Deep minor league system paying off for Tampa Bay Lightning

By Chris Roberts

Vladislav Namestnikov - Tampa Bay Lightning

Photo: Forward Vladislav Namestnikov is amidst a breakout season for the Syracuse Crunch, with 28 points through 24 AHL games. (courtesy of Minas Panagiotakis/Icon SMI)

On the outside of the AHL playoff picture as of mid-January, things do not look like they will get any easier for the Syracuse Crunch, the AHL affiliate of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Thanks in large part to Steven Stamkos' broken leg, among other injuries, a number of Crunch players have been summoned for short term replacement.

Some recalls have been more warranted than others, such as Nikita Kucherov. Both Kucherov and winger J.T. Brown are currently filling longer-term roles with the Lightning, where they have been solid offensive contributors. In his first pro season in North America, Kucherov scored 13 goals in his first 17 games with the Crunch before being recalled, while Brown posted a respectable 10 points in 13 games as a second-year pro.

NHL

Nikita Kucherov, RW, 20

With a skill set that not many players possess, 20-year-old Nikita Kucherov has been a welcomed presence in the Lightning dressing room since his early December recall. He has looked comfortable offensively, contributing 11 points through 27 games and boasts and plus-eight rating.

Not exactly a hulking winger, but solid on his skates, Kucherov's recall to Tampa was much sooner than expected. Last year, he came to North America but played in just 33 regular season games for both Quebec and Rouyn-Noranda; however, he scored close to two points a game during that time, and he was able to replicate that success with Syracuse at the beginning of this season, scoring 13 times in just 17 games. Kucherov does have experience playing against older, more seasoned players, as he spent time with CSKA Moscow of the KHL before coming to North America, and given his comfort level in the NHL right now, it is unlikely he spends much more time in Syracuse, if any at all.

Richard Panik, RW, 22

Playing a bottom-six role for the Lightning, Slovakian winger Richard Panik has had mixed results in his first full NHL campaign. He began the season with a respectable 10 points in 21 games, while using his 6'2, 215 pound frame effectively in both the offensive and defensive zone. But since then, Panik has just one goal in his last 18 games, a stretch that has included over 25 minutes of power-play ice time. Since he could be returned to Syracuse without going through waivers, it is a possibility he sees a stint in the AHL at some point.

Ondrej Palat, LW, 22

Ondrej Palat endeared himself to the Lightning brass last season, breaking out offensively with the Crunch before adding four points in 14 games for the Bolts. In regular season and playoffs combined, Palat picked up 78 points in 74 games for the Crunch, and deservedly so, earned a spot on the Lightning to begin the 2013-14 season.

He has played in all 50 games so far this season and is seventh in team scoring with 25 points. The 22-year-old is also amongst the team's leaders in plus/minus and has been a versatile player for the team throughout the year.

Tyler Johnson, C, 23

Not many expected undrafted rookie Tyler Johnson to replicate his offensive dominance in the AHL with the Lightning this season. But the 23-year-old, 5'9 pivot has not only been a key contributor for the Lightning, but has almost certainly vaulted himself into Calder Trophy contention, posting 30 points through 50 games, which is second behind only super rookie Nathan MacKinnon (COL).

Johnson's value to the Lightning has been immeasurable. The diminutive center has averaged nearly 19 minutes a game and seen a rise in offensive production since the team lost star Steven Stamkos to a broken leg.

J.T. Brown, RW, 23

An offensive force during his time in the USHL and NCAA, J.T. Brown is beginning to adapt to a third line role in the NHL. The University of Minnesota-Duluth alumnus was summoned from Syracuse to Tampa Bay after an impressive 13 games to begin the season in which scored four goals and added six assists. Since his recall he has 10 points in 30 games and has been getting consistent ice time, averaging over 13 minutes a game.

His spot in the NHL is far from secured at this point, particularly with the amount of young forwards the Lightning have that are jostling for position on the organizational depth chart, but he has certainly made the most of his opportunities this season.

Radko Gudas, D, 23

Three solid seasons in the AHL was all Radko Gudas needed to establish himself as a full-time NHL player. Having recently played in his 65th career NHL game, Gudas has graduated from the status of prospect by Hockey's Future criteria. He made his mark with the Bolts in the second half of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, cementing his place on the team with his hard-hitting, intense style of play.

