The Lightning had five prospects at the 2013 Under-20 World Junior Championships in Ufa, Russia, and four came away with medals.
Here’s a look how each prospect fared, and what their future might look like.
Nikita Kucherov, RW, Russia
7 Games Played, 5-3-8, +4, 4 PIM, 21 SOG
While Kucherov may only remember his missed shootout attempt against Sweden in the semifinals right now, years from now will look at his Bronze medal and be satisfied with his play throughout the competition. Kucherov was arguably Russia’s best forward in the tournament, though Mikhail Grigorenko (Sabres) was the only forward named among the team’s three best by the coaches at tournament’s end. In the opinion of TSN commentator Ray Ferraro, Kucherov was the team’s best forward. He and Grigorenko were by far the most consistent and dangerous forwards for the Russians at the event, and the two were responsible for 14 points together.
Kucherov, who led the Russians in goals (5), game-winning goals (2), and tied for the team points lead (8), was not the lazy player the Quebec media said he was when he was traded from the Remparts to Rouyn-Noranda earlier this season. He was frequently the first forward back into his own zone and was active in the defensive third in Ufa. He’ll never be a Selke candidate, but the effort was there even if the results weren’t always ideal.
Kucherov is known for his goal-scoring, and he didn’t disappoint in that area. Against Switzerland in the quarterfinals, he scored the game-tying goal with just over a minute left in regulation, sparking memories of Canada’s Jordan Eberle in 2009. Kucherov then had the shootout-winning goal with a nifty forehand-backhand deke that left the Swiss goalie swimming. Unfortunately for Kucherov, he tried the same move against Sweden and Niklas Lundstrom (Blues) stayed with him, though Kucherov nearly snuck the puck around his pad. The miss meant Russia wouldn’t move on to the finals, and Kucherov showed frustration/passion, smashing and breaking his stick against the boards.
He was also never shy about driving the puck to the net and was successful in several one-on-one moves, at one time making Leafs first rounder Morgan Reilly look silly with an inside-out move.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Kucherov’s game at the tournament was his passing ability. His passing has always been good, but he showed elite-level playmaking. His most notable assist was on Grigorenko’s goal against Sweden when he drove the net, lost control of the puck, but stayed with it in the blue ice and was able to poke it to Grigorenko, who lifted it home.
Kucherov shows elite-level skill and could end up a first liner in Tampa. He doesn’t have the burst that the most recognized Russian scorers like Bure, Fedorov, and Ovechkin have shown, but he could very well be a more energetic Alexei Kovalev.
He already has a contract and will be one to watch in Fall 2013 at the Lightning’s camp. He’s likely penciled in for Syracuse next year.
Nikita Nesterov, D, Russia
7 GP, 0-4-4, +1, 2 PIM, 12 SOG
Nesterov wore an alternate captain’s A in the tournament and although the stat wasn’t kept, he easily led the team in ice time. He was named Russia’s best player against Canada in the prelims and was chosen as one of the three best Russians for the event by the coaches.
The undersized defenseman showed effortless skating ability and a good first pass. He was a fixture on the first power play and first penalty kill units and was a leader on the ice.
Perhaps it was mental fatigue brought on by physical fatigue, but he had a few turnovers he’d like to have back, including one that ended up in the back of his net for a shorthanded goal.
Nesterov was excellent in wide-open play, but when the stakes were higher and the checking was tighter, he struggled along the boards and in front of the net. He attempted a few hits early in the tournament, but after bouncing off a player once he didn’t do much of that again.
Late in the Bronze medal game against Canada, Nesterov started to win a few battles along the wall and use his body to separate the puck from the man. He plays in a men’s league (KHL), but one that’s known more for wide-open play. Ferraro said the Lightning are trying to get Nesterov to the AHL next season, and hopefully he obliges. He does not project as a 30-point defenseman or a physical presence by any means, but he could make it as a smart, mobile, positionally sound rearguard if he adds weight and strength.
