Name: Mitchell Stephens
Position: Center/Right Winger
Weight: 188 lbs.
Club: Saginaw (OHL)
One of the things we've seen repeatedly in the Yzerman-Murray drafts is the penchant to spend a pick or two on players with the potential to immediately impact the Syracuse Crunch. Twice Head Amateur Scout Al Murray has spent first round picks on older first-time draft-eligible players (Namestnikov and DeAngelo) that could be fast tracked to the AHL after just one additional junior season. With later round draftees Cedric Paquette and Henri Ikonen, Murray once again dipped into the 19-year-old pool, allowing Syracuse to benefit from them have quicker access to the professional development pipeline. We've also seen Murray draft three players that were basically draft-and-sign guys (Ondrej Palat, Kristers Gudlevskis, and Cameron Darcy) that were eligible to immediately slot into the AHL after being drafted. Gudlevskis (pictured) was drafted out of Europe, and while Darcy just wasn't quite ready last year, the expectation when he selected was that he'd transition immediately to Syracuse or ECHL Florida. In this article, I'll first highlight some of the one-and-done players from Pete Choquette's 2015 Bolt Prospects Draft Review, and I'll also throw out at least five players to keep your eye on in the later rounds as potential draft-and-sign guys that could help the Crunch this fall.
This week's “Corey Schwab Edition” of the Bolt Prospects Podcast (also available on Lightning Radio's iHeart station) includes the following topics:
· The No. 32
· Playoff review: What went right? What went wrong?
· Offseason preview: options exist
· Draft preview: types to target
· Latest prospect rankings: Who’s up, who’s down?
It's a compressed run up to the 2015 NHL Entry Draft this week, thanks to the Lightning's deep playoff run all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. As a result, we'll be rolling both our 2015 Final Rankings and our 2015 NHL Entry Draft Preview all in the same day. So, happy binge reading.
This year was a mixed bag for the prospects of the Tampa Bay Lightning system. In terms of actually delivering players to the NHL, the team had three players reach graduation from prospect status (Paquette, Drouin, and Namestnikov), while three other current prospects (Nesterov, Marchessault, and Vasilevskiy) all saw time in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The team also can boast a fairly top-heavy slate of prospects dotted with a few crown jewels, most notably the afore mentioned Vasilevskiy.
The Tampa Bay Lightning's 2015 season has come to a close in mid-June, leaving precious little time for us here at Bolt Prospects to get you caught up for the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. Before we do, though, lets take a moment to reflect on just how important the draft and the minor league developmental system have been to the Lightning's success thus far. The team climbed the mountain all the way to the Stanley Cup Final this year, and while they didn't get all the way to the summit, they got a peek at the promised land largely on the strength of draft picks and other prospects who came of age in this organization.
Looking at all the players who saw time in the 2015 NHL Playoffs, there were 13 Bolt Prospects alumni and three current Bolt Prospects on a roster of 24 players that saw time in the postseason. Of those 16, 11 came to the Lightning via the NHL Entry Draft with Tyler Johnson, J.T. Brown, and Andrej Sustr coming via free agency, and Ben Bishop and Jonathan Marchessault coming to the team via trade. So, nearly half of the team that came within an eyelash of winning it all this season came to the team through the draft. This event in late June matters. A lot.
Beginning last June and through free agency, the regular season, and all the way to the end of Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals the Lightning gave its fans plenty of excitement.
It’s a good thing, because there’s a boring offseason ahead. Prepare yourself accordingly.
Last year the Bolts were swinging deals and signing free agents to shore up their defense (Garrison, Stralman), bottom six forwards (Boyle, Morrow), and backup goalie (Nabokov).
There aren’t many needs for the Eastern Conference champs now, though there are some areas in need of improvement.
