Welcome to the 2015 edition of Top Shelf Prospects. As the summer progresses, I will be featuring each NHL team’s top prospects, following the order of the first round of the 2015 NHL draft (as if there were no traded draft picks) —you can find all the articles here.
Because we already published an extensive NHL Draft preview, I will not be reviewing the players who were drafted in 2015, as my reports on them will not have changed — I will, however, link you to those articles. Instead I will focus on prospects that were acquired in past drafts, examining their progress and their chances of making the 2015-16 roster of their respective NHL team. I will also choose one sleeper pick – a player who was either drafted in the fourth round or later, or was an undrafted free agent signing who I pick as a darkhorse to make the NHL.
For those wondering, the determining factors for defining who is or isn’t a prospect is typically about 50 NHL games played or being 25 years old. These are not set in stone, and I may make some exceptions depending on the circumstances.
The Tampa Bay Lightning nearly had a dream season. After a busy off-season seen improving the team’s defence, they finished the year with 108 points. They took out the Detroit Red Wings in seven games in the first round of the playoffs. The Bolts defeated the Montreal Canadiens in six games in the second round. They’d take the Eastern Conference final in six games over the New York Rangers. Unfortunately the run would end there, as they Blackhawks would defeat the Lightning in the cup final. Still their run came with a very young nucleus, and the Lightning served notice that they would be a force in the NHL for years to come.
Such a strong season led to a very quiet off-season in Tampa. They didn’t make many changes other than picking up Erik Condra, a solid bottom six forward who can help on the penalty kill. They did get some bad news about Andrei Vasilevsky having a blood clot though, and thus will need to look for a back-up goaltender before the start of the NHL season.
Tampa Bay Lightning Prospects
Top Prospect: Andrei Vasilevskiy, Goaltender
Born July 25 1994 – Tyumen, Russia
Height 6.03 — Weight 201 lbs — Shoots Left – Catches Left
Drafted by the Lightning in the 1st round, 20th overall in the 2012 NHL Draft
In his first year in North America, Vasilevskiy proved to be exactly as advertised when the Lightning made him the first goalie drafted in the 2012 draft. He had a .917 save percentage in 25 games with the Syracuse Crunch. When Evgeni Nabokov struggled as Ben Bishop’s backup at the NHL level, Vasilevskiy got the call and had a .918 save percentage in 16 NHL games. He even got in a couple of starts and a win in the Stanley Cup Final when Ben Bishop’s knee became an issue, and acquitted himself well there.
Coming in at 6’3″ tall, Vasilevskiy has the ideal height and size that NHL teams are looking for more and more in goaltenders today. He is big and takes up a lot of space. When he gets out on his angles he doesn’t leave shooters with a whole lot of net to look at. As evidenced by his performance in the finals Vasilevskiy is mature beyond his years, and this helps him maintain a cool and calm composure in the net.
Vasilevskiy has quick and agile legs that cover the bottom of the net. He is very hard to beat down low. He also has an effective glove hand, something that more and more European goalies are learning to develop in recent years. Vasilevskiy is very good in his lateral movement, he gets side to side in his crease quickly and doesn’t overcommit to cross-ice passes.
There are not a lot of huge weaknesses in Vasilevskiy’s game. Like many young goalies he is going to need to better control his rebounds. However this will come with time and experience. Overall, his technique is still a little raw, but the talent is definitely there and just needs to be refined.
The plan was to have Vasilevskiy back-up Bishop again in 2015-16, however a recent issue where he needed a procedure to deal with blood clots has complicated the matter, as Vasilevskiy will miss a few months at the start of the season. Still he should be in Tampa when he’s ready, and is the best goalie prospect in the world right now.
#2 Prospect: Anthony DeAngelo, Defence
Born Oct 24 1995 — Sewell, NJ
Height 5.11 — Weight 177 [180 cm/80 kg] — Shoots Right
Drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 1st round, 19th overall, in the 2014 NHL Draft.
In his final year of junior hockey, Anthony DeAngelo put together a monster season. He had 25 goals and 89 points in just 55 points. He also added 16 points in 13 playoff games, and three points in five games for Team USA at the World Juniors. Along the way he was part of a mid-season trade as the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds tried to bolster their team for a run at the OHL Championship (they would lose to the Erie Otters in the Conference Final). DeAngelo picked up some personal hardware as both the OHL and CHL defenceman of the year.
Anthony DeAngelo is a star offensively from the blue line. He has good skating and puck handling skills and can lead the rush or join as a trailer. He has high-end speed and excellent acceleration which can allow him to make these types of plays. DeAngelo has a good assortment of shots, including an excellent wrist shot and release, a hard slapshot and a booming one-timer. He is a natural power play quarterback who shows poise with the puck and excellent passing skills. DeAngelo has patience to wait for the right play, and can use good lateral agility and mobility to walk the line and open up lanes. Loves to pinch into the slot to get into a better position to get a shot off, though he can sometimes get caught doing it too often and this hurts his defensive game.
Defensively his game is very much a work in progress. He can be overpowered in front of the net and in the corners. At 5’11” he is a little short for an NHL dman, but this can be overcome. However he really needs to add some muscle to a small and slender frame, and could stand to become stronger on his skates in board battles and in front of the net. He also needs work on his positioning and fundamentals. He has a tendency to puck watch and can lose his man in the defensive zone. He is also beaten far too often one-on-one especially given his skating ability. He takes a lot of chances and can get burned with giveaways and bad decisions. It was clear in the playoffs that while he has a ton of offensive skill and is a threat to create a scoring chance every time he is on the ice in the offensive end, he just does not yet have the defensive acumen to consistently stop some of the best players in the OHL either.
