The Tampa Bay Lightning played a dozen rookie skaters this season, which will limit the opportunity for the upcoming prospects to crack the NHL roster. The Lightning have some talented prospects that will be fighting for every minute come training camp next fall.
Looking at the Lightning roster, there aren't many open spaces for prospects to fill in. The front office will have some interesting decisions this offseason to figure out where to spend money. Those contracts could open up more room for the prospects.
Players like Steven Stamkos, Valtteri Filppula, Teddy Purcell, Matt Carle and Victor Hedman are under contract through at least next season. However, entry-level deals expire this year for Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn, Richard Panik and Andrej Sustr.
The monetary decisions made by the front office will be crucial. Tampa Bay has 15 players under contract for next year and nearly $24 million in cap space (if the cap is at $71 million).
Despite the minimal roster space available for the Lightning's prospects, there are a few that have a great opportunity to make an impact in 2014-15.
Drouin was the Bolts' first-round selection in the 2013 NHL draft. He was one of the last cuts in last year's training camp, sending him back to Halifax in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
He had 105 points in his 2012-13 season, which earned him the high draft spot. This year, he added to that total with 108 points and had an additional 41 in the postseason.
Expectations should be high for Drouin with his talent. After seeing the success of Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon this year, Bolts fans should be excited about the possibility of adding another weapon to the offense.
Koekkoek has been bothered by injuries throughout his young career and has still managed to make a solid case for an NHL roster spot. He was nominated for the Ontario Hockey League's Max Kaminsky Trophy (Defenseman of the Year) this season even after undergoing another season-ending shoulder surgery.
Koekkoek played in 62 games for Windsor and recorded 53 points with an absurd plus-44 rating. He was tied for third on the team in scoring even after missing a handful of games with the injury. With some possible openings on the blue line, Koekkoek could be a big piece next year.
Andrey Vasilevskiy/Kristers Gudlevskis
One spot that is almost guaranteed to be wide open is backup goaltender. Andrey Vasilevskiy has been in Russia playing in the KHL. His contract expires this year and will be able to come to North America and join the Lightning—if he chooses. Last year, he drew a ton of attention and has only solidified his spot since then.
Lightning fans got a look at Kristers Gudlevskis against Montreal in the first round. He relieved Anders Lindback and showed he can be the goaltender that shut down Canada in the Olympics. Gudlevskis has an edge with North American experience and some time in the NHL. His big-game abilities could be a nice complement to No. 1 goaltender Ben Bishop.
If the Lightning have open spaces vacated by Ryan Malone and Ryan Callahan, Adam Erne may have an opportunity to throw the body around in the NHL. He had four points in eight games with Syracuse this year after being Quebec's top scorer in the 2012-13 season.
Erne is a big body that isn't afraid to hit anyone. When we say anyone, we mean anyone—including Jonathan Drouin. He was also suspended last preseason for a hit on St. Louis' Vladimir Sobotka.
The 6'1", 206-pound winger could make a big impact, literally, with the Lightning next season.
After the young group of Lightning rookies racked up 101 points and the second seed in the Atlantic Division, fans should be excited about the future of the franchise. Adding some dynamic players like these could only solidify perennial playoff berths.
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