First, a look at who’s on the way out:
Stanley Cup Final
Chicago Wins the Series 4-2
Ben Bishop allowed just 2 goals on 25 shots for the loss. He didn't allow a great rebound on the first goal because I thought the shot got a little redirected on the way in, and then he was essentially left to fend for himself on the second chance. The second goal was a really a 2-on-1 where Bishop just couldn't push from right to left to have any kind of chance on the Kane one-timer. That would've been a difficult chance to stop healthy, but in light of what we know now, it was impossible. After the game, it was revealed Ben Bishop has been playing with a torn groin since Game Two of the series. I feel sick for the guy that he's played this well in an extreme amount of pain and just couldn't get any goal support. I've heard people in the fan base who are way, way too quick to usher Ben out the door in the next year or two to make way for the wunderkind Andrei Vasilevskiy, but those people might want to take a moment to appreciate the mental toughness it takes to play your way through that kind of injury. That is one tough hombre. He's just a bad, bad dude. Much respect.
17:13 CHI Keith (3), (Kane, Richards)
14:46 CHI Kane (11), (Richards, Saad)
In the end the Lightning were too banged up to play their normal possession game, and when they did have good chances they just couldn't capitalize. Number one on that list was Steven Stamkos, who rang a crossbar in the First Period and then had a breakaway in the Second Period where he came to a near stop dekeing to his forehand before getting stopped by Crawford and then putting the rebound off the side of the net. I may have misheard this, but I think NBC said Stamkos had something like 20-21 scoring chances in the 6 games of this series. That's an obscene number of chances to surrender to one of the two greatest goal scorers of this generation for him to not score a goal. That'll live with him all summer, I'm sure, and that crossbar in particular was just a hair off. 1/16" lower and that's probably down and in, and we may be talking about a Game Seven at this hour. It was that close. For Steven, this is an interesting moment in his career. A lot of the 2014-2015 season was spent trying to get comfortable playing hockey again after breaking his leg against Boston last season. He still scored 40 goals and had a statistically decent playoffs overall, but truth be told there were a lot of times it still felt we were seeing the 85% version of Steven Stamkos. Now, having been through this experience, does this lead to Steven having "the mother of all summers" en route to getting back on the trajectory he was on prior to the injury of becoming the best player in the game?
Getting back to Game Six, how close were the Lightning? How razor thin was the margin between ecstasy and agony in this series? The Lightning were finally getting some zone time in the Third Period to try to tie the game and the chance came into the right circle to Brayden Coburn who breaks his stick on an A- chance, which lead to the odd man rush that put the Blackhawks up 2-0 and broke the Lightning's back. Buzzard's luck if I've ever seen it. Really the Lightning were just 1-2 bounces from winning this series, even with the rash of injuries, and that's what so maddening about what transpired in the last three games.
After the game, along with the revelation about Bishop's injury, it was revealed that Tyler Johnson's been playing this series with the bone that attaches his thumb to his wrist broken, which is why he hasn't been taking faceoffs this series. We'll find out what happened to his linemate Kucherov soon enough, along with Brian Boyle. Stamkos may also be dinged. Callahan obviously had the appendix. Paquette had both his hands shot off several times at different parts of the playoffs. Also, I suspect there may be something wrong with Garrison, although it may have just been fatigue setting in that made him look particularly slow in the past couple of games. I'm sure I'm leaving some guys out. In any event, the cumulative effect of all the centermen getting injured was that Cedric Paquette, a rookie who as it was noted had his hands shot off blocking shots several times in these playoffs, had to take a ton of important defensive zone draws and he absolutely got eaten alive the first half of Game Five and pretty much all of Game Six. 0-for-13 on faceoffs tonight? That seems almost impossible, and yet it happened. That advantage allowed Chicago to manufacture possession and zone time that they otherwise struggled to create in the flow of play and probably ultimately swung the series to them.