DeAngelo will make the jump to the AHL this year. Watch for Tampa to work to refine his defensive game, as if they can get that to an acceptable NHL level, he has the offensive skill to work an NHL powerplay and provide dynamic puck moving ability in the future.
#3 Prospect: Slater Koekkoek, Defence
Born Feb 18 1994 — Mountain, ONT
Height 6.02 — Weight 184 — Shoots Left
Drafted by the Lightning in the 1st round, 10th overall in the 2012 NHL Draft.
Koekkoek turned pro last year, and had a solid first season with the Syracuse Crunch in the AHL, with 5 goals and 26 points over 72 games. He even got in three games in the NHL with Tampa. Most importantly, Koekkoek was able to stay healthy and avoid the injury issues that plagued him in junior.
Koekkoek is an effective offensive defenceman. His slapshot is hard and accurate, and Koekkoek understands the importance of keeping it low and on net. Koekkoek is also a very good passer, and his excellent vision helps him to quarterback the power play. He is a good puck handler, and has shown the ability to join the rush, and smart decision making to do it at the right times. Skating wise, Koekkoek has improved his speed going forward, but could use some work on his first step. His acceleration is decent. He also could improve his backwards skating as he sometimes has issues with gap control. However his agility, balance, and lateral mobility are very good and will serve him well going forward.
Defensively Koekkoek is a physical presence. He is a player who just loves to throw big body checks, and can strike fear into opponents coming down his side of the ice. Koekkoek is also a willing and able shot blocker. However, Koekkoek’s defensive game is far from a finished product. He requires more work on his defensive assignments, and on his positioning in the defensive zone. Koekkoek also needs to add muscle to his frame if he wants to be able to handle bigger forwards at the next level. He’s got good height and a good frame, however he does need to work in the weight room in order to properly fill out, as he is still pretty slender.
Koekkoek will likely find himself in the AHL next season. He needs to continue to work on refining his defensive game, but he could be a valuable piece in Tampa in the near future.
Now we’ve come to the part of the article where I name a top sleeper prospect, someone drafted in the fourth round or later. As a quick aside though, I should mention two prospects who qualify for this category, that I will not be profiling in this section, and the reasons why. As a former 5th round pick, Nikita Nesterov fits our sleeper criteria, but given that he’s played 27 regular season games, and 17 playoff games for the Lightning, I’m not sure he’s a “sleeper” anymore. He’s also expected to be on the Lightning blue line this season. We still include him as a prospect for our organizational rankings, but I’m not sure he’s a “sleeper”. Similarly Kristers Gudlevskis has gotten so much attention since the 2014 Sochi Olympics, that I’m not sure he qualifies as a sleeper anymore. So instead of picking one of these two players, I’ve gone further down the Lightning prospect chart in picking my sleeper for the team, as I want this category to be about a prospect who hasn’t had a lot of publicity or hype.
Super Sleeper: Matthew Peca, Centre
Born Apr 27 1993 — Petawawa, ONT
Height 5.09 — Weight 175 [175 cm/79 kg] — Shoots Left
Drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning in round 7, 201st overall at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft
Matthew Peca finished his senior season with Quinnipac recording seven goals and 36 points in 39 games. The talented, but undersized centre hovered close to a point per game throughout his college career. Upon finishing his final AHL season, Peca signed with Tampa and was assigned to the Syracuse Crunch, where he put up four points in eight regular season games, and two points in three playoff games.
Peca is an extremely good skater, with very good speed, quick acceleration and the ability to change gears that fools opponents off the rush. He’s well balanced on his skates and is not afraid to battle in corners or in front of the net despite his size. He will however need to add some more muscle to be more effective in playing that type of game at the pro level.
Peca is more of a playmaker than a scorer. He has strong puck handling skills and shows poise with it on his stick. He has good vision and passing skills helping him to rack up assists at the NCAA level. He can create plays off the rush with his speed, or in the cycle game as he does good work down low as well. Peca’s shot is accurate and features a quick release, but he could stand to add a bit more muscle and power.
Peca has a well refined two-way game. Throughout his college career, he was an important two way player for the Bobcats, who played against other team’s top lines and was featured on the team’s penalty kill. While he can sometimes be overpowered by bigger and stronger opponents, Peca is relentless on the backcheck and never stops battling.
The Lightning will likely have Peca spend the season with their AHL team. They have had a lot of success in recent years with undersized forwards who a number of teams have passed over. They will look to develop Peca into the next one of their success stories over the next couple of years in the AHL.
Since being named general manager of the lightning, Steve Yzerman has built up an incredible prospect system. Consider that Adam Erne was nearly a goal per game scorer in the QMJHL playoffs, and he doesn’t crack the team’s top three prospects. Similarly Brayden Point was a part of Team Canada’s gold medal winning world junior team last year, and is expected to get a big role on this year’s club and also isn’t amongst the team’s top three. The selections of Mitchell Stephens and Dennis Yan just added to a stacked forward group.
On defence the aforementioned Nesterov is likely to make the Lightning full-time, Dylan Blujus had a solid year in the AHL, Matthew Spencer was an excellent draft pick, and Dominick Masin and Johnathan McLeod were solid 2014 selections. In goal they have Vasilevskiy, Gudlevskis, and Adam Wilcox; as good a trio of prospects as any team in the league. Overall the team is in great shape to stay near the top of the NHL in the coming years.