Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said there's no time like the present to give a few of his team's best minor-league and junior prospects a chance in the NHL.
"I just believe we have a few guys [in the system] who have played two and three years in the minors who have really excelled at the AHL level," Yzerman told the Tampa Bay Times. "It's time to give them an opportunity to play in the NHL. We've got to find out if they can play, and based on what I saw in the limited time I saw them, I'm cautiously optimistic that they're going to be good players."
There were a few prospects raising eyebrows last year when given a chance with the team during the 2012-13 season, including Cory Conacher, Alex Killorn, Radko Gudas, Mark Barberio, Richard Panik and Tyler Johnson.
Conacher was traded to the Ottawa Senators in the deal that landed goalie Ben Bishop. Panik, Killorn and Gudas got lengthy look-sees. But there are several other youngsters vying for positions with the Lightning this season, most notably Jonathan Drouin, the third player taken in the 2013 NHL Draft.
Here are Tampa Bay's top 10 prospects, according to NHL.com:
1. Jonathan Drouin, LW: Drouin, 18, was recognized as the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and Canadian Hockey League's most valuable player in 2012-13 after scoring 41 goals and 105 points for the Memorial Cup champion Halifax Mooseheads.
"Jonathan has a special compete level and a special skill set that you very rarely see come along," Tampa Bay director of amateur scouting Al Murray said. "If any of the fans are watching the YouTube videos of Jonathan, the thing they should really keep in mind is that the best part of his game is his playmaking and not his individual 1-on-1 goal scoring. He's very unselfish and sees the ice really well and really is a complete forward."
The Lightning are listing Drouin on their NHL roster rather than among their prospects. At 5-foot-11, 186 pounds, he'll have to get bigger and stronger in order to handle the grind of an NHL season, but there's no doubt that skills-wise, he's ready to play.
2. Andrey Vasilevskiy, G: The 6-foot-3, 210-pound left-hander had another stellar season with Ufa's junior team in Russia during the 2012-13 season, posting a 1.93 goals-against average and .930 save percentage in 27 games. In eight games with Ufa's team in the Kontinental Hockey League, he was 4-1-0 with a 2.22 GAA and .924 save percentage. The 19-year-old helped Russia earn a bronze medal at the 2013 World Junior Championship in Ufa, finishing with a 1.81 GAA and .950 save percentage in four games.
Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay's first-round pick (No. 19) in the 2012 NHL Draft, has one year left on his contract in Russia, but there is a buyout clause. Should he opt to play in North America, he would have a year of junior eligibility remaining (his rights are held by the Mississauga Steelheads of the Ontario Hockey League), but the Lightning might send him to Syracuse in the American Hockey League.
"This guy is a terrific prospect," Murray told the Tampa Bay Times. "I haven't seen a goalie in my time scouting in 20 years as developed at this stage of his development. We're hoping he can get out of [the contract] and come over. He's right on the cusp of pushing his game to a whole other level; we're just not sure where that's going to be."
3. Nikita Kucherov, RW: The 2011 second-round choice (No. 58) had a sensational debut season in North America in 2012-13, scoring 26 goals and finishing with 53 points in 27 games for the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies of the QMJHL. The 20-year-old added nine goals and 24 points in 14 playoff games. At the 2013 World Junior Championship, Kucherov (5-11, 171) had five goals and eight points in seven games to help Russia win the bronze medal.
"He's a really gifted player and getting stronger and stronger," Lightning development coach Stacy Roest told NHL.com. "He has good vision out there and makes plays not many people can make, and it's pretty impressive to watch a player that young make those plays. He put up some big numbers in the [QMJHL] and we're hoping he can carry that over to the pros."
4. Ondrej Palat, LW: The 5-11, 174-pound wing could turn out to be the steal of the 2011 NHL Draft. The seventh-round pick (No. 208) will be vying for a roster spot at training camp after scoring 13 goals and putting up 52 points in 56 games with Syracuse. Palat, 22, led AHL scorers in the playoffs with 19 assists and 26 points.