All that said, this feels different than the Lightning's last serious run at the Cup in 2011. That team had more of a lightning-in-the-bottle feel to it with certain players (Purcell and Bergenheim) playing over their head and the last remnants of the 2004 Cup team (Lecavalier and St. Louis) making their last real kick at the can together. I felt spent (and more than a little shafted by the officials) after that Game Seven loss in the Eastern Conference Finals against Boston. I knew they were an eyelash away from winning it all because that series may well have been the Stanley Cup Final that year and I knew it was a long shot for the team to get back the following season with so many older pieces, including the desiccating remains of Dwayne Roloson between the pipes. The other thing was, psychologically, I think that team had bought in to Guy Boucher's system and mystique to such a degree that when they didn't win it all, it was such a shock to their psyche he started to lose that locker room from that moment on in a slow erosion of belief. And for me, personally? I didn't want to deal with hockey for several months after that I was so disillusioned by what had transpired.
Tonight? I'm thinking about what this team has to do tomorrow and every day thereafter until one year from now they're back in this position hoisting the Cup, because I absolutely believe they can do so. This team, structurally, has the bones of a great dynasty. They're incredibly young, incredibly deep, and now they're incredibly experienced. Recall (although I'm not comparing the two) the great Edmonton team of the 80's had to take their medicine from the Islanders before they became a dynasty. And, psychologically, I think Jon Cooper can play off the fact these guys will feel a little angry they might've been cheated at the finish line by the injury bug. This team's belief shouldn't be shaken. It should be galvanized by the fact that they were playing with a bunch of hurt centermen and a goaltender with a torn groin and they still seriously, seriously challenged a historically good Chicago Blackhawks team that has been the class of the cap era. Has been. The Lightning, with the foundation they have, will be, if they commit together that they're going to be. And, that commitment has to start with tomorrow and every day thereafter until one year from now they're hoisting the Cup.
The things that need to change with the Lightning's roster are minor, and many of them will be fixed with time. Jonathan Drouin and Vladislav Namestnikov will be ready to be regular contributors at this time next year and young guys like Cedric Paquette and J.T. Brown have found out in these playoffs, Paquette in particular, that they can be world class players on the sport's biggest stage. The Lightning will have secondary scoring depth at this time next year, and with health should be better on faceoffs, although it might behoove Yzerman to pick up a veteran faceoff ace somewhere along the line just in case.
On defense, Victor Hedman had his coming out party in these playoffs and may finally take that next step of becoming a legit Norris Trophy candidate next season while Anton Stralman looked like an All-Star in his own right. Jason Garrison and Brayden Coburn offer solid second pair options, albeit they have their clunkers here and there, and Andrej Sustr and Nikita Nesterov will only get better with age. That's six defensemen on a team that, because Cooper likes to play seven defensemen so much, might be best to carry eight. Where are the other two? You hope Slater Koekkoek, who looked darned good in his late season cup of coffee, comes to camp ready to mount a serious challenge for a spot and perhaps you look at signing up a hungry vet to round out the group. The Lightning didn't quite get everything they might've wanted from this year's hungry vet signing, Brendan Morrow, who was Yzerman's second choice behind Jarome Iginla for that slot. If Iginla had signed with the Lightning instead of Colorado, Tampa Bay might be hoisting a Cup right now. Remember, tomorrow and every day thereafter, including July 1st, the Lightning need to be focused on winning every little battle to make sure next year they finish what they started this season. In any event, with Morrow departing, I still like the idea of finding that hungry vet who wants one last run at glory and is willing to take a little bit of a discount rate to do so. The Lightning had that player in Simon Gagne in 2011 and they had Morrow this season. It's not a coincidence, either.
And, between the pipes, did I mention Ben Bishop is a bad, bad hombre? With Vasilevskiy now up at the NHL level, the Lightning should be able to cut back Ben's workload in the regular season more and hopefully conserve some of his mileage for the postseason. Also, given Ben's ended his past two seasons with injuries, I think it's probably time for Ben to up his postseason conditioning game once he rehabs from the groin. That's the same for all of the Lightning players, too. This is a pretty fit group, but Chicago, despite being a lot older, was healthier at the finish line partly because they played shorter series to get to this point but also partly because those guys understand the difference between being fit and being Stanley Cup fit. The Lightning don't need to train for an 82 game season this summer, they need to train for about a 106 game campaign so they won't have as much fatigue and as many injuries when they get to the finish line next season.