Tanner Richard, C, Switzerland
6 GP 0-4-4, +2, 8 PIM, 11 SOG
Richard was one of Switzerland’s leaders on the ice in the tournament and was a big reason they didn’t lose in regulation until their placement game, a loss to the Czechs for fifth place.
He was a big part of the Swiss power play and was on the ice for key penalty kill shifts. Recent reports out of Guelph of the OHL state he doesn’t always show up every shift, and this was the case against Russia in the quarterfinals. He started slow and wasn’t on the puck very often until the second half of the game. As the game drew to a close, Richard was banging his stick on the ice on the power play demanding the puck. Scouts and general managers would rather see a player want the puck in critical times than not, but they also want that attitude for 60 minutes.
Richard is a rare breed in that he’s an excellent set-up man who likes to play rough. He will likely be in AHL Syracuse next year, starting his journey toward the NHL. The key for him is developing maturity on the ice in terms of a consistent compete level. That’s certainly a realistic goal.
Artem Sergeev, D, Russia
7 GP 0-2-2, +3, 0 PIM, 5 SOG
Artem Sergeev was the same player at the beginning of the tournament as he was at the end, but the difference was his coaches actually played him at the end.
Sergeev, who started on the team’s fourth pair (expanded rosters), would play two periods then sit for the third period when the coaches shortened their bench. By the last two games, he was not only on the ice in the third period and overtime, but was getting significant ice time. It was his saucer pass along the wall that sprung Valeri Nishuchkin (2013 draft eligible) for the Bronze medal-winning overtime goal against Canada.
Known more for his offense this year in the QMJHL for Val-d’Or, he was a regular on the Russian power play throughout the tournament. His own-zone play was solid as well. He’ll work on rounding out his game next year in AHL Syracuse. He already has a contact.
Andrey Vasilevskiy, G, Russia
4 GP, 2-1-1, 1.81 GAA, .950 save percentage, 152 saves, 1 SO
Vasilevskiy came into the tournament as the Lightning’s No. 1 prospect on BoltProspects.com and he did nothing to fall from that spot. He finished second in the tournament in save percentage by .05 to USA’s John Gibson, and averaged less than two goals allowed per game. He was named Russia’s top player in their win against Slovakia, kept Russia close enough to tie their game against Sweden, and although he didn’t dress for the Bronze medal game, he was named one of Russia’s top three players for the tournament by the coaches.
He split time in the Russian net with Sabres free agent signee Andrei Makarov, and the team’s coaching staff made it near impossible to predict who would start each game. Vasilevskiy started in the quarterfinals against Switzerland and in the semis against Sweden, but was in street clothes after the Bronze medal game to accept his “best player” award and medal. He had a look of confusion on his face as he accepted his hardware.
Vasilevskiy showed elite-level ability in the tournament, both mentally and physically. His athleticism and flexibility were off the charts, as was his focus and consistency. As the starting netminder for the host team, he went through two shootouts in the playoff rounds, winning one with one goal against, and allowing just a goal in the other (1-0 loss). The pressure doesn’t get much heavier than that.
While Vasilevskiy is capable of the spectacular, such as his full-split breakaway save against Switzerland, what is most impressive is his consistent focus and technique. Teenage goalies can be up one moment, and down the next in terms of focus, but Vasilevskiy was “on” for the entire tournament. Even in his club play this year, he will go a dozen or so games before having an “off” night. Every goalie has them; it’s a matter of limiting them. Consistency is what may allow Vasilevskiy to make the NHL ahead of schedule. Usually it’s 4-6 years after they’re drafted, but he could make it in three.
Vasilevskiy’s timeline to the NHL will depend on if he’ll come to North America next year. He has said he’s on his way, but nothing is guaranteed at this time. His contract with Salavat Yulaev is up at the end of the year. They may try to keep him; he pitched a 1-0 shutout in his first KHL start – the game after the WJC ended.