Tampa Bay Lightning Prospects with the Most to Prove in 2014-15
According to ESPN's Corey Pronman, the Tampa Bay Lightning have the second-best prospect pool in the NHL. With two players that sit on top of their positional rankings, the Bolts prospects will have a lot to prove in 2014-15.
Forward Jonathan Drouin and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy are both No. 1-rated prospects at their positions. While Vasilevskiy probably won't make his NHL debut this season, Drouin is all but a lock for the Lightning's opening night roster.
Drouin won't be the only prospect that has a lot to prove this season. Here are the Bolts prospects with the most to prove in 2014-15.
Forward Brett Connolly hasn't developed into the player he was expected to be. The sixth-overall selection in 2010 has just 17 points in 84 NHL games. Only 16 of those contests have come in the last two seasons.
In 2011-12, Connolly made his NHL debut and was a fixture for a subpar Lightning squad. He played in 68 games with 15 points and just over 11 minutes per game.
As the Lightning's prospect pool has become more talented and deeper, Connolly's odds of becoming a fixture with the big club have dwindled. The 22-year-old signed a one-year deal this offseason worth even less than his entry-level deal.
This is going to be a make-or-break season for Connolly.
Drouin probably could have made the Lightning last season, but he went back to Juniors for another year of development. Nearly every move of his has been closely watched by the Lightning faithful from his drafting in 2013.
This season will be no different, presumably at the highest level. Drouin's role is up in the air, but he could fit in anywhere from the first to the third lines. He can play both center and wing, which gives him a better shot at earning top-six minutes.
Without the ESPN Insider subscription, Erik Erlendsson of the Tampa Bay Tribune repeats what ESPN's Pronman says about Drouin (Via TBO.com): “His skill level and hockey sense are both off the charts, he’s a very elusive skater and he has the ability to create a scoring chance at will. When you combine all of his offensive elements (all of which are high-end), Drouin is the clear best forward prospect outside the NHL.’’
Pronman also listed Drouin as a favorite for the Calder Trophy. All eyes will be on the dynamic forward in 2014-15.
One of the Bolts' best defensive prospects, Slater Koekkoek, has been riddled by injuries in his young career. As he continues his young professional career, Koekkoek will look to prove that he can handle the rigors of a full season in the higher levels.
He should be fully healthy before training camp next month, but the Lightning have a logjam on the blue line. It will take an outstanding camp for him to make the opening-night roster.
The 20-year-old defenseman will more than likely be headed to the American Hockey League, which isn't a bad thing for the gifted prospect. Lightning fans should be optimistic about his growth but need to watch carefully as he looks to take the next step in the AHL.
If Koekkoek can come anywhere near his numbers from Juniors, things will be looking good for him in the next few seasons.
Vladislav Namestnikov was one of 33 prospects named to the NHLPA Rookie Showcase to be held on Aug. 23. Lightning fans have seen what Namestnikov can do but would love to see the showcase catapult his confidence.
The center played in four games for the Lightning last season without recording a point and just four shots. He had 48 points in 56 games with Syracuse in the AHL, including 19 goals on 121 shots.
He has all of the tools to be an impressive player in the NHL, but size will be a factor. Namestnikov will need to be stronger on the puck to become a consistent everyday player at the highest levels.
He got a taste of NHL action last season and will need a strong camp to beat out some of the other prospects fighting for their Lightning lives.
Other Players to Watch
The Lightning have another secondary group of young players that will need to prove themselves in 2014-15.
Richard Panik: Panik didn't have the standout season like Tyler Johnson or Ondrej Palat did last year. Instead of earning a multi-year deal, he signed a one-year deal worth just $735,000. Like Connolly, Panik may be entering his last season as a Bolt if he doesn't make a jump.
Andrej Sustr: Andrej Sustr signed with the Lightning out of college. His two-year deal just expired, and he surprisingly only got a one-year contract. With the addition of the veterans this offseason and a defense-loaded draft class, Sustr is in a situation echoed by Panik and Connolly.
Mark Barberio: See Sustr.
Andrei Vasilevskiy: Andrei Vasilevskiy probably won't make the NHL roster this season. He will take a little while to adjust to the North American game. Most of the 2014-15 season will be spent in the AHL, but fans should keep an eye on his numbers and confidence. Vasilevskiy will need to prove himself ahead of Kristers Gudlevskis and Adam Wilcox—not an easy task.