Top 25 Under 25: #24 Matthew Peca

Continuing a recent trend of NCAA prospects turning heads for the Tampa Bay Lightning, Quinnipiac University forward Matt Peca slots in as #24.

Ask just about anyone who follows the NHL to name the best current GM in the league and many will name legendary Detroit GM Ken Holland. They'll cite the 22 consecutive playoff appearances, the four Stanley Cup victories with the organization (3 as General Manager, 1 as Assistant GM), and a strategy of measured, careful prospect development that Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman has brought with him to the Bolts.

But most often listed as evidence of Holland's "genius"? Drafting Henrik Zetterberg (7th round, 210th overall in 1999) and Pavel Datsyuk (6th round, 171st overall in 1998), franchise players for the Red Wings that Holland plucked out of European obscurity in the late rounds of the NHL Entry Draft.

While Steve Yzerman has brought with him to Tampa Bay many aspects of the Detroit model for running a professional hockey organization, one that has stood out in recent years is an ability to find late-round gems often overlooked by other NHL franchises. One market inefficiency that Yzerman (and a few other shrewd GMs) has exposed is for undersized, skilled forwards. While the NHL is a physical, demanding league, so-called "undersized" players are routinely and unfairly overlooked as being unable to compete at the highest level.

One such player is Quinnipiac University forward Matthew Peca, who will be entering his junior season in the ECAC (Eastern College Athletic Conference) of the NCAA this fall. Peca is listed at 5'9 and 165 lbs. at Quinnipiac's official website, so it's no wonder why some people doubt his ability to eventually reach the NHL.

Here's how the panel ranked Peca:

Kyle Alexander John Fontana Clark Brooks Clare Austin Patti McDonald Mike Gallimore
25 21 22 NR 25 21

After a standout freshman season at Quinnipiac in 2011-2012 (recording 39 points in 39 games), Peca's overall numbers came down a bit this past season in his sophomore year (30 points in 39 games), but that didn't stop Peca from turning heads on the national level as he led Quinnipiac to the NCAA Frozen Four and to the National Championship game, where the Bobcats were defeated by Yale.

Ryan Barber of The Hockey News noted Peca's flashy scoring touch during the NCAA playoffs:

The Bobcats torched Union en route to a Frozen Four berth and Peca wielded the flamethrower. His natural hat trick in the first period was the fastest in tourney history and he added an assist for good measure in the second frame. The speedster will be a key part of Quinnipiac's effort for the school's first-ever national title.

His strengths -- skating, speed, and scoring touch -- were never in doubt, and the slower development the NCAA offers should help him address some of his weaknesses for a few reasons. First, because he has four years of NCAA eligibility to polish his game before turning pro, and second because the college schedule allows for more rigorous weight training, as noted by CBC's Tim Wharnsby here:

U.S. colleges primarily schedule weekend games, allowing Peca more time in the weight room between games to get stronger. He estimates he's added 20 pounds to his frame in his two years at Quinnipiac.

He's already playing well against guys a lot bigger than him (which, to be frank, is most guys) and has good defensive instincts, evident in his penalty killing time with Quinnipiac, so he isn't a one-dimensional player despite all the offensive accolades.

Peca stated after his freshman year that he wanted to bring more offensive balance to his game rather than being a pure playmaker, and while his point totals did dip in his sophomore year with the additional focus on being a dual threat, he balanced out his point totals from 8 goals, 31 assists in 2011 to 15 goals and 15 assists in 2012.

While playing out his four years of NCAA eligibility with Quinnipiac seems like a good bet, there's a non-zero chance that the Bolts decide to sign Peca to an ELC this year, and if so he's got at the very least an outside chance at joining the AHL Syracuse Crunch on an ATO after the NCAA season is over, something we've previously seen college prospects like Alex Killorn and Andrej Sustr do.

At age 20, Peca is already eligible to play in the AHL full-time, so whenever the Lightning decide to sign him and he decides to turn pro, there is a spot available for him with one of the Lightning's affiliates, be it the AHL Syracuse Crunch, ECHL Florida Everblades, or their newest affiliate, the Brampton Beast of the CHL.