Bolt Prospects' 2013-2014 Midterm Rankings

By Pete Choquette

Introduction

Is the party starting to wind down? With the Lightning transitioning to a more youthful team and injuries forcing more call-ups than originally anticipated, our Bolt Prospects Midterm Rankings will take on a decidedly different feel. With the likes of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Radko Gudas becoming full-time NHLers, the list seems a little thinner this time around. Still, this year's Midterm list is still top-heavy with some of the finest NHL prospects you'll find anywhere in the land. With several other prospects very close to graduating from prospect status on the site, though, and the next wave of prospects struggling a bit in Syracuse, now is an excellent time for readers to reflect on what an amazing past couple of years the Lightning pipeline has had. From Norfolk's record-breaking winning streak and Calder Cup championship to the Syracuse Crunch's Eastern Conference crown and Tyler Johnson's emergence as a Calder Trophy candidate in the NHL, these were good days the likes of which don't come around often. Appreciate them.

Before we jump into the rankings, just a reminder of the rules. To be eligible for the rankings a player must be under the age of 24 on opening night of the Tampa Bay Lightning's NHL season. Any skater who has played 41 games in a single NHL season or 82 career NHL games is considered graduated from prospect status. For that reason, Palat and Johnson along with Brett Connolly are not eligible for inclusion. Goaltenders who have 30 or more NHL decisions in a single season or 41 career NHL decisions will also be considered from prospect status. NCAA-based prospects are eligible for inclusion on the list even if they are 24 or older for the duration of their time with their college program.

That's legalese we hope former attorney Jon Cooper would be proud of. We hope you were taking notes, because there might be a pop quiz. With that out of the way, let's begin…

1.) LW/C Jonathan Drouin, Halifax (QMJHL) [Preliminary rank from October: 1]
Few should be surprised that Jonathan Drouin continues to hold down the top spot in our rankings. For the second straight season, Drouin has continued to make a name as the most dominant and dynamic player in the Canadian junior ranks. Since being returned to Halifax after Lightning training camp, Drouin has averaged more than two points per game and at the U20 World Junior Championships Drouin finished tied for 7th in the tournament in scoring. He narrowly missed making the Lightning this season, but you can pretty much ink his name onto the Lightning next season. The Lightning's patience should yield a couple of key benefits, too. First, Drouin will be a year stronger, both physically and mentally. Second, Tampa Bay, Halifax, and Team Canada have all made it a point to cross-train Drouin at the center position, which should add flexibility to his game and make him an even more formidable weapon in the NHL.

2.) G Andrey Vasilevskiy. Ufa (RUS) [2]
This season has been a successful one thus far for Andrey Vasilevskiy as he attempts to transition from a junior phenom to professional level goaltender. After splitting last season between the MHL and a backup role for Ufa in the KHL, Vasilevskiy has carried approximately half the workload with Ufa this season. He's been solid in that time, with a winning percentage well above .500, a GAA around 2.30, and a save percentage over .920. He's getting used to playing a professional level schedule against many shooters who used to play in the AHL and NHL. That experience, coupled with a successful Bronze Medal winning run at the U20 World Junior Championships, should only ease Vasilevskiy's transition into North American professional hockey next season.

3.) RW Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay (NHL) [3]
One of the real movers so far this season has been right winger Nikita Kucherov. After barely missing making the Lightning out of training camp, Kucherov proceeded to dominate in the AHL, scoring well over a point a game for Syracuse before being recalled to the Lightning to try to help fill the scoring void left when Steven Stamkos broke his leg. The results since Kucherov joined the big club have been breathtaking, with Kucherov quickly gaining a reputation as one of the Lightning's most dangerous offensive players. Kucherov's quick release and top level hockey sense, combined with his slick puck handling abilities, have made him one of Jon Cooper's go-to players in situations where the team needs a goal and in shootouts. Perhaps just as importantly, Kucherov's earned Cooper's trust by exhibiting good work habits in the defensive end of the rink as well, making it very likely Kucherov is in the NHL to stay for a very, very long time.

