winter after Joseph’s impressive showing with Team Canada (1-4-5). Joseph wasn’t in a scoring role with Canada but worked his way onto a scoring line by the medal round and was constantly creating scoring chances with this speed and tenacity. Like the other forwards ahead of him on this list, Joseph matches that compete-level with a skillset that enabled him to lead the Q in goals before the WJC break. He ended up finishing 12th in goals despite missing about 14 games. He finished sixth in plus/minus. Joseph is a long winger with good reach who can play equally as well on the PK or PP. He will join the Crunch next year with several others who could make an immediate impact for Syracuse. After a year or two – depending on open windows – Joseph should be in the NHL. Another mid-round gem for Al Murray and the Lightning scouting team.

10. D Libor Hajek, Saskatoon (WHL) (5)
Age: 19
Vitals: 6-2, 196 lbs
Shoots: L
Acquired: 2nd round, 2016
Season totals: 65 GP, 4-22-26, -17, 81 PIM

Hajek fell on the list from No. 5 to No. 10, but in reality it was more of other prospects rising vs him deserving to fall. That said, Hajek stayed flat in his offensive production this year, matching last year’s total of 26 points (four fewer games). We think Hajek has more offense to give, but for a prospect taken at the top of the second round (ahead of Katchouk and Raddysh), despite being on a bad (but moderately improved) Saskatoon team, he should be able to be more of a driver. Hajek was the second-leading scorer among defensemen on the Blades (Bryton Sayers 32 points). No, it’s not always about the points, but a defenseman taken at 37 should ideally be able to at least flirt with being a first-unit power play player in the pros even if he is considered more of a d-first guy. Hajek, who was signed by the Lightning at the conclusion of the season and assigned to Syracuse, is an excellent skater and his defensive mind is well above average. The Czech Republic wanted to go big with their WJC squad, but even with that in mind, the fact he didn’t make his country’s U20 team for that tournament doesn’t sit overly well. He’ll likely be on the squad next year, and we’re hoping Saskatoon finally takes a big step forward to be a solid playoff team again. Hajek is down on the list not because he’s not a good prospect – he’s an excellent potential stay-at-home defenseman – but the top of the list is usually reserved for those driving play (think Victor Hedman and a class or two below) and creating offense while playing solid defense. Hajek is more current-day Anton Stralman, and there’s certainly a place of that.

Next: Midterm Rankings 11-19

Midterm Rankings 20-15+