Lightning Top 20 prospects, Spring 2008

By Phil Laugher

It was hoped by many that the Tampa Bay Lightning prospect group would get a serious influx in prospect talent when it became evident that superstar forward Brad Richards would be on the move at the 2008 NHL Trade Deadline. The trade, however, brought no prospect windfall. In fact, it brought no prospects at all into the Lightning system.

Still, the Lightning system will get a massive shot in the arm soon, as Tampa Bay won the 2008 Draft Lottery, meaning they will select first overall at the June draft. The thought of a potential Richards replacement in Steven Stamkos will brighten the future of the NHL’s 29th-ranked prospect corps.

But until the draft, the Lightning prospect group is still ranked in the lower reaches of the NHL. This year, the dearth of quality prospects in the pros, as well as organizational mismanagement was evident for the bulk of the season. Not only did the Lightning finish dead last in the NHL, but both of their minor league affiliates, the Norfolk Admirals (AHL) and the Mississippi Sea Wolves (ECHL), finished in the bottom quadrant of their respective standings (the Sea Wolves are in a divisional playoff in which eight out of nine teams make it, and have the second-worst record among ECHL playoff teams).

Goaltending was clearly the strong suit among professional prospects within the organization, with one goaltender making strides at the NHL level, another filling in admirably in the AHL, and a third putting forth Herculean efforts to help lead his team into the playoffs when all seemed bleak.

There are three additions to the current incarnation of the Lightning top 20 prospects, two of whom who were acquired via trades in the 2007 calendar year, while a third was an overage selection in this past year’s NHL entry draft.

Top 20 at a glance

1. Karri Ramo, G
2. Matt Smaby, D
3. Riku Helenius, G
4. Dana Tyrell, C
5. Vladimir Mihalik, D
6. Blair Jones, C
7. Luca Cunti, LW
8. Mitch Fadden, C
9. Justin Keller, LW
10. Kevin Quick, D
11. Jonathan Boutin, G
12. Andy Rogers, D
13. Alex Killorn, C
14. Chris Lawrence, C
15. Johan Harju, LW
16. Radek Smolenak, LW
17. Mario Scalzo, D
18. Ryan Munce, G
19. Dane Crowley, D
20. Mike Egener, D/LW

1. (1) Karri Ramo, G – 7.5B
Age: 22
Acquired: 6th round, 2004

Rämo has established himself as a future quality NHL netminder, after his mid-season recall from the Lightning’s AHL affiliate in Norfolk. The Finnish product burst onto the North American scene with an excellent 2006-07 campaign. His 2007-08 season got off to a mediocre start, as Rämo suffered an ankle injury that kept him out of the line-up for the better part of the first half of the season. When he returned to the line-up, Rämo was recalled to the Lightning in late December after veteran netminder Marc Denis was placed on waivers. Rämo appeared in 22 games for the dismal Lightning after his recall, posting a 7-11-3 record over that stretch, with a 3.03 goals against average. He did not receive much help from those in front of him on most nights, as Rämo was the often one of the best Tampa Bay players on the ice. Rämo lost a few starts after the acquisition of Mike Smith from Dallas at the trade deadline. Given that Smith was the centerpiece of the Brad Richards trade, chances are the Lightning will give Smith every opportunity to earn the No. 1 job. Ramo will have to once again play above and beyond in order to see an increase in playing time next year.

2. (3) Matt Smaby, D – 7.0B
Age: 23
Acquired: 2nd round, 2003

Smaby made the Lightning out of training camp, but was demoted to Norfolk after four games when it became apparent that he would only be played sparingly with the big club. Smaby returned to the AHL, bringing a steady brand of physical play and solid defensive awareness. With a stronger veteran corp on the Lightning AHL affiliate this season, Smaby has not had to play the big minutes, and has been given an opportunity to fine tune problem aspects in his game. He posted one goal and five assists for Norfolk in 58 games this season. Smaby was recalled to the Lightning in mid-March, and will spent the remainder of the season with the club, getting acclimated with a potential run for a top-six spot next season. He went pointless in 14 games with Tampa Bay this season.

