The Top 25 Under 25 is a collaboration by members of the Raw Charge community. Ten writers and 106 readers ranked players under the age of 25 as of September 1, 2017 in the Tampa Bay Lightning organization. Each participant used their own metric of current ability and production against future projection to rank each player. Now, we’ll count down each of the 25 players ranked, plus Honorable Mentions.
When he was drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning, scouting director Al Murray described Mitchell Stephens as being a player similar to Ryan Callahan. He works hard, is a smart hockey player, and plays a sound game on both ends of the ice, much like a younger Callahan. He was drafted 33rd overall in the 2nd round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft after Steve Yzerman had traded down from the 28th overall pick in the first round.
In last year’s rankings, Stephens came in at 11th overall. He has dropped slightly to 13th this year, but the writers and readers were in agreement with this 13th overall ranking. It’s a fitting spot for a young professional with a projection to be a solid NHLer, but not a star. He could surprise with a spot on the fourth line out of training camp this year. However, I would slate his projected arrival for a full time spot at probably 2019-20. He should be an option as an injury replacement this season, though, with his responsible game.
Stephens comes from Peterborough, Ontario, Canada and played in the OHL for his junior career. In his rookie season he had 21 points in 57 games for the Saginaw Spirit. He followed that up with 22 goals and 48 points in 62 games in his draft year. He also Captained the Canada U18 WJC team to a bronze medal finish with five goals, and 10 points in seven games.
He returned to Saginaw, sporting an A as an alternate captain, following his draft year and put up 20 goals and 38 points in 39 games while dealing with some injuries. Those injuries included a broken foot that almost put him out of the U20 WJC. He recovered in time to join Team Canada for the tournament, and contributed a goal and assist in five games where they failed to medal. He also made his professional debut at the end of the season with the Syracuse Crunch after Saginaw was eliminated from the playoffs in the first round. He played in five games recording a goal.
In 2016-17, Stephens was given the Captain’s C for the Spirit and put up 11 goals and 28 points in 22 games. He was traded to the London Knights, where he scored 11 goals and 25 points in 29 games. Power house London wasn’t able to make it far into the playoffs, though, and as he added seven goals and 10 points in 14 games. He returned once again to Syracuse and played in three playoff games without recording a point. He also once again participated in the U20 WJC with Canada and scored two goals and five points in five games in a larger role, this time capturing a Silver Medal.
This past season was Stephens’ first full year in professional hockey. He, like many others on the Crunch roster, struggled to start the season. As the team picked up their play after a rough couple months to open the season, his stats started to come around and he eventually put up 19 goals and 41 points in 70 games. He also earned an AHL All-Star Game nod for his performance. Stephens added another goal and six points in seven playoff games.
One of the things that stands out about Stephens’ game is that he is a very smart player. He never produced gaudy offensive numbers in the OHL, but was a steady presence in juniors. He also showed that he has leadership qualities as he captained Canada’s U18 team, and then earned the A and then the C with the Spirit. He is a solid two-way forward that plays the game hard on both ends of the ice. He projects as a middle-six forward at the NHL level that will play sound defensive hockey, chip in offensively, and be able to contribute on the penalty kill as well as a second power play unit.
While he is playing center now for the Crunch, he could easily move to the right wing and provide the Lightning with more depth on the right side. Early in his NHL career, he’ll be best suited to a third line role and could eventually move up into a second line role. He could also start out on the fourth line as his game lends itself well to playing more of a defensive role with his 6’0”, 196 pound frame. Stephens is also disciplined and doesn’t take a lot of penalties.
I also expect to see an uptick in his offensive numbers in Syracuse this season to build off of an impressive rookie season. With a year under his belt, he and his fellow sophomores should be more comfortable with the AHL game that will allow them to hit the ground running.