"He works hard at both ends," Roest said. "He kills penalties, blocks shots and can play the power play. He always seems to be first in there on the puck, and hunts for pucks. I like the way he comes to play every game."
5. Tyler Johnson, C: The 2011 free-agent signee is one of the swiftest skaters among Lightning prospects. He won the Les Cunningham Award as the AHL's most valuable player last season after scoring a league-high 37 goals and finishing with 65 points in 62 games for Syracuse. Johnson (5-9, 182) has 68 goals and 133 points in 137 AHL games. The 23-year-old played 14 games with the Lightning last season, scoring three goals and finishing with six points and a plus-3 rating.
"He's fast, makes things happen and is sound defensively; I didn't realize just how fast he was," Roest said. "Players today must be good at both ends of the rink, and Tyler has that ability."
6. Vladislav Namestnikov, C: The 20-year-old nephew of former Detroit Red Wings forward Slava Kozlov sustained a shoulder injury in his first professional season in Syracuse but did manage seven goals, 21 points and 32 penalty minutes in 44 games. There's an outside chance Namestnikov (5-11, 171) sticks with the Lightning out of training camp, but it's more likely he spends another season in Syracuse.
"By the end of the season, he was the second-line center [in Syracuse] and working on the power play," Roest said. "He skates well and looks as if he can move out there. His vision is good and he makes plays and competes. He also goes into the corners. He's got to get stronger, but with more time and more pro games, I see a very bright future."
7. Andrej Sustr, D: The 6-8, 225-pound defenseman was one of most sought-after college free agents out of the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Yzerman signed Sustr in March following his third collegiate season, during which he served as alternate captain, scored nine goals and finished with 25 points and 53 penalty minutes in 39 games. Sustr, a native of Plzen, Czech Republic, had 15 goals and 51 points in 111 games during his three seasons at UNO. The 22-year-old spent eight games with Syracuse and played in two games for the Lightning in 2012-13. He'll likely refine his game with the Crunch next season.
8. Slater Koekkoek, D: The development of the No. 10 pick in the 2012 NHL Draft has been hampered by injuries. He served as captain for the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League for the first 40 games of the 2012-13 season and had six goals, 28 points and a minus-26 rating before being traded to the Windsor Spitfires. The 19-year-old was able to play two games with the Spitfires after reinjuring the shoulder that limited him to 26 games in 2011-12. There's no question the Lightning would like to see the 6-2, 185-pound lefty shooter play a full professional season before an extended stint with Tampa Bay.
9. Mark Barberio, D: After earning AHL defenseman of the year honors when leading the Norfolk Admirals (then the Lightning's AHL affiliate) to the Calder Cup in 2011-12, Barberio (6-1, 185) slipped a bit last season for the Crunch, dropping from 13 goals to eight and 61 points to 42. The 23-year-old native of Montreal, taken by the Lightning in the sixth round (No. 152) of the 2008 draft, will be entering his fourth professional season. In 215 AHL games, he has 30 goals, 134 points and 111 penalty minutes. He possesses good transitional skills and received a cup of coffee with the Lightning last season, playing two games.
10. Matthew Peca, C: Tampa Bay selected the 5-foot-9, 165-pound forward in the seventh round (No. 201) of the 2011 NHL Draft out of the Junior A Pembroke Lumber Kings of the Canadian Junior Hockey League. At the time, Murray called him a hidden gem, and he might be spot on.
Peca, 20, completed his sophomore season at Quinnipiac University, which advanced to the NCAA title game before losing by Yale. He finished second on the team in goals (15), assists (15) and points (30) and led the Bobcats into the Frozen Four with a hat trick in the regional final against Union. In 78 NCAA games, Peca has 23 goals, 69 points and a plus-37 rating. He'll probably be considered a Hobey Baker Award candidate prior to the 2013-14 season.
"He played big minutes in Quinnipiac and he's getting stronger and bigger," Roest said. "He's quick and his skill level is impressive. He can fly on the ice … it's pretty amazing some of things he can do with the puck."
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