The Lightning experienced an overwhelming amount of injuries over the course of the 2016-17 season leading to their first playoff miss since 2013. The injury plagued season allowed the Lightning to closely examine several of their ripening prospects, as well as potentially earn some leverage in negotiations with key RFA’s Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, both of which have now been signed to extensions.
The largest impact to the Lightning system was felt on June 15, when Steve Yzerman sent RFA, Jonathan Drouin to Montreal for right-handed defense prospect, Mikhail Sergachev. The trade introduced some unrealized cap relief to the Lightning, as well as opening up a slot in the Lightning top-9. That hole could potentially be filled by UFA addition, Chris Kunitz, leaving other depth roles available for graduating prospects. The blue-line for the Lightning is quickly becoming more crowded with the acquisition of Sergachev, not to mention the emergence of Jake Dotchin, and the slow development of Slater Koekkoek.
TOP 10 RANKINGS (*Prospects based on relevance in a fantasy-hockey keeper league, not actual talent on the ice)
- Brayden Point
A mainstay in the Lightning top-9 throughout his rookie campaign, Point may have experienced one of the most positive impacts of the Lightning’s injury riddled season (if not, a close second to Dotchin). He shot slightly above average (14.8%) over the course of the year, and could see a decrease in opportunity with a healthy roster, but long term, Point has great offensive value.
- Mikhail Sergachev
Coming off a successful season in Windsor where he played an enormous role in the Spitfires Memorial Cup Championship, Sergachev will have an eye on locking up a permanent role with the Lightning this fall. With the depth the Lightning hold on the blue-line it won’t be easy but Sergachev has the potential to be used as an offensive weapon, something seen almost exclusively in Victor Hedman.
- Brett Howden
Howden could be seen by some as a dark horse to crack the Lightning roster this fall, but more than likely will return to Moose Jaw for another year of major junior. The Warriors captain joined the Syracuse Crunch for eight games after wrapping up his junior season, sliding seamlessly into their lineup by scoring three goals and tallying 3 assists. He’s got a capable floor to become a fantasy producer, and a ceiling that could see him lining up in the Lightning top-6 within two years.
- Anthony Cirelli
When Cirelli was selected with the 72nd pick of the 2015 draft, Al Murray was primarily looking at his high aptitude for making responsible plays in all areas of the ice. Over the course of the past two seasons in the OHL, Cirelli has maintained that aptitude, which seems to be deeply engrained in his style of play, while also developing a more creative and effective offensive game. He’ll play with the Crunch this season, but with Lightning injuries, could be on a fast-track to the NHL.
- Cal Foote
While the timeline for Foote’s arrival to the NHL will likely be extended past some prospects further down the rankings, the responsible rearguard already displays many of the qualities of an NHL defender. Foote thinks the game in a way far beyond his years, and as such, dominates breakouts and transitions to the offensive zone. While his skating mechanics are moderately mediocre, Foote is able to anticipate the play in junior sufficient to compensate for his weakness. Training and development should turn Foote into the player that the Lightning were hoping for when they made their first round selection in 2012… but more on that later.
- Yanni Gourde
The versatile forward has made gradual progress within the Lightning system since being signed as a free agent ahead of the 2014 season. The undrafted, Gourde, is listed as a center but could see more of an opportunity on the wing with the Lightning. He’ll get a full-fledged opportunity to make an impact with the team as a depth offensive option, similar to how Cooper utilized Jonathan Marchessault two seasons ago. Gourde has the potential to have somewhat of a breakout as a 25-year-old and provide the Lightning with a valued punch in the bottom-6.
- Jake Dotchin
As mentioned above, Dotchin would be the only prospect who might have earned a greater boost to his standing within the Lightning depth chart than Brayden Point. The powerful rearguard leapfrogged first-round draft-pick Slater Koekkoek, and spent most of his time lined up on the same blue line as Victor Hedman. If he were more offensively gifted he’d have been 2-3 places higher on this list, but if he remains paired with Hedman he’ll be an excellent multi-category contributor now and for the foreseeable future.