3. (2) Riku Helenius, G – 8.0C
Age: 20
Acquired: 1st round, 2006

This season has been another difficult one of the Lightning’s 2006 first-round pick. After losing all of the 2006-07 season in Finland to a serious shoulder injury, Helenius decided to come to North America, to play for the Seattle Thunderbirds of the WHL. Helenius burst out to a strong start to the year, but fell into bouts of inconsistency, where the Finnish talent has had his No. 1 spot challenged for late in the season by Jacob DeSerres. Adding to that was Helenius’s less than stellar performance for Finland in the 2008 WJCs, where 2008-eligible Harri Sateri outplayed him. He has regained his form in the playoffs, leading the Thunderbirds into the second round. Given that Helenius is already under contract, it is likely that he will jump to the AHL next season, competing for playing time amid a quality corp of young goaltenders in the Lightning farm system. While he may have the best upside among Tampa Bay’s goaltending prospects, one has to wonder how much two consecutive underwhelming seasons have affected his development.

4. (4) Dana Tyrell, C – 7.0B
Age: 19
Acquired: 2nd round, 2007

Tyrell was one of the few bright spots for the Prince George Cougars this season. The diminutive, versatile forward led the Cougars – who missed the playoffs – in both goals and points, with 25 and 65 respectively. The 2007 second-round draft pick displayed great leadership for a team that traded away much of the leaders that started the season with the club. His strong play was rewarded both with an invite to the Canadian World Junior selection camp (which he had to forgo as a result of a minor knee injury), as well being given an amateur tryout contract by the Norfolk Admirals at the end of the WHL season. Tyrell has posted three assists in eight games thus far in his first taste of professional hockey. The 19-year-old will most likely return to the WHL next season.

5. (7) Vladimir Mihalik, D – 7.0B
Age: 21
Acquired: 1st round, 2005

The Slovakian behemoth had a relatively smooth transition to the AHL after two inconsistent seasons in the WHL. Mihalik has seen regular ice-time for the duration of the season (on an oft-changing Admirals defensive) and has seen plenty of time on the penalty kill. Mihalik has also begun to harness his most effective tool – his size – to his advantage, playing a strong positional game in his own end, and showing solid instincts in reading the play. The reckless abandon he displayed in junior has been limited; perhaps more than was required. As his game matures, so too shall his physicality mature. Mihalik has posted one goal and 14 assists in 65 games, having missed nearly a month in the first half of the season as a result of a nagging groin injury. A pleasant surprise thus far, the 6’8 blue-liner could be in the running for spot with the Lightning next season.

6. (5) Blair Jones, C – 7.0C
Age: 21
Acquired: 4th round, 2005

After suffering through an inconsistent first professional season in the Lightning organization (which still saw him appear in 22 games with the big club), Jones began to get better footing in his sophomore campaign. The solid two-way centerman sits third on the Admirals in scoring with 14 goals and 39 points, good progressions in both categories from his less than stellar rookie year. A gritty forechecker with good offensive instincts, Jones was given key playing time with the Admirals, through necessity, due in large part to expectant Admirals Craig MacDonald and Mathieu Darche seeing extended tours with the Lightning. Jones will be a top center once again with the Admirals next year, but he will have to show more of a willingness to effectively use his linemates if he wishes to be in the running for a couple more call-ups next season. Full-time duty with the Lightning is still a year or two away.

7. (6) Luca Cunti, LW – 8.0D
Age: 18
Acquired: 3rd round, 2007

The first half of the 2007-08 season was a wash for Cunti, who did not see the ice due to problems with his getting through the NCAA clearing house. When it became clear that Cunti would not get a chance to see NCAA game action this year, he headed to the USHL, suiting up for the Chicago Steel. The speedy Swiss sniper racked up nearly a point a game for Chicago in his half a year of action, posting 11 goals and 32 points in 34 games. Displaying great raw skill, but many question marks in his game, Cunti would have benefited from a full season. It is unclear at present where Cunti will play next year, but chances are he will not have to wait until late-December to see his first on-ice action.

8. (20) Mitch Fadden, C – 7.0C
Age: 20
Acquired: 4th round, 2007

Fadden proved that the 2006-07 regular season that got him drafted was not a fluke season, as Fadden nearly equaled his goal total of the previous year with 34, and trumped his point total, with 89. His 89 points, apart from leading Lethbridge, also placed him sixth in the league. Fadden put together a series of quality performances early in the season, and was one of the driving forces in leading the Hurricanes a 96-point regular season. Fadden has carried his strong play into the playoffs, where he has seven points in five games, including a trio of three-star performances. Fadden will play for Norfolk next season, and if the past two seasons are any indication, will be an integral part of the Admirals offense.