He has been an everyday player in 2013-14, playing in 45 of the Lightning's first 50 games, adding two goals and 13 assists to go along with a whopping 96 penalty minutes, which leads the team by a wide margin. His non-stop motor and effort level has endeared him to Lightning fans and should go a long way in keeping him in the NHL, providing he can avoid injury.

Mark Barberio, D, 23

In his rookie season with the Lightning, former longtime Moncton Wildcat Mark Barberio has yet to emulate the scoring touch he had in his first three seasons of professional hockey, split between the Norfolk Admirals and the Syracuse Crunch. He has two goals and five assists through 32 games, but thanks to a greater commitment to team defence and the strong goaltending of Ben Bishop, Barberio boasts a solid plus-15 rating, which is amongst the team's leaders.

Barberio is not waiver exempt, so it is likely that he spends the season with the Lightning, particularly given the team's injury problems on the blue line.

AHL

Philippe Paradis, LW, 23

A first round draft pick of the Carolina Hurricanes in 2009, Philipe Paradis has been unable to emerge as anything more than a bottom-six AHL forward at this point in his career. He has just two assists and is a minus-five through 24 games this season, and through 134 career games in the AHL he has just seven goals. Paradis is a hard-nosed winger who plays a gritty two-way game, but given the little offensive talent he possesses, it is unlikely he earns another NHL contract following the end of this season.

Tanner Richard, C, 20

Tanner Richard's first pro season has not gone quite as hoped. An offensive force in junior known for his playmaking ability, Richard has produced just eight assists through his first 37 games. Last year, following an early playoff exit with the Guelph Storm, Richard recorded three assists for the Crunch, but in just eight games.

It is just his third season playing in North America as the 6'0, 185 pound center played out the early portion of his career in Switzerland with the Rapperswil Hockey Club. Hence, it will take some time for him to continue getting adjusted to the smaller ice surfaces and North American style game, particularly at the pro level. He has the talent, as he has already proven on the international stage at both the U18 and U20 levels, and should see his role increase as the season progresses. He has been praised by Syracuse head coach Rob Zettler for his ability on face-offs.

Vladislav Namestnikov, C, 21

With 28 points through just 24 games played this season, former first round pick Vlad Namestnikov has already surpassed his point production as a rookie in 2012-13. His offensive instincts and shiftiness on the ice have come to the forefront this season, as he has created a formidable duo with fellow Russian Kucherov.

Kucherov has found some comfort in the NHL for the past month, while Namestnikov, for the second consecutive year, spent December on the injured reserve. He broke his hand during a November 22nd affair against the Hamilton Bulldogs, and only returned to action in the last three weeks. The Lightning have not hesitated to recall their younger prospects this season, but it would be beneficial for Namestnikov to spend the rest of the season in Syracuse continuing to get acclimated to the North American game and building confidence in both the offensive and defensive zone.

Cedric Paquette, C, 20

A late-bloomer, Cedric Paquette played just two seasons in the QMJHL before making his AHL debut late last season with Syracuse. Last year, the 6'1 center broke out offensively and led Blainsville-Boisbriand with 83 points in 63 game. That offensive confidence has transferred over to his first full pro season as Paquette is third in Crunch scoring with 25 points in 38 games, and also leads the team in shots with 100.

With so many prospects playing in the NHL, Paquette has become one of the more consistent offensive threats for the Crunch. He has gone only one game all season without at least one shot on net and has five goals and 11 assists in his last 18 games. He also brings a bit of sandpaper to the lineup, accumulating 100 penalty minutes to date, including a trio of fights.

Nikita Nesterov, D, 20

Though just a rookie in the AHL, Nikita Nesterov has a season-and-a-half experience playing in the KHL and that much is evident in watching the 20-year-old play. While not an offensive force from the point, he plays the game with poise well beyond his years, typically opting to make the safe, smart play rather than take a gamble. Even so, despite not scoring a goal in his KHL career, Nesterov has tickled the twine two times in Syracuse and added eight assists through 33 games.

He will be best suited to at least a full season in the AHL, acclimating to the smaller ice surface, but should settle in as a solid bottom-pairing defender in the next few seasons.