On an unrelated tangent, I just want to say how impressed I was with the Lightning fan base tonight. Approximately 17,000 showed up at Amalie Arena tonight despite the clunker that was Game Five, and it was extremely impressive to me and a sign of the fact that this season has created yet another groundswell in Tampa Bay just like the playoffs in '96, '03, '04, and '11 created expansions in the fan base. It didn't seem to me like NBC appropriately addressed what took place in Amalie tonight on the national broadcast, which is the annoying artifact of a national media still hell bent on pushing a preconceived narrative because of a jersey ban. It's all good, though, because they won't be able to get rid of Lightning fans quite so easily moving forward. Of all the faces in the crowd tonight, there was so much youth in the 15-25 year old range. These are fans who couldn't necessarily make it to Game Five with ticket prices being so astronomical, but if the economy in the area gets stronger and Tampa Bay can retain that youth in the area then this is going to be a nice boom for the fan base in about 5 years. The people who showed up tonight are Lightning fans for life, and if they can build careers in the area and develop some prosperity in the process, they're going to e buying tickets to the Lightning for life eventually, too. Tampa Bay's a tough place for young professionals to make a living in, and that's the toughest nut the Lightning have to crack because it's a structural problem with the market. With a team on the brink of becoming something very special and a little luck in the form of an economic surge in the area over the next few years (knock on wood) though, the Lightning could become a beast of a franchise. Tampa Bay is the 13th largest TV market in the country, which isn't too shabby, and the Lightning have begun to capture the hearts and minds of a much coveted demographic that will only become more powerful as time moves along.
I also wanted to say that this post marks the conclusion of Bolt Prospects' tenth season, and while it didn't have the fairy tale ending we hoped for (I was all ready to declare it the Bolt Prospects Stanley Cup), we remain incredibly humbled and thankful for the support of all of our readers. October will mark the ten year anniversary of the official opening of the website and it's been an honor and a privilege to write for you. Reflecting back on this time, for the staff, the past ten years have brought a lot of changes in our lives as we've built careers (day jobs) and built families. Some of us have moved to different cities and dealt with all manners of highs and lows in the day-to-day ebb and flow of the real world. Our love of Tampa Bay and the Tampa Bay Lightning and our continued to commitment to this thing we created ten years ago, Bolt Prospects, has been the one constant. We also would like to thank the Lightning organization, past and present, our friends and supporters in the media (the ones we can stand), and the players and their families (who are often the unheralded heroes of any player's career).
Lastly, and most importantly, we thank our own families for their support and understanding. For about eight months out of the year my significant other refers to herself as a hockey widow while I escape into my 125 square foot little home office to spend an inordinate amount of time watching hockey games and keeping up what the latest goings on were in obscure destinations such as Magnitogorsk, Russia. We do it because we love it (we darn sure don't do it for the money), and thankfully, they put up with it because they love us. That kind of understanding is pretty darned special, n'est-ce pas?
As I complete this post, which has taken forever to write, it's about fifteen minutes past 2:00 AM. That means it's already tomorrow... and the start of every day thereafter. Until... next year.
Lightning on the brink of tragedy... or opportunity.
Stanley Cup Final
Chicago Leads the Series 3-2
Ben Bishop allowed 2 goals on 27 shots for the loss. The really sad thing about tonight is that, after four days of rest, I thought Bishop looked as healthy and as sharp as he has since early in the ECF. His rebound control was spot on and he looked pretty solid. Unfortunately, all of that was marred by his inexplicable decision to leave his cage and failure to communicate with Victor Hedman that led to an easy skate in goal for Patrick Sharp. I think Bishop was guilty of being a little over-exuberant and trying to do too much, and the end result was a de facto soft goal that ended up being like so many other soft goals... the margin of losing.