4.) D Slater Koekkoek, Windsor (OHL) [9]
After missing major portions of the past two seasons with shoulder injuries, we're getting to see the real Slater Koekkoek in 2013-2014 with the Windsor Spitfires. To date, Koekkoek has already set career highs in goals, assists, and points and his plus-minus, at well above +30, is beginning to make his defensive struggles in the past with Peterborough a fading memory. Koekkoek has elite level size and skating ability from the backline, and as his game matures he's begun to get a better sense of when to attack and when to fall back and cover up defensively. He's likely, given the number of games he missed over the past couple of seasons and the nature of the position he plays, to need a season or two of time in Syracuse to get ready for the NHL. But, once he gets that experience, the Lightning expect they'll get a two-way defenseman with the mobility and strength to gobble up huge minutes with Tampa Bay.

5.) C Vladislav Namestnikov, Syracuse (AHL) [8]
Had he not broken his hand earlier this season, Vladislav Namestnikov might be up with Tampa Bay right now in Nikita Kucherov's place. After being sent down to Syracuse due to a quiet training camp with Tampa Bay, Namestnikov teamed up with Kucherov to form a dynamic duo that was arguably the AHL's most unstoppable force. Namestnikov was the playmaker and Kucherov was the finisher. Unfortunately, Vladislav broke his hand just before Kucherov was recalled to the Lightning, leaving him over a month of rehab work while his former linemate was breaking in with the Lightning. Now that he's back healthy, though, Namestnikov has already surpassed his statistics from a season ago despite playing in roughly half the number of games. He's still at over a point a game with Syracuse and that points toward Namestnikov being a serious threat to make the NHL next season. In the long run, look for Namestnikov to assume the Lightning's second or third line center position and possibly reunite with Kucherov for many seasons to come.

6.) D Andrej Sustr, Syracuse (AHL) [10]
Despite his recent demotion to Syracuse of the AHL, Lightning fans should be absolutely thrilled about the future of defenseman Andrej Sustr. The rookie defenseman, fresh out of the University of Nebraska-Omaha in the NCAA, parlayed a strong Lightning camp into a roster spot with the team. From there, he displayed poise and skill beyond his years. Sustr simply understands positioning, in all three zones, is a pinpoint breakout passer, and doesn't seem to panic under duress. His lack of first step speed was revealed to be less of an issue because of his condor-like wingspan and, if last season's playoffs with Syracuse are an indication, he has even more to give offensively. Sustr, who was used to playing 35-40 games a season with UNO, may well have been suffering from fatigue as he adjusted to the workload of a professional season. Once he finishes grinding out this campaign and has another offseason to train, he'll be better ready to log bigger minutes. When he does, you'll see a defenseman who breaks all stereotypes about tall, Eastern Europeans who play the position. He's Dan Boyle trapped in Zdeno Chara's body, and it'll be fun to see how that finally pans out in the NHL.

7.) RW Richard Panik, Syracuse (AHL) [4]
Despite earning a spot on Slovakia's Olympics roster, 2013-2014 has been a rough year for rookie Richard Panik. The talented forward looked lost with the Lightning after making the team out of camp en route to being dropped from a line with fellow rookies Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson and, eventually, routinely finding himself a healthy scratch. Put simply, after looking like a dominant player in the AHL playoffs last season, Panik has been a shadow of himself this season. He's been uncharacteristically weak on the puck and his defensive play has reverted to the form that led to him sliding to the second round in his draft season. The Lightning still have high hopes for Panik and his Marian Hossa-esque skill set, and they hope that increased ice time with the Crunch and the opportunity to perform for his homeland at the Olympics can help him to get refocused. After all, throughout his career, Panik has shown a propensity for playing his best hockey under the brightest lights, and the lights don't get much brighter than at the Olympics.

8.) RW/C Adam Erne, Quebec (QMJHL) [11]
American-born power forward Adam Erne made quite the splash in the preseason with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Erne had the rare distinction of scoring two goals, the shootout winner, and getting himself suspended all in the span of a single game. Erne was returned to the QMJHL after that performance and has done well, scoring at well over a point a game for the first time in his career. However, it hasn't been all roses and plaudits for Erne. He was embroiled in a controversy after a hit on fellow Lightning prospect Jonathan Drouin that led to Drouin suffering a mild concussion just before the U20 World Junior Championships. Erne went on to struggle mightily to find the scoresheet for Team USA at the tournament, all of which points toward a longer developmental timetable. Expect Erne to play another season of junior hockey next year before advancing to the professional ranks where his game, as a north-south power forward, should translate well.