9. (10) Justin Keller, LW – 6.0B
Age: 22
Acquired: 8th round, 2004

Keller got off to a poor start to his sophomore season in the Lightning system, due in large part to still being hampered by a late-season ankle injury. The diminutive left winger only had two goals before December, despite seeing ice time in the top two lines. Keller has rebounded quite nicely in the second half of the year – not yet taking his game to a sniper’s level, but still displaying drive and determination that he had shown in his rookie year – and sits fourth in team scoring with 14 goals and 36 points. A hard worker who makes up for his lack of size and strength with strong offensive instincts and gritty play, Keller still has a bright future in the Lightning organization. He will just have to put together a complete, consistent season next year.

10. (12) Kevin Quick, D – 7.5D
Age: 20
Acquired: 3rd round, 2006

The 2007-08 season has been a roller coaster campaign for the offensive defenseman, largely of his doing. Quick made the jump to the fabled Michigan Wolverines after playing prep school hockey the previous several seasons. After rotating in and out of the line-up in the first part of the season, Quick was just beginning to round into form before he was abruptly ejected from the Michigan program by coach Red Berenson. The fallout saw Quick the subject of a fraud investigation involving the theft of a teammate’s credit card – a charge for which Quick will soon be facing trial. With his NCAA over before it started, Quick signed on with the Norfolk Admirals, and has posted four assists in 17 games. While Quick’s skill and potential is likely better than his current ranking, Hockey’s Future is reluctant to rank him any higher until questions regarding his legal future are answered.

11. (13) Jonathan Boutin, G – 6.5C
Age: 23
Acquired: 3rd round, 2003

Boutin looked to build on a strong, consistent 2006-07 season where he and teammate Ramo were oftentimes the only bright spots on the struggling Springfield Falcons. Unfortunately for Boutin, he did not have a great training camp, and lost his backup job to upstart prospect Ryan Munce. Boutin’s stay in the ECHL was a short one, and when Boutin was recalled, he returned to his play of a year ago, seeing the bulk of the action between the pipes in the first half of the season, filling in admirably in Rämo’s absence. With the demotion of Denis, Boutin’s playing time has not changed. Boutin’s strong play in his contract year has not gone unnoticed, as he was granted his first call-up to the NHL – albeit in an emergency basis – in late March. Boutin could be in tough for ice-time yet again next season with the likely arrival of Helenius into the Lightning goaltending picture.

12. (8) Andy Rogers, D – 6.0C
Age: 21
Acquired: 1st round, 2004

The former first-round pick has battled through injuries in his short career, and it was hoped that his sophomore season would be the start of a turnaround. And for the first half of the season, Rogers did stay healthy. Unfortunately for him, he was unable to earn much in the way of playing time. This was due in large part to both the crowded blue line in Norfolk, and his inability to step up and differentiate himself from the competition. The bulk of the first half of the season was spent as a depth defenseman for the Admirals, coupled with a short stint in the ECHL where he notched his first professional goal. The injury bug befell Rogers yet again in early February, and he has not played for Norfolk since. The stay-at-home defenseman should get more playing time next season, if he makes it through camp 100 percent.

13. (18) Alex Killorn, C – 7.0D
Age: 18
Acquired: 3rd round, 2007

The Halifax, Nova Scotia-born centerman had a massive senior year playing for Deerfield Academy in US Prep hockey, dominating the league offensively. Killorn was perhaps one of the best prospects playing prep hockey in the eastern United States this past season. When he notched a four-goal debut on the season, it was clear that he was on the verge of a big year, which he completed scoring at a rate of over two points per game. The slight forward may lack size, but makes up for it with quickness, excellent puck-handling ability, and a grittiness that is unexpected for his thin frame. Killorn has committed to Harvard for next year. With six forward spots opening up because of graduating seniors, Killorn will be thrust into regular ice-time in his freshman year.

14. (11) Chris Lawrence, C – 6.0C
Age: 21
Acquired: 3rd round, 2005

Lawrence had a breakout year in his final season in the OHL last year, where he put up 47 goals for Mississauga. With his jump to the AHL, it was important not to set the bar too high for the gritty pivot. Lawrence started the season with Norfolk, playing as a depth forward with the Admirals on the third and fourth lines. Coach Stirling was tentative to force Lawrence into many key situations, allowing him to slowly adapt to the increased pace of the professional game. Lawrence has had a modest first season offensively, posting five goals and 11 assists in 50 games, having the middle part of his season derailed as a result of a shoulder injury. Lawrence will likely have an increased role next season with the Admirals, with many veterans possibly on the way out.

