With only two players aging out (or leaving the Tampa Bay Lightning organization altogether), the list of available under-25 talent for our rankers was extensive.
That means more guys than last year got votes, but still didn't quite make the final, aggregate list, and we'll touch on those "Near Misses" now.
The player who came closest to making the Top 25 but fell just short was the Tampa Bay Lightning's 3rd round selection from this spring's Entry Draft:
The centerman from the Moose Jaw Warriors of the Western Hockey League appeared on the most lists (2) of all the near misses. He was 25th on two separate ballots.
The 3rd round pick in this year's draft (79th overall), the Lightning burned an extra 7th round pick from the Jason Garrison trade to move up a spot and acquire Point, so they must have seen something they liked in the 5'9, 160 pound centerman that's scored over a point-per-game in his WHL career so far as a 16 and 17-year old.
Point is a skilled puck handler with good passing skills and playmaking vision, and while 3-on-3 hockey isn't the best situation to scout talent, he and 1st round pick Anthony DeAngelo formed a formidable duo for Team Filppula at Lightning Prospect Development Camp earlier this month. Along with Jeff Costello, Brendan O'Donnell, and Dylan Blujus, Team Filppula swept the 3-on-3 competition en route to a tournament win.
Looking ahead, Point will be back in Moose Jaw for his age 18 season in the WHL. He's got an early birthday, and won't be 19 until March of 2015, so assignment to the Syracuse Crunch of the AHL is out of the question for now. Putting together another strong offensive season in junior while filling out a little bit and getting stronger will be the goal in the 2014-15 season for Point.
Other players receiving votes:
Kunyk, picked up as an undrafted free agent in March of 2013, appeared in one game with the Lightning at the end of last season.
The Lightning raved about his skating, competitiveness, and hockey sense, and liked him enough to give him a one-year contract that they burned right away, instantly granting him RFA status. He was re-signed this year to a one-year, two-way deal.
At 24 years old, Kunyk will age out of this series after this year, but his NCAA career was enough to sneak him onto one list. In four years at the Unversity of Alaska-Fairbanks, he scored 133 points in 148 games. Near point-per-game players are much rarer in the NCAA than they are in the CHL, and while he's played fewer games in his 4-year college career than a junior hockey player would, he's closer to a finished product in terms of skill and ability on the ice.
Kunyk is likely pegged for a center slot with the Syracuse Crunch in the AHL this year, with the Lightning center depth chart pretty crowded. He could play a 2nd line role behind Vladislav Namestnikov, or play in the bottom 6 depending on how Rob Zettler deploys other centers like Cedric Paquette and captain Mike Angelidis. Moving the versatile Kunyk over to the wing is also an option and something the organization has had success doing to young college centers.
How quickly Kunyk adjusts from the slow burn of the NCAA to the long grind of an AHL season will be critical for his development and eventual ascension to the NHL roster.
Like Brayden Point, also a member of Team Filppula at development camp, a good showing in person might have been enough to sneak the 22-year-old O'Donnell onto a list. He was only ranked by one member of the panel, coming in 25th.
The 6th round pick (156th overall) hasn't exactly been lighting the NCAA on fire with University of North Dakota. He just finished his junior season and has just 34 points in 81 total games.
He did score the most goals (7) and assists (11) of his NCAA career so far in his junior year, and might need a big senior season to give himself a chance at moving up the organizational depth chart and up our rankings next summer.
Janus, once a highly regarded goaltending prospect in the Lightning organization, was exiled to Europe to make room for Riku Helenius to return to North America.
In hindsight, that was probably a mistake. Of the three goaltenders pegged for AHL duty at the time (Helenius, Dustin Tokarski, and Jaroslav Janus), one has returned to Finland after a disastrous two-year stint, one was traded to the Montreal Canadiens and might be backing up in the NHL this fall, and Janus has stayed in Europe, where he's played the last two years in the KHL with his hometown club, Slovan Bratislava.
Janus, 24, will age out of this series after this year, and while he's still talented enough to make the Top 25, another year outside of North America has him out of sight and out of mind. He was ranked 23rd on the only list he made.
His first season in the KHL in 2012-13 went swimmingly, with a .928 SV% in 47 games seizing the starting job for Slovan Bratislava. But this past year was disappointing. He still played in 41 games but managed just an .898 as Slovan Bratislava missed the playoffs.
Per Elite Prospects, Janus signed an extension with his KHL club in June. It's looking less and less likely that a return to North America (and the Tampa Bay Lightning, who still hold his rights) will ever happen.
The 5th round pick (148th overall) in 2011 was coming off a couple of solid years as a very young defenseman in the KHL with Traktor Chelyabinsk, but like most of the Syracuse Crunch blue line, he struggled in his first professional North American season. One 22nd overall rank on one list wasn't enough to get him into the Top 25.
Nesterov got very favorable usage in Syracuse from Rob Zettler, used mostly behind the top lines for Syracuse and against weaker competition for the opposing squads, but his boxcar stats were still underwhelming (just 16 points in 54 games). He wasn't really an offensive or power-play threat and he struggled in the defensive zone with physicality and clean zone exits as well.
The 6'0 defenseman is under contract for two more years on his entry-level deal, but will have a lot more competition in Syracuse to deal with as an infusion of blue line talent hits the AHL level this fall: Slater Koekkoek, Dylan Blujus, and Jake Dotchin will all be at Syracuse Crunch camp in France to compete for a spot, which will either push Nesterov to be better or push him down the depth chart instead.
Ikonen appeared on one list at 22nd, and if you're looking for one player in the organization who fits the "Ondrej Palat mold", Ikonen is your guy.
It's not just his style of play that resembles Palat -- tenacious, two-way, smart game with some scoring ability -- but also his path through the organization so far. Ikonen was drafted in the 6th round, 154th overall in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft as an overage Euro playing in the CHL, with the Kingston Frontenacs in the OHL.
After leading the Frontenacs in scoring in his draft year as a 19-year old with 51 points in 61 games, the Lightning took a chance on him and burned a late pick to get his rights. His age works against him in some cases -- a 19-year old coming out of a European development league should score a lot against 16 and 17-year old skaters -- but the Lightning see it as a benefit.
Now age 20, Ikonen can step right into the AHL just one year after he was drafted, instead of waiting a few years for AHL eligibility due to the CHL/NHL transfer agreement. That gives the Lightning more opportunities to see and shape his development and it adds the tangential benefit of giving the Syracuse Crunch some talent sooner rather than later.
Like Palat, he's played on the wing with a more highly touted centerman prospect for a few years in junior. For Palat, that was Sean Couturier of the Drummondville Voltigeurs; for Ikonen, he rode shotgun with Calgary Flames 4th overall pick Sam Bennett.
Again, like Palat, some likely think that the more highly rated centerman is the cause for Ikonen's junior success. The Lightning disagree, and if the Palat comparisons continue and he puts together a strong year or two in the AHL with the Syracuse Crunch, you might see him in the NHL quicker than you'd have expected for a 6th round pick.