9.) RW J.T. Brown, Tampa Bay (NHL) [12]
Things haven't gone exactly to plan for J.T. Brown, who signed with the Lightning a couple of seasons ago out of University of Minnesota-Duluth. But, in the end, what he's learned from the journey may help him extend his NHL career. After suffering an injury last season, Brown re-emerged in Syracuse in more of a checking line role, playing alongside veterans like Mike Angelidis. After starting this season with the Crunch, Brown got to ride shotgun with Kucherov and Namestnikov on the team's top line acting in a complimentary role using his speed and strength to be the first man in on the puck. With injuries mounting in Tampa Bay, Brown was recalled with Kucherov to the Lightning and he's played a hybrid of the two roles still playing with Kucherov and being centered by the likes of Nate Thompson. Jon Cooper has further added to Brown's portfolio by using him regularly on the penalty kill with Tampa Bay, helping to make J.T. one of the Lightning's most versatile pieces. Will that lead to longevity with the organization? Or, does Brown need to find himself a more neatly defined niche with the team moving forward? Time will tell.

10.) D Mark Barberio, Tampa Bay (NHL) [13]
There's no more wildly difficult a player to peg in the Lightning organization than defenseman Mark Barberio. As the AHL's top defenseman two seasons ago, Tampa Bay has invested a lot of hope that Barberio will develop along the lines of Pittsburgh's Kris Letang. In the offensive third, the comparison is apt. Barberio's offensive hockey sense is off the charts, showing an amazing propensity to get prime looks from the middle point and keep plays alive on the attack. It's the other two zones where Barberio's play is sometimes eminently cringe-worthy. His defensive positioning has not matured to the same level as his offensive game, and his lack of upper and lower body strength has led him to lose the vast majority of 50/50 puck battles he's been involved in. When you couple that with Barberio's propensity to panic and throw the puck away under duress, it's quite the witch’s brew. Barberio has managed to assemble an excellent plus-minus by a combination of excellent matchup management from Associate Coach Rick Bowness and an ability to move pucks quickly enough to avoid too many duress situations, but there are limits to how much ice time the Lightning can reasonably give Barberio so long as the holes in his game still exist. He'll have another season and a half to fill those holes, after which it will become clear whether Mark Barberio is the next Kris Letang or the next Andy Delmore. Things have been looking up recently.

11.) G Kristers Gudlevskis, Syracuse (AHL) [24]
The biggest mover of all in our Midterm Rankings is Latvian-born goaltender Kristers Gudlevskis. The late-round gem was drafted out of the Dinamo Riga organization in the KHL and signed by the Lightning, but with Cedrick Desjardins and Riku Helenius already under contract, they ended up placing him in Florida of the ECHL. His play with the Everblades was outstanding, posting two shutouts, a 1.83 GAA and a .925 sv% in 11 games. When a minor injury to Helenius opened the door for Gudlevskis, he proceeded to kick it down, replicating his strong play with Syracuse and eventually pushing Helenius out of his job and Desjardins onto the bench. Gudlevskis' game is similar to Vasilevskiy's and now that he's seized the starting job in Syracuse, Kristers might well be seen as the pathfinder for Vasilevskiy's development. The fact he's a legitimate NHL prospect in his own right only makes that arrangement all the sweeter.

12.) W/C Matthew Peca, Quinnipiac (ECAC) [14]
Continuing the tradition of dynamic, diminutive Lightning forwards like Martin St. Louis, Cory Conacher, and Tyler Johnson before him is late-round steal Matthew Peca of the Quinnipiac Bobcats. Selected out of Pembroke of the CCHL, the junior is one of the most dangerous players off the rush in the whole of the NCAA. Drawing more opposition attention after having exploded into the national conscience during last year's run to the National Championship game and pressed into more of a two-way role with his team after several key graduations, Peca's numbers are slightly down this season. But, Peca's game is still undeniable. He has outstanding hands, speed, and is a strong worker with leadership intangibles. Given the number of contracts the Lightning have on the books, they may choose to let Peca finish up his degree with Quinnipiac, but sooner or later he'll start his road to Tampa Bay.