6:11 CHI Sharp (5), (Teravainen, Toews)
10:53 TB Filppula (4), (Garrison, Stralman)
2:00 CHI Vermette (4), (Versteeg)
Victor Hedman was the game's third star.
Give credit to Chicago. Ben Bishop wasn't the only one to benefit from the extra day of rest between Game Four and Game Five and they came out strong and put together their best opening 10 minutes of the entire series. The Lightning would have weathered it were it not for the Bishop mishap, but in the end the Blackhawks probably did deserve a lead for their work heading into the First Intermission. Part of the Lightning's problem in that First Period, mind you, was an awkward play where Nikita Kucherov tripped over Corey Crawford diving in front of his net on a puckhandling gaffe of his own, which sent Kucherov head/shoulder first into the crossbar and out of the game. Severity now becomes the question with Kucherov: it is a shoulder, collarbone, or concussion situation? Just when we might finally moving on from Goalie Gate we may be heading into 48 hours of Kuchie Kontroversy. The line juggling that ensued meant the team really had to struggle to find some continuity and get their legs back under them.
Fortunately, the team showed some resiliency and came out strong in the Second Period, eventually letting Bishop off the hook (somewhat) when a Jason Garrison cross ice pass was swept home by Valtteri Filppula. Can I just underscore how bad Corey Crawford was on that goal, for a moment. Sweet merciful Jesus, you could've timed his ability to get from his right post to his left post with a sun dial. The guy's got really slow feet, and even had to push twice just to get over to his left post extremely late. Bear in mind, the pass deflected off a Blackhawks stick and Filppula also fumbled it before he got it on frame for the goal. I cannot believe the Lightning are struggling this much with a guy with feet that slow after defeating the likes of Mrazek, Price, and Lundqvist earlier in the playoffs. Yes, I get there are injury factors at play, but the Lightning have to know this guy can't move worth a damn laterally. Instead, they've been suckered into this fool's bet of moving pucks back to their points and trying to pound them through two and sometimes three Chicago shot blockers, which creates loose pucks Chicago then collects and either deposits out of the zone or uses to trigger a counter. Just like with Mrazek, the Lightning have got to get Crawford moving laterally (Mrazek because he would get too aggressive and lose his angles and Crawford because he's a statue).
The Third Period was a shared trauma that I may end up taking to my grave. That was horrible. Two minutes into it, Jason Garrison got caught on the wrong side of the puck at the Chicago blueline leading to a partial breakaway. Jonathan Drouin did a good job using his speed to cut off the angle while Garrison did well to recover from behind and shut off the initial chance, but it resulted in a busted play that netted Vermette's game winner. Garrison, quite frankly, did not cloak himself in glory on the defensive side of the puck tonight either with several turnovers and even falling down inexplicably while trying to skate the puck out of his own zone.
The remaining 18 minutes of the Third Period were, basically, a clinic. What Chicago did to Tampa Bay to close Game Five is what Tampa Bay should have done to Chicago to close out Game One. And, indeed, it may turn out that Tampa Bay's failure to do so in Game One comes back to haunt them. In any event, Chicago played a brilliantly structured game to build a wall at their blueline, force the Lightning to chip the puck in or turn it over, and they pounced on obvious counterattack opportunities that resulted in order to get pucks behind the Lightning defense on the forecheck and generate pressure of their own. In the end, the Lightning went out meekly, without much of a push at trying to tie the game.
That leads to the question of the hour that seems to be on a lot of Lightning fan's minds: are the Lightning done in Game Six? Right now Jon Cooper's got a lot of Jedi mind tricks to play to make sure that question doesn't seep into the Lightning locker room. This team looked deader than a door nail in the Detroit series after dropping Game Five, and they were playing nowhere near as well against the Red Wings early in that series as they have early in this Chicago series. We should also point out that the Lightning's '04 Cup team also did it the hard way by defeating Calgary on the road in Game Six before their eventual Cup triumph in Game Seven on home ice. This isn't done, by any stretch, especially with a healthier Ben Bishop back between the pipes. But, it begins with the six inches of gray matter between each Lightning players' ears. Know this: there's still 28 other teams in the NHL that wish they were in Tampa Bay's position of just having to win two games in a row to take a Stanley Cup. If they treat Game Six as a negative thing to be feared, then it'll become a fait accompli. If they treat it as an opportunity to be relished, then they've got a chance to live to fight another (Game Seven) day.
