Granted, we're about a month into the Lightning's NHL campaign. But, like a fine wine, we decided to let our 2016-2017 Bolt Prospects Preliminary Rankings age a bit before presenting them to you. Overall, the first month of the year has been very kind to the Lightning prospect pipeline. The Lightning have three Bolt Prospects currently in Tampa this year who look on track for graduation this year while an improved Syracuse team is studded with young players who will get an opportunity to play on what could potentially be one of the better teams in the AHL. Meanwhile, in junior and the NCAA, the fruits of the 2015 and 2016 drafts, in particular, are off to a roaring start that leave us optimistic that the Lightning prospect depth chart is returning to a level of quality we haven't seen for the past couple of years.
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 Nikita Gusev and Kristers Gudlevskis are no longer counted in the top twenty-five. 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. 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. For those wondering, yes, a certain Russian goaltending prospect is very, very close to graduation as of this posting. 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.
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With that out of the way, let's begin...
The 2015-2016 season provided a mixed bag of results for the prospect pipeline of the Tampa Bay Lightning organization. A glass-half-full view would point out the organization weathered one of the most extreme stress tests to a club's depth imaginable. Entering the playoffs without its top goal scorer and second-best defenseman and eventually losing its No. 1 goaltender to injury for an extended period of time in the postseason, the Lightning still managed to advance to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals partly on the performance of some of its top young players.
A glass-half-empty view, however, would point to the disappointing performance of the team's AHL affiliate, which missed the postseason leading to the dismissal of Head Coach Rob Zettler and the hiring of new Head Coach Benoit Groulx entering the 2016-2017 campaign. That's not to say there weren't developmental successes to point to on the Syracuse Crunch roster. But, the smashing success the club had with their affiliate under Jon Cooper had given way to a far more modest, underwhelming new normal that was ultimately not acceptable to the brain trust of Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman and Crunch GM Julien BriseBois.
Now past the All-Star Break of the 2015-2016 campaign, it's time for Bolt Prospects' Midterm Rankings. The year thus far might be summed up best by one word: adversity. Adversity has visited the big league club in the way of injuries, contractual uncertainties, and off-ice controversies. Nothing quite so soap operatic has besieged the Syracuse Crunch or the team's other young prospects, but adversity has found its way all the way down into the pipeline, as well.
After many days of careful debate and examination, Bolt Prospects is ready to announce its 2014-2015 Supplemental Rankings with the addition of the Lightning’s 2015 NHL Entry Draft class. The team's 2015 draft strategy seems in some ways to represent a shifting of gears by a team that appears to have taken the leap into elite status. With no glaring organizational holes after having addressed the defenseman position last summer and with a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in their back pocket, this year's draft strategy appears to have moved away from the goal of adding cornerstone pieces or addressing organizational holes and toward the goal of adding the type of grit and depth necessary to win the sport's greatest prize. As you read the Supplemental Rankings, you'll see that as a common thread throughout almost all of the 2015 draftees. In addition, you'll see how the rankings take into account the results of the team's recent summer rookie camp, which was the first opportunity to evaluate the postseason development track of some prospects and see how new prospects stacked up against returnees.
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.
With the graduation of Cedric Paquette and Jonathan Drouin from prospect status here on Bolt Prospects, it's officially time for our annual mid-season ritual of releasing our Midterm Rankings. While the season to date has been marked by a few surprises, the overall shape and outline of the Lightning organization appears to be in line with our early season expectations. Fresh from a season that saw an unprecedented migration of high-quality talent from the AHL to the NHL level, the Lightning organization still enjoys a handful of highly regarded top-tier prospects. But, the amazing depth the Lightning enjoyed is still in the process of being rebuilt. And, with injuries playing a factor, that depth is being heavily taxed midway through the 2014-2015 campaign, particularly at the defenseman position.
The rules remain the same: Only prospects who were under the age of 24 on opening night of the Lightning season are eligible for inclusion in the rankings (our apologies, Luke Witkowski). A skater prospect is considered graduated if they play 41 games in a single NHL season or they collect 82 career NHL games. Goaltenders graduate with 30 decisions in a single NHL season or 41 career NHL decisions. Finally, NCAA-based prospects are eligible for inclusion on the list as long as they are in school, regardless of their age. With the rules out of the way, let's begin...
Last season the Lightning had unprecedented success in establishing a rookie class at the NHL level, the likes of which may never be seen again. While that group continues on up top in Tampa Bay, the rest of the Lightning organization is left with the charge to reload rather than rebuild. With extra picks in the top-60 in the June draft this past summer, and more on the way next summer, the team has the ammunition to accomplish that goal. Plus, the results of this fall's camp showed the team may have had underrated strength in their remaining prospects with unexpected players making the club in the exhibition season. With all these factors put together, Bolt Prospects' staff has completed its fall tradition: the Preliminary Rankings for the 2014-2015 season.
Written by Pete Choquette (@jollymeangiant)
The dog days of summer find us in a rare lull on the calendar here on Bolt Prospects between the ending of Lightning rookie camp and the start of annual prospect tournaments and training camp. What better opportunity to take the time to examine how the Lightning's 2014 draft class figures into our rankings? With that in mind, here's our 2013-2014 Supplemental Prospect Rankings, the final round of rankings before the 2014-2015 season.
The 2014 NHL Entry Draft offered a tremendous opportunity for the Tampa Bay Lightning to replenish a prospect system that has been depleted by the mass graduation of well over a half a dozen prospects that moved up from the AHL to NHL level last season. Some of the finest prospects in the land still held down the top spots in the rankings, but there was a considerable vacuum behind the top half dozen or so spots. With three picks in the coveted top-60 of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, the team held three golden tickets to begin to restock and reload. The Lightning used those picks to select three defensemen, addressing the most obvious deficiency in their prospect pipeline. Will the needs-based approach to drafting pay off, or will the shift in philosophy this year backfire on the club? Time will tell.
Before we start with the rankings, it's time to once again review the rules of the rankings. Players under 24 years of age on opening night of the 2013-2014 NHL season were eligible for the rankings. Older prospects are considered overage prospects for the purposes of the website (sorry, J.P. Cote). Any skater prospect with 41 or more NHL games in a single season or 82 or more career NHL games is considered graduated on the website. Any goaltender with 30 or more decisions in a single NHL season or 41 career NHL decisions is also considered graduated. Lastly, NCAA prospects are exempt from the 24 year-old cutoff for the duration of their college careers.
Got it? There will be a quiz later. With that out of the way, let's begin...
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…
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.