With more players than ever before receiving votes from the 5 rankers on our panel, now more than ever is a good time to highlight the organizational depth the Tampa Bay Lightning have built since we started doing a Top 25 Under 25 series in the summer of 2013.
A handful of good players appeared on multiple lists or were ranked particularly high on a single list, but were still squeezed out of the Top 25. It's more than likely that at least one of these will end up being productive members of the Tampa Bay Lightning sometime in the future.
Selected in the 7th round of the 2014 Draft, it was believed at the time that Cam Darcy would follow in the footsteps of overage late-rounder Lightning draftees like Ondrej Palat; a late-blooming junior scorer that could step immediately from the draft podium to an AHL roster and provide some valuable organizational depth with a chance to develop into a top-level pro.
Things just didn't seem to work out for Darcy, however; he was returned to his junior team, the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, for his age-20 season and struggled even though he was 4 years older than some of his competition. With the CHL's rules on overage players, he was eventually moved to the Sherbrooke Phoenix and did manage point-per-game production in the second half of the season.
Darcy signed an ELC with the Lightning in April and joined the Syracuse Crunch in the spring, but didn't appear in a single game with them as they were swept out of the first round of the AHL playoffs. He will presumably make his professional debut this fall, though his exact spot in the lineup remains unknown. There is currently an opportunity for someone like Darcy to claim a role as a top-6 scoring center with Vlad Namestnikov very unlikely to see the AHL again in 2015-16.
Tampa Bay's first selection (2nd round, 33rd overall) in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, Stephens presents a bit of a departure from the Lightning's typical draft strategy of favoring high-end skill above all else. Defined more by his two-way play and character, Stephens was immediately compared to Lightning forward Ryan Callahan after he was drafted, and projects more as a middle/bottom-6 winger than a potential game-breaking NHL scorer.
Still, with another year in the OHL likely ahead, and the Saginaw Spirit looking to improve, there's opportunity for Stephens to develop the offensive element while continuing to play the kind of physical, north-south game that Al Murray and Steve Yzerman praised when he was selected in June.
Even as Lightning GM Steve Yzerman has shed some of the more physical and pugilistic players from the Lightning organization depth chart, he's also kept an eye towards replenishing that role via the draft. This was reflected in the team's decision to add Cristiano DiGiacinto in the 6th round in 2014.
After scoring 28 points in 50 games during his draft season with the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL, DiGiacinto upped his point totals to 45 points in 63 games this past season; while he was still a 100+ penalty minute guy, there's more in his toolbox than just an ability and willingness to drop the gloves.
He won't be 20 years old until January, which means he's not eligible for the AHL just yet -- that means he'll likely play one more year of major junior hockey before potentially signing an entry level contract with the Lightning and turning pro either in the ECHL or AHL in 2016-17.
Like Cam Darcy above, capturing the Ondrej Palat lightning (ahem) in a bottle again with overage, late-round Euros is something Al Murray and Steve Yzerman keep trying to do. Ikonen fits that mold as well, and while he proved a capable two-way, bottom-6 forward for the Syracuse Crunch in 2014-15, there was little in the way of offensive contribution. This was especially concerning for a team that struggled to score on a nightly basis; the opportunity to seize a top-6 wing role was there, but Ikonen was unable to do so and managed just 13 points in 59 games.
He'll get another chance to prove he can be a productive scoring line winger in the fall, with his entry level contract signed in 2014 still with two years remaining.
An under-the-radar move by the Lightning made during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Walcott is 21-years old and therefore eligible to turn pro this fall with either the Syracuse Crunch or the Florida Everblades.
An all situations minute-muncher and captain for the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada the past two years, camp will determine his spot in the organization. Consecutive 40 point seasons in the QMJHL suggest a level of offensive ability from the blue line that the Crunch will be missing assuming Nikita Nesterov keeps his spot with the big club, but Walcott may have to start his career with the Lightning organization in the ECHL if there isn't room in Syracuse right away.