13.) C Cedric Paquette, Syracuse (AHL) [19]
With Syracuse beset by recalls and injuries, opportunities opened up for several new players with the Crunch. Answering the call was former Blainville-Boisbriand centerman Cedric Paquette, the man we affectionately call, "Dump Truck." With Namestnikov out with a broken hand, Paquette performed admirably as the Crunch's first line center with over a half a point a game in his first pro regular season. Paquette has good hands in tight, good strength, and above all, nobody works harder. It's what helps him overcome his subpar skating and makes him a legitimate NHL prospect. Will he be a scoring liner in the NHL? Probably not. But, it's not a stretch to think Paquette can eventually assume a checking line role similar to current Lightning forward Nate Thompson once he reaches the NHL.

14.) LW Brian Hart, Harvard (ECAC) [16]
Matthew Peca isn't the only promising prospect the Lightning have out of the ECAC ranks. Sophomore Brian Hart out of Harvard, a second round pick, offers size, strength, and a heavy shot to Tampa Bay's inventory of young forwards. The big knock on Hart is his skating, and his numbers are down appreciably this year compared to his rookie campaign. However, there's time for Hart with two and a half more seasons in the NCAA left to play. If he can begin to play to his potential, the Lightning may have a Bill Guerin-type forward to add to the mix.

15.) LW Henri Ikonen, Kingston (OHL) [21]
Golden boy Henri Ikonen has had quite the year, going from undrafted overage prospect to drafted by the Lightning to being a member of Finland's winning team at the U20 World Junior Championships. Hard work is the recipe Ikonen has employed for success, to go along with good skating ability and decent hands. He surprised many by staying in the OHL this year rather than returning to play in the Finnish SM-liiga and the decision seems to have paid off with Ikonen already nearly matching his scoring output from a season ago in one-third fewer games. Look for him to get the J.T. Brown treatment in the Lightning organization starting next season as his versatility will allow him to fill a multitude of roles with the Syracuse Crunch.

16.) C Tanner Richard, Syracuse (OHL) [15]
Unlike Cedric Paquette, one of the real disappointments of the season thus far has been the inability of Tanner Richard to step up. The Swiss-born forward scored at over a point a game pace the past two seasons with Guelph in the OHL. With all the injuries and callups altering Syracuse's roster, there was ample opportunity for Richard to fill the void. But, to date, he simply hasn't shown the consistency to make a difference. Richard has good speed and skill, having drawn comparisons to Valtteri Filppula in his draft season. But, until Richard matures as a professional, he'll struggle to meet those lofty expectations. Vladislav Namestnikov had a similar slow adjustment to pro hockey. The second half of the season will be telling.

17.) G Adam Wilcox, Minnesota (BIG10) [18]
Sophomore netminder Adam Wilcox has followed up his outstanding freshman season with a campaign to remember. Wilcox has managed to bump his save percentage up 10 points en route to losing just two games in regulation all season to date. It's no exaggeration to say Wilcox is one of the best goaltenders in the fledgling Big 10 conference. With the emergence of Ben Bishop and Gudlevskis, and Vasilevskiy on the way, there's no need for the Lightning to rush Wilcox to the pros. He'll get two more seasons playing in one of the finest NCAA programs in the land before moving on to the professional ranks.

18.) D Dylan Blujus, North Bay (OHL) [20]
Dog's luck plagued Dylan Blujus at the start of his 2013-2014 campaign. The Team USA junior hopeful had to have minor knee surgery coming out of Lightning camp, which helped derail his bid to make that team and raise his profile. The good news is that, since regaining his health, the Battalion defenseman is showing modest improvement in his numbers in the OHL. That's probably enough to earn Blujus an NHL contract, given his size, mobility, and heavy righty shot. The Lightning simply don't have a lot of depth at the defenseman position, and Blujus does have the athleticism to be an NHL defenseman. Look for him to find his way to Syracuse next season.

19.) D Nikita Nesterov, Syracuse (AHL) [17]
Nikita Nesterov's rookie pro campaign with the Syracuse Crunch got off to a bang. The Russian-born blueliner racked up points in bunches early in the year on a nearly unstoppable power play unit with countrymen Kucherov and Namestnikov. However, when they left, Nesterov's numbers took a nosedive. There are things to like in Nesterov's game: he's a hard worker who isn't afraid to get his nose dirty and he has above average offensive instincts and ability to run a power play. Our concern is with Nesterov's lateral agility and lack of upper body strength. He can get outquicked by speedier forwards and overpowered by stronger ones. Time will tell if he overcomes those liabilities. In fact, we wouldn't be overly shocked if he occupies the same boat Mark Barberio currently occupies in 3-4 year's time if he hasn’t chosen to return home.

