Top 25 Under 25: Near Misses

Kristers Gudlevskis in action for Latvia at this year's IIHF World Championships in Finland and Sweden. - Martin Rose

For the first time in a long time (ever?), the Tampa Bay Lightning have at least 25 quality players under age 25. So who didn't make the cut?

With great depth comes great responsibil--wait a minute, that's not right.

No, with great depth comes a few great players who fall out of your top 25 rankings series on Raw Charge.

Of the players receiving votes who didn't make the aggregate top 25, the player receiving the most total votes (3) and the highest ranking (23rd in two separate lists) was Latvian goaltender Kristers Gudlevskis, drafted at this summer's NHL Entry Draft in the 5th round, 124th overall and signed to a three-year deal earlier this month.

Here is how the panel ranked the most recent addition to the stable of hulking young netminders:

Kyle Alexander John Fontana Clark Brooks Clare Austin Patti McDonald Mike Gallimore
23 NR NR 23 24 NR

At 6'3", 190 lbs., Gudlevskis is actually one of the smaller goalies in the organization, as GM Steve Yzerman continues to stockpile size and skill in net.

As has been noted in several places, Gudlevskis is expected to fill the "fifth goaltender" role vacated by outgoing free agent Pat Nagle, meaning he will likely start the season with the ECHL affiliate Florida Everblades, with Riku Helenius and Cedrick Desjardins holding down the fort (for now) for the AHL Syracuse Crunch.

Here are Gudlevskis' career regular season statistics:

Gudlevskis' numbers in the MHL (the top feeder league for the KHL) and his performance at the IIHF World Championships playing for Team Latvia this spring suggest that Gudlevskis is likely an AHL talent relegated to ECHL duty purely due to depth. That's not to say there is anything wrong with starting out your professional North American career in the ECHL, and if Gudlevskis continues to impress, he could certainly play his way into a spot with the Syracuse Crunch as soon as this year. Both Desjardins and Helenius require waivers to be assigned to the Crunch, and we saw last season how your depth at any position can disappear at a moment's notice. So having Gudlevskis on hand to fill in for spot AHL duty -- and having a goalie the organization is confident in to do just that -- is certainly an upgrade from a year ago.

Also receiving votes were defenseman Luke Witkowski and forward Brian Hart, but both ultimately missed the final cut.

Witkowski was a 6th round pick (160th overall) of the Lightning in 2008. At Western Michigan, where he finished his 4-year NCAA career last year, he recorded 7 goals, 31 assists and 235 penalty minutes in 152 games played, for a .25 PPG average and over 1.5 PIMs/game. While Witkowski does have some offensive tools, his path up the depth chart will be via excelling in a more defensive, physical role.

After the end of the NCAA season, he appeared in 3 games with the Crunch as is typical for players that follow the NCAA development route. But he will have to battle through a logjam of young, AHL-ready defense prospects currently in the Tampa Bay system including Dmitry Korobov, Nikita Nesterov, Artem Sergeev, and Andrej Sustr, among others, for playing time with Rob Zettler's Crunch squad this fall.

The 23-year-old Witkowski does have four years of seasoning in the college ranks to his credit, (something that we've seen benefit other players in the system, like Alex Killorn), but playing 30-35 games per year and playing a full, 82-game professional schedule are very different things. This year will be an important one for Witkowski to establish himself at the pro level, and to distinguish himself from the rest of the defensive pack.

Brian Hart, a 2nd round pick (53rd overall) in 2012, compares in more ways than one to current Lightning forward Alex Killorn. Both were drafted out of American prep schools, which can be something of a gamble as players drafted from that level are exceedingly difficult to project and predict. But Hart, like Killorn, moved from prep school to Harvard University last year, where he is expected to continue his development at the NCAA level. He finished his first college season with 18 points in 30 games (.6 PPG), an admirable effort for a freshman getting his first taste of tougher competition at a higher level.

Here's what Corey Pronman of Hockey Prospectus and ESPN said about Hart after he was drafted by the Lightning in 2012:

Since last year when he was drafted, Hart -- already a pretty big player -- has only gotten bigger. He is now listed on Harvard's website at 6'3", 212 lbs., which is nothing to sneeze at, especially when you consider he is still just a 19-year-old college sophomore. Skating may still be his main area of concern, but a few more years in the NCAA will hopefully give him time to hone his strengths and address his weaknesses before he cracks the professional ranks.

While Hart may not be a name many NHL fans know for a few more years (Killorn was drafted in 2007, and reached the NHL last year after an unusually short time in the AHL), if he continues to follow Alex Killorn's career trajectory the Bolts have yet another quality young prospect to look forward to.

Some final notes on other players who missed the top 25:

  • James Mullin (4th round pick, 118th overall in 2010) may have fallen off many radars after sliding back a bit in his sophomore season at Miami University. After being a point-per-game player for the prestigious prep hockey academy Shattuck St. Mary's and for the Fargo Force in the USHL, Mullin started fast in his college career in 2011-2012 (26 points in 37 games), but slid back a bit this past season (14 points in 38 games), which probably contributed to him missing the top 25. As is common for NCAA players, however, the slower development path and relative competition of the various conferences of the American college system means some NCAA prospects become unfairly underrated.
  • Dylan Blujus (2nd round pick, 40th overall in 2012) has averaged almost a half-point-per game in his OHL career with the Brampton Batallion and probably has a little more offensive upside than some defensemen ahead of him on the Lightning organizational depth chart and the often-coveted right handed shot. That said, currently, there is just too much other talent closer to the NHL with similar upside for him to make the top 25. He was recently cut from the Team USA WJC Camp, which isn't necessarily a criticism of him directly so much as a statement about the quality of junior hockey currently in the United States. Also, Blujus will be attending Lightning rookie camp in Coral Springs in September.
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