- Mitchell Stephens
At 20-years-old, Stephens is – wait for it – tell me if this sounds familiar, a multi-dimensional prospect with a strong 180-foot aptitude. If you’re a fan of Ryan Callahan (not his contract) you can buy a Stephens jersey right now – he’s a game breaker on and off of the scoresheet. With a tenacious presence on the forecheck, Stephens will certainly provide relevant contributions in multi-category leagues once he reaches the NHL, which might not be so far away. Watch for Stephens to slip into a Lightning jersey as early as this season in the case of injury’s in the big club.
- Taylor Raddysh
Raddysh earned mainstream attention in the hockey world when he tallied four goals in one game at the World Junior Hockey Championship this holiday season. It’s not that the attention was entirely unwarranted, however, it should be noted that the outburst came against the Latvians, the last place team in the tournament in terms of goalkeeping. That being said, Raddysh does possess a strong offensive touch, and isn’t incapable of playing a responsible game as well. He’s got a great shot to return for Team Canada this Christmas as a leader, but might have to wait another entire season or two to see time in the NHL.
- Slater Koekkoek
If you’ve owned him in a fantasy league for any length of time, you might be ready to fly over the cuckoo’s nest yourself… sorry for that. Koekkoek has been a frustrating asset for any fantasy owner for some time, not to mention his real world owners – the Lightning. Koekkoek was never projected to be a one dimensional offensive weapon, however his size and all-around game projected him to transition to the NHL sooner than most defenders. A similar path to fellow 2012 top-10 pick’s Derrick Pouliot and Griffin Reinhart, Koekkoek has thus far been a disappointment for the Lightning. He’s starting a 1-year prove-it deal this fall, but with their depth at defense, the Lightning aren’t lobbing him anything.
ON THE RISE
Jake Dotchin – Once projected as a career AHLer, the right-handed defender probably never expected to be paired up with Victor Hedman on the Lightning’s first pair. Regardless, the grit-first, Dotchin finds himself thrust into the heat of a jam-packed top-6 with an arm up on the competition. One more to add to the list of excellent development stories for the Lightning.
Anthony Cirelli – A third-round pivot, turned World Junior standout, Cirelli’s McLovin-esque grin has him climbing the Lightning depth chart month after month. Multi-dimensional, and defensively responsible, Cirelli is unequivocally a center. The Lightning’s depth down the middle could be a difficult hill for Cirelli to surmount but his floor is becoming more concrete each day.
Brett Howden – With an almost NHL-ready frame, Howden joins Cirelli as a member of the ever-deep pool of Lightning centers. As mentioned in his profile above, Howden was highly successful in his audition with the Crunch and will be aiming for a Lightning roster spot after one more season with Moose Jaw.
Mitchell Stephens – Plucked from the same vine as fellow London Knight Alumni Matthew Tkachuk, Stephens could see almost immediate opportunity arise on the Lightning wing. That’s not to belittle his personal attributes which do compare very much so to the aforementioned Tkachuk. On his own, Stephens should repay the loss that Yzerman gambled in trading down to draft him at 33.
Libor Hajek – With the combination of acquisitions and breakouts of several defensive prospects, it didn’t take much to see the stock of several other defensive prospects drop over the course of the year. Hajek isn’t to be blamed entirely, however, for his loss in stock – the 19-year-old had a fairly successful year on an individual level for the Saskatoon Blades. Upon conclusion of their regular season he was signed by the Lightning and joined the Crunch for a brief exposure to the AHL. Hajek remains promising as an NHL quality prospect, however, his fantasy relevance and ETA seem to be diminishing within the Bolts system.
Oleg Sosunov – You’re among the few… or very few if you ever had expectations for Sosunov to develop into much of an NHL-fantasy asset, however, his trajectory since draft day has been equally disappointing for fantasy purposes. Despite his lack of offensive potential, the Lightning did sign the six-foot eight-inch Russian to an ELC this July as he prepares for a transition to North America. If we’re lucky as Lightning fans, some of Brett Howden’s leadership qualities will rub off on Sosunov and we’ll see a hitting and shot-blocking machine sometime in the next 5 years.
Slater Koekkoek – Koekkoek has been plagued by the same virus as Hajek in the way that his peers have consistently proven that they are capable of outperforming the 10th overall selection when it comes to the big stage. The Lightning will no doubt offer Koekkoek another shot at proving his worth within the organization, but with some acquired depth on the back end, his leash will be as short as its ever been.