Cooper's gamble nearly pays off.
Stanley Cup Final
Series Tied 2-2
Andrei Vasilevskiy allowed 2 goals on 19 shots for the loss, as Cooper did what I speculated he might do playing the rookie in Game Four to allow Ben Bishop 4+ days of rest before a critical Game Five tilt. The Lightning did a really good job defensively in front of Andrei, for the most part, which meant he didn't have to face down a ton of scoring chances. Chicago's first goal partly resulted from poor rebound control and the second was absolutely not Vasilevskiy's fault as the defense never should have allowed Saad to break in that uncontested off a faceoff loss. Vasiy also got the benefit of the iron three times in the contest, but all in all I thought he held his keep. The Lightning can't allow a team backstopped by Crawford to hold them to just one goal.
6:40 CHI Toews (10), (Sharp, Hossa)
11:47 TB Killorn (9), (Filppula, Stamkos)
6:22 CHI Saad (8), (Kane)
Alex Killorn was the game's third star.
The Lightning shouldn't be panicking after this result. They played a very strong game that they could've very easily won. I remain shocked at how flat Chicago has started all four games of this series, and unlike Game Three there weren't any really long, sustained surges from Chicago that the Lightning had to deal with. It's starting to look to me like fatigue is a serious issue that Chicago is struggling to contend with, with their thin defensive corps, in particular, chasing around Tampa Bay's youthful, speedy players. In the flow of play at 5-on-5, the Lightning definitely are beginning to look like the stronger of the two teams, and the Blackhawks' best chance for victory seems to be power plays and manufacturing goals off of offensive zone faceoffs. That's what happened tonight in the Third Period with three unforced icings and a shot that went off a crossbar and into the crowd that led to Saad's goal off a defensive zone faceoff loss by the Lightning. Penalties and unforced icings are like little life preservers for the Blackhawks now, and the Lightning need to be aware of that and stop giving aid and comfort to the enemy.
I wouldn't change much at even strength for the Lightning and their penalty kill was pretty strong, but the game may well have been lost in the first 40 minutes when the Lightning's ugly, regular season power play reared its ugly head again. They ended up 0-for-4 tonight, and it was a very non-threatening 0-for-4 as the Lightning reverted to the "strategy" of trying to send futile passes circle to circle through the box, which just doesn't work if you don't have some north-south puck movement first to get bodies moving and open up those passing lanes. Zone entry was pretty nonchalant, as well.
Heading into a 3-game series to decide who will hoist the Stanley Cup that starts on Saturday, those are the elements that the Lightning are going to need to tighten up to assure their success.
Nikita Nesterov had 1 shot and 1 hit in 9:02 of ice time. He got 2:13 of his ice time on the PP tonight as the coaching staff used Nesterov to try to give the second unit more of a shooting look. That came at the price of some iffy decision-making at even strength that led to at least one odd man chance surrendered the other way. Heading back to Tampa Bay, the well-worn critique remains: is Nesterov really the most effective use of that lineup spot, or could you use another skilled, speedy forward like Drouin or Namestnikov to throw at the worn down Chicago defense, even if they have some defensive deficiencies (which Nesterov has, if we're honest)?
· The No. 31
· New prospect in the system – and Yzerman is after another one
· Current prospect on the move
· Former prospect named AHL head coach – and he’s now a division rival of Syracuse
· Drouin gets in
· #BPMailbag (You have one trade to make – who goes? … Stamkos’ ice time in question … Sign Marty? … The future of JT Brown … Walcott’s worth … Drouin’s value up or down? … Home game vs road game changing places)