Artem Sergeev, D, 20

The Lightning's propensity to draft Russians extended to free agency last season when the team announced they had signed undrafted defender Artem Sergeev. A smooth-skater with strong offensive instincts, he has provided some substance to the Crunch back-end, but unlike some of his defensive partners, is not quite ready for a stint in the NHL.

He boasts a minus-one through 36 games with the Crunch and has contributed two goals and four assists. He is more of a long-term project, but has interesting upside, and was a productive offensively for several years in the QMJHL.

Luke Witkowski, D, 23

Hardly drafted for his offensive prowess, Luke Witkowski has been a physical force for the Crunch this season. The Western Michigan grad scored just seven goals over the course of 158 NCAA games, but amassed 235 penalty minutes in the fight-free league, leading his team in that category for his first three seasons and finishing just one penalty minute shy of the team lead as a senior.

This season has been no different as Witkowski has been one of Syracuse's most penalized player with 88 minutes in penalties, including four fighting majors. He has also added six assists and has been minus-three.

Dmitry Korobov, D, 24

Late-bloomer Dmitri Korobov has been a real find by Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman. The 24-year-old Belarusian defender was recently recalled by the Lightning, where, through three games, he picked up his first career NHL point, assisting on a Valtteri Filppula goal.

Though he is regarded more for his size – 6'5 and 230 pounds – and physicality, he has contributed in all facets of the game this season for Syracuse. He has yet to find the back of the net this season, but assisted on 15 goals in 34 games, while accumulating 34 minutes in penalties. With the Lightning getting key members of their blue line corps back, Korobov has been returned to the Crunch, where he remains the team's highest scoring defenseman.

Andrej Sustr, D, 23

Because the Lightning continue to get healthier, Andrej Sustr became a victim of the numbers game in mid-January as the 6'8 blueliner was sent back to Syracuse after playing in 38 games for the undermanned Lightning this season. He accumulated seven assists during that span, but was more so a factor in his own end, where his long reach and physical style of play made him a valuable player.

He has played in just one game for the Crunch thus far, but is better suited to be in Syracuse for the time being, particularly with the Olympic break coming up, where he can continue to play high-quality hockey and earn top-line minutes.

Kristers Gudlevskis, G, 21

It has not taken long for last year's fifth round pick, Kristers Gudlevskis, to climb the Lightning's organizational depth chart between the pipes. In early December, the Latvian-born netminder was recalled from the Florida Everblades of the ECHL, and while he has not been a world-beater by any means, he has been an improvement over veteran Riku Helenius, who has struggled in limited starts in a backup role.

Gudlevskis currently has a 10-5-2 record in the AHL, with a 2.48 goals against average and a .910 save percentage. In the ECHL, Gudlevskis went 7-4-1 while boasting a goals against average of 1.83 and save percentage of .925. He was recently named to the Latvian Olympic team, which should be an incredible experience for the young goaltender.

ECHL

Danick Gauthier, RW, 21

Thanks to some injuries and organizational shuffling, Danick Gauthier seems to finally have secured a roster spot in the AHL. The 6'2, 210 pound winger spent time last year in the ECHL with the Florida Everblades and began 2013-14 there once again, scoring six points in six games. He was recalled to the AHL, and managed three goals and four assists in 19 games. He has since been returned to the ECHL.  

Gauthier does not particularly have any one defining skill, but plays a rounded game that should allow him to be an effective minor league forward.

Charles Landry, D, 22

In the final year of the entry-level contract he was given following the end of his 2010-11 season with the now defunct Montreal Juniors, Charles Landry has yet to show enough promise to warrant another contract from the Lightning. He split the first two years of his three-year deal bouncing back and forth between the AHL and the ECHL's Florida Everblades. This year has been no different with Landry playing just 15 games for the Crunch without recording a point.

Dan Milan, D, 21

With still a year-and-a-half left in his entry-level deal, Dan Milan has done nothing to suggest he may one day be an NHL player. In fact, the Michigan product has yet to even crack the Crunch lineup, or appear in a game for that matter. This season, he has appeared in just three games for the Florida Everblades, before being reassigned to the CHL's Brampton Beast.

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