15. (NR) Johan Harju, LW – 6.0C
Age: 21
Acquired: 6th round, 2007

Harju has quietly had a strong season in the Swedish Elite League, after having been drafted by the Lightning as an overager in the sixth round in last year’s draft. Harju was among the more potent goal scorers playing for Lulea this past season, notching 20 goals and eight assists in 51 games. His 20 goals were good enough for the team lead, and kept him in the top ten in goal scoring in the league for much of the season. One of the few bona fide offensive threats in the Lightning system who also has NHL size, the organization would love to get the Swedish winger over to North America next season.

16. (16) Radek Smolenak, LW – 6.5D
Age: 21
Acquired: 3rd round, 2005

Smolenak’s debut year under his first professional contract was an abject disappointment. After a promising couple of seasons in the OHL, Smolenak was unable to find any semblance of consistency with Springfield and Johnstown last year, also exhibiting a bit of a lazy work ethic. Smolenak started out this season with Norfolk, but was demoted to Mississippi after two lackadaisical games. Smolenak was recalled from the Sea Wolves in mid-December, seeing sparse playing time with Norfolk, but showing some consistency. As the season progressed, the coaching staff was more willing to give him more playing time. Smolenak clicked with new arrival Paul Szczechura shortly after the latter’s arrival, and has seen his ice time blossom, seeing some time on the top line. Smolenak has been on fire as of late, posting 13 of his total 15 goals since the start of February. He has solid tools, and this year has shown him what he needs to do to succeed.

17. (NR) Mario Scalzo, D – 6.0C
Age: 23
Acquired: trade with Dallas, November 2007

Scalzo was acquired by the Lightning in a swap of minor-league defensemen in November, with Bryce Lampman heading to the Dallas system. Scalzo brings great offensive ability (though he does tend to force plays rather than making the safe play; a habit that has followed him since his years in junior), though his defensive game leaves something to be desired. This offense-first style of play led Stirling to experiment with the blue-liner on the Admirals forward unit for a short time following his arrival. Scalzo has posted 20 points in 48 games since coming over from Iowa. In order to move up to the next level, his decision-making with the puck, as well as his play in his own end, will have to improve.

18. (NR) Ryan Munce, G – 6.0C
Age: 22
Acquired: trade with Los Angeles, January 2007

Munce surprised when he won the backup job for the Admirals from incumbent veteran Jonathan Boutin, just warranting his first playing time in the AHL in his professional career. His successes were short-lived, as Boutin was recalled early in the season. While Munce did not play poorly, it was difficult to find him playing time amid the crowded crease. Munce was sent down to Mississippi in mid-November, and was integral in helping the Sea Wolves out of the bottom reaches of the ECHL. Though Mississippi currently sits 13 games below .500, Munce has been lights-out for much of the season, posting a record of 19 wins and 16 losses, and an impressive GAA of 2.82. Munce is in the final year of his entry-level contract, and since the goaltending picture will only get more crowded, he may be on the outside looking in, in spite of his strong 2007-08 campaign.

19. (15) Dane Crowley, D – 5.5C
Age: 21
Acquired: 6th round, 2006

Crowley finished off his junior career with the Everett Silvertips, who acquired the burly two-way defenseman at last year’s trade deadline. Crowley showed flashes of his offensive breakout of the previous year, but did not do so as regularly as hoped, instead working on improving his play in his own end this year with the Silvertips. Crowley still posted 10 goals and 29 assists in 66 games (second among defensemen), as well as picking up 131 penalty minutes, good enough for third on the team. Though Everett made the playoffs, the Spokane Chiefs bounced the Silvertips in four straight games. Crowley was pointless with a –6 rating in those four games. Crowley recently joined the Admirals, and will finish the season with the club.

20. (9) Mike Egener, D/LW – 5.5C
Age: 23
Acquired: 2nd round, 2003

Egener faced a fresh start in his fourth professional season in the Lightning organization. Given a one-year contract in the off-season, Egener was repackaged as a banging winger as a result of the crowded blue-line in Norfolk. The experiment seemed to be working out well initially, with Egener banging bodies in an energy line role (and notching his first career multi-point game in the process). Injuries quickly caught up with Egener, with shoulder and groin injuries forcing him to miss several weeks in the middle of the season. He hurried back to the line-up too soon, and ended up re-injuring himself in his first rehab game with Mississippi. He has since returned to the Norfolk line-up, posting three points in 16 games this season. Egener is a character player who brings great energy to the table, but has been a victim of circumstance and injury, and it is up in the air as to whether or not he gets another shot from the Lightning.