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Top 25 Under 25: #16 Matt Peca

A lot is resting on this young man's shoulders in his first year as a professional, as the AHL Syracuse Crunch will likely lean on him heavily to provide scoring on a top line.

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

If he were just a little bit bigger, there'd likely be a lot more buzz surrounding the 22-year old centerman.

At a listed 5'9, 175 pounds, though, Peca -- in spite of very impressive offensive totals -- is an "under the radar" prospect that fell to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 7th round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft and has done nothing but improve his game over the course of a full four-year career at Quinnipiac University.

Here's how the panel ranked Matt Peca:

Kyle Alexander John Fontana Mike Gallimore GeoFitz4 Brett Frieman
16 13 15 12 NR

Previous Ranks: #24 (2013), #24 (2014)

After two consecutive years of scraping by to get onto the countdown, Peca finally made a leap this year jumping up a whopping 8 spots to #16. Some of that is related to organizational turnover in the past calendar year, with a surprising amount of under-25 talent moved by Steve Yzerman since last summer, but it's also a testament to Peca's continued development as an offensive and all-around prospect.

As the 6th highest scorer in the ECAC of the NCAA last year, Peca proved once again that he has the skills to be a top-line scorer and a productive forward all-around, tallying 36 points in 39 games as a dual threat both creating and setting up plays or finishing them off in and around the slot. He's fast off the rush -- maybe not Tyler Johnson fast, but fast nonetheless -- and can stickhandle, see the ice, and make good passes at top speed. The question is, will he be able to do it against bigger, stronger competition.

That's an important question with Vladislav Namestnikov penciled in for permanent NHL duty in the fall; the role of top-line center falls naturally to Peca. The road to Tampa Bay runs through Syracuse, as it does for most prospects in this organization, and Peca will have to show that he can not only continue to lead and be a good two-way player but also carry an offensive load against top competition. At times, Syracuse struggled to score a season ago and Peca will need to be a consistent offensive threat if the Crunch are going to make any improvements over a fizzle-out in the regular season and a sweep in the first round of the playoffs.

Julien BriseBois has plugged a few holes for Syracuse via free agency, but failed once again to make a big splash by targeting a top AHL veteran free agent; that means the Lightning are expecting Peca to be an important part of the Crunch attack moving forward. It's a lot of pressure on a first year pro, of course, but the Lightning must think he's ready for it.

First up, though, is the prospect tournament hosted by the Lightning in Estero September 12-15. Consider that a dry run for Peca's upcoming year; how he handles big minutes on a top line against emerging prospects in his age group might give some indication of his readiness for the role likely waiting for him in Syracuse this season.