There is a common theme within the prospecting business when it comes to the young players in the Tampa Bay Lightning system. There aren’t very many high level, impact players (think Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko). What there are a lot of are solid, NHL-capable mid-tier players. The poster boy for that type of player may very well be Mitchell Stephens.
Stephens was drafted with the Lightning’s first pick in 2015 after then General Manager Steve Yzerman traded out of the first round. With the 33rd overall pick Tampa Bay plucked Stephens from Saginaw of the Ontario Hockey League.
Now in his third year as a professional hockey player he has the opportunity to become one of the leaders for the Syracuse Crunch. In order to do so, he’s going to have to stay healthy.
Following a rookie season in 2017-18 that produced 41 points (19 goals, 22 assists) and an all-star spot, Stephens entered last year as the second line center on an offensively stacked Crunch squad. He started a little slowly, not picking up a point until his fourth game of the season. Unfortunately, just as he was heating up, an upper body injury knocked him out of action for the next month.
Stephens returned in early December, but appeared in just two games (although he managed to put up four point in those two games). The 21-year-old center would be sidelined for the next two months.
He marked his return in early February with two goals against Hartford and continued to produce the rest of the season finishing with 24 points (11 goals, 13 assists) in just 32 games. Like most of his teammates he struggled in the first round of the playoffs, garnering one lone assist as the Crunch were knocked out be the Cleveland Monsters.
With a full off-season to recuperate, Stephens should be ready to battle for a spot among the top two lines in Syracuse. With so many question marks regarding the roster in Syracuse, it’s useless to predict where he’s going to play at this point, but he should be somewhere in the top two lines.
The trade of Adam Erne to Detroit does open up a spot in Tampa that Stephens could compete for. If the Lightning decide to fill the roster spot from within, which all indications point to, he has the skill set to nab a role on the fourth line with the Lightning.
The 6’0”, 193 lbs. center is a prototypical Al Murray pick. While almost every scouting report written about him includes the phrase “he won’t wow you” they also mention that he is highly competitive and well rounded in his game. He is responsible in all zones, proficient in the face-off circle, and a strong skater with a deceptive shot.
He also puts himself in spots to be effective. In the clip below, he circles around from behind the defender in the net and is in the perfect spot to use his quick hands to bang home the rebound. He’ll get his fair share of goals from in front of the net thanks to positioning, not necessarily from out muscling his opponents.
Mitchell Stephens sent home our OneGroup Insurance Goal of the Game. pic.twitter.com/Wc8NTVlXCH— Syracuse Crunch (@SyracuseCrunch) February 27, 2019
While Stephens is able to play in front of the net, he isn’t as effective when he has his back to the goalie. Tipping/deflecting shots isn’t his strong suit, and despite his larger size relative to other members of the Crunch, his game isn’t built around banging with defenders who outweigh him.
Expect him to be among the leaders in points for the Crunch this season if he stays on the roster. No matter where he lines up, he’s going to have some scorers on either side of him and his ability to open lanes for his wingers to shoot will help pad his assist total. It’s not likely that he will shoot at a 23% success rate again, but he should have more opportunities to shoot and that will get him around 20 goals or so.
Despite being only 22 years old, he’ll also be one of the veterans on the team. This will be his third season in Ben Groulx’s system so the coach will lean on him to help some of the new players adapt to the pace at which they play. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him wear an “A” on his sweater at some point.
In the AHL, he can hold his own as a top-six forward. His path to the NHL most likely lies somewhere in the bottom six with a role on a penalty kill unit. In all likelihood, Stephens will start the season in Syracuse but if he stays healthy, he’ll be among the first chosen to get a call up if the Lightning need reinforcements. Not only would his talent allow him to work his way into the lineup, the fact that he is still waiver exempt also helps make any transactions a little smoother.
This is the third season Stephens has appeared in the Top 25 Under 25 for the Lightning. He debuted in 2017 at 21st, made it to 13th last season and dropped a spot this year. Among the readers, there was a pretty good spread of votes while the writers mostly had him grouped in the mid teens this season. It’s always difficult to properly assess players when they only play half of a season. A strong, healthy season this year could propel him to the top 10 for next year.