20.) D Luke Witkowski, Syracuse (AHL) [22]
Closing out the top-20 of the rankings is longtime Bolt Prospects mainstay, 23-year-old defenseman Luke Witkowski. The former Western Michigan Bronco has unsurprisingly settled into a stay-at-home defenseman's role in his first pro season with Syracuse of the AHL. He has good size, decent mobility, is willing to get his nose dirty as evidenced by the fact he's likely to top 100 penalty minutes this season, and he has great leadership intangibles. He might get lost in the shuffle with sexier prospects like Nesterov and Koekkoek, but if J.P. Cote is any indication, there's a place in the NHL for guys like Witkowski who know their role and play it in a consistent, understated fashion. The fact he can play the right side certainly doesn't hurt either.

21.) G Jaroslav Janus, Bratislava (RUS) [23]
23-year-old goaltender Jaroslav Janus' numbers have suffered this season behind a subpar Slovan Bratislava team in the KHL, but he remains a quality project. A season ago, behind a deeper Bratislava squad, he posted a sparkling 2.17 GAA and .928 sv%. This season, with former NHLers like Miroslav Satan largely absent from the roster the first half of the year, his GAA has ballooned to near 3 and his save percentage has languished below the magic .900 mark. Still, he's got elite athleticism and has proven he can play at a high level in both the AHL and KHL. He remains a decent option for the Lightning if they choose to bring him back to North America as added depth.

22.) D Jake Dotchin, Barrie (OHL) [Not ranked]
It's a contract year for defenseman Jake Dotchin, and the Barrie Colt has responded with career highs in goals, assists, points, and penalty minutes, along with a drastically improved plus-minus. That's called good timing, and it's put him in line to possibly get signed and placed with Syracuse next season. Dotchin's got good size and snarl and underrated offensive ability, but lasted to the sixth round in his draft season because of his funky skating stride. Lucky for him the Lightning have a quality skating coach and a deep wellspring of patience.

23.) D Artem Sergeev, Syracuse (AHL) [25]
It's been a quiet, underwhelming AHL rookie campaign for Artem Sergeev of Syracuse. Sergeev came out of Val-d'Or of the QMJHL with a deserved reputation as a mobile power play quarterback, but has yet to make much of a scoring dent in his rookie pro season. His best feature is certainly his skating and he has better size than countryman Nesterov. Again, it doesn't hurt that he is a righty shot like Witkowski and Dotchin, either. Look for him to take an expanded role as he gets more comfortable in the pro ranks. He has more to give.

24.) RW Joel Vermin, Bern (SUI) [28]
Winger Joel Vermin on Bern in the Swiss NLA played so well last season, with 13 goals and 35 points in 47 games, that he earned NHL draft selection by the Lightning and an NHL contract. Tampa Bay returned Vermin to the NLA this season to continue his development and the bottom dropped out. Vermin's scoring pace is less than half it was a season ago, sadly. Vermin fits the profile of several NLA-based players: he's speedy, plays a north-south oriented game, and has above average hands. Expect the Lightning to bring him over to Syracuse of the AHL next season.

25.) LW Danick Gauthier, Florida (ECHL) [30]
Holding down the final spot in the rankings is Danick Gauthier, a man who just can't seem to break through at the AHL level. Gauthier has shown decent ability to score in each of his first two pro campaigns splitting time between Florida and Syracuse, but he hasn't been able to show enough consistency in all three zones to stick with the Crunch, even when the team was ravaged by injuries and call-ups. He's got decent size and above average hands, but nothing about his game has wowed anybody enough to date. That's bad news and his time could be running out.

Graduated: Tyler Johnson [5], Radko Gudas [6], Ondrej Palat [7].
Dropped out: Jimmy Mullin [26], Nikita Gusev [27], Philippe Paradis [29].
Additional not ranked: Charles Landry, Daniel Milan, Brendan O'Donnell, Saku Salminen.
Notable overagers/graduates: Brett Connolly, Dmitry Korobov, Riku Helenius, Geoff Walker.

Contributors: Pete Choquette (@jollymeangiant), Chad Schnarr (@boltprospects), Timothy Bennett (@exterminatorx), Michael Gallimore (@mikegallimore)