BRANDON - The Lightning farm system is stocked with talented up-and-coming forwards. Many have made their mark on the organization the last two seasons in the American Hockey League while making back-to-back runs to the Calder Cup Final. A few - Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson, Richard Panik, Ondrej Palat - have already shown that a future in the NHL appears to be in the cards while the likes of Nikita Kucherov, Tanner Richard and Cedric Paquette are expected to fall in line this season with Syracuse in the AHL. But the list of top Lightning prospects goes beyond some of the top names already entrenched in the system. Take Matthew Peca, a seventh-round pick in 2011 who's the sort of late-round pick teams are always hoping to find.
The Lightning selected the 5-foot-9 forward from the Junior A Pembroke Lumber Kings of the Canadian Junior Hockey League, where he played under former Tampa Bay forward Sheldon Keefe. "We felt that he was kind of a hidden gem," said Lightning director of amateur scouting Al Murray. "Every time we watched Matthew in his draft year he was the most talented guy on the ice and most competitive guy on the ice in all 200 feet with and without the puck." To this point in Peca's journey, he is proving the Lightning right in their evaluation. Peca recently completed his sophomore year at Quinnipiac University, which sat atop the NCAA rankings for most of the season and advanced to the NCAA title game before being knocked off by Yale. Peca was a big part of the team's success, finishing the season second on the Bobcats in goals (15), assists (15) and points (30). He led Quinnipiac into the Frozen Four with a hat trick in the region final against Union - a Frozen Four team the previous year - that landed him on ESPN's top 10 plays of the day. The 20-year-old said he has learned to play a grittier style, and being put in in pressure situations during the run to the NCAA championship game has aided the evolution of his all-around game. Heading into his junior year, Peca will garner some preseason talk as a Hobey Baker Award candidate as college hockey's top player. "It's something you want to play for, you want to do your best on the ice every night, and I don't think it's out of reach," Peca said. "I just have to keep working hard, keep working in the weight room and hopefully it goes well." It's been a steady progression for Peca since the first development camp he attended with Tampa Bay in 2011 that has him on track for joining the Lightning system in the near future. "He's a much stronger guy now and hasn't lost any of his speed or quickness and hasn't lost any of his skill or his ability to work both ends of the ice," Murray said. "He's just made that natural progression we'd hoped he would make when you draft those smaller players late. ... His body is filling out to where you can project him as an NHL prospect even more so than when he was drafted." As Peca enters his third season of collegiate hockey for what figures to be another strong Quinnipiac team, his sights are set on getting back to the title game and walking away with a championship this season. Though he would still have one more year of NCAA eligibility remaining, he did not rule out the idea of turning pro next season. "You want to put yourself in a position to leave early and you want to have a great junior season, but there is never any rush, and I would have no problem playing my four years," Peca said. "But if the opportunity would arise that I could leave next year, I would definitely take it."