Lightning Top 20 Prospects, Fall 2008

By Phil Laugher

The Tampa Bay Lightning have long held the short end of the stick as far as prospect depth is concerned. Several years of questionable draft choices, as well as seemingly pro-quality prospects busting, has kept the Lightning prospect corps in constant state of treading water. After a few years of shrewd draft selections under Jay Feaster’s guidance, the Lightning have restocked their cupboards. His last big splash as Tampa Bay’s General Manager will likely be his biggest, as the Lightning added top-ranked prospect Steven Stamkos to a growing list of quality prospects.

Top 20 at a glance

1. Steven Stamkos, C
2. Karri Ramo, G
3. Riku Helenius, G
4. Matt Smaby, D
5. Vladimir Mihalik, D
6. Ty Wishart, D
7. Dana Tyrell, C
8. Luca Cunti, LW
9. Mitch Fadden, C
10. Blair Jones, C
11. Radek Smolenak, LW
12. Alex Killorn, C
13. Johan Harju, LW
14. Dustin Tokarski, G
15. Paul Szczechura, C
16. Kevin Quick, D
17. Justin Keller, LW
18. Andy Rogers, D
19. Scott Jackson, D
20. Chris Lawrence, C

1. (nr) Steven Stamkos, C – 9.0B

Age: 18
Acquired: 1st round, 2008

In the acquisition of Stamkos, it looks as if the Lightning were able to replace the sizable void vacated by the departure of Brad Richards at last year’s trade deadline. The shiniest penny in the pot in the lead-up to the NHL Entry Draft, it was a silver lining for the Lightning to finish last overall in the 2007-08 regular season standings. Stamkos has it all: great vision, excellent skating ability, impressive puck-handling ability, a sniper’s touch, a tireless work ethic, and an understanding that there are two ends of the rink. It is anticipated that the immensely talented two-way forward (who also scored at nearly a goal-per-game clip last season, and was integral in Canada’s winning another World Junior gold medal) will step right into the Lightning line-up this season, likely centering the second line. Stamkos’s stint as Tampa Bay’s top prospect will be a brief one.

2. (1) Karri Ramo, G – 7.5B

Age: 22
Acquired: 6th round, 2004

Rämo had previously been the top prospect in the organization, but in the last six months, he has seen his red carpet fade a bit, first through the trade deadline acquisition of Mike Smith, and then with the summer free-agent signing of veteran Olaf Kolzig. With great competition in the crease, it is anticipated that Rämo will see another extended stint in the AHL with Norfolk. The new Lightning management would prefer Rämo play as much as possible over the course of the season, rather than stagnating on the bench. The time for Rämo to make his move is fast approaching, with Riku Helenius also on the horizon. He will be a part of an intense battle for playing time in nets with the Admirals, with two other quality goaltenders in Helenius and former Portland Pirate Mike McKenna also vying for ice time.

3. (3) Riku Helenius, G – 8.0C

Age: 20
Acquired: 1st round, 2006

Helenius has had the misfortune of suffering through two relatively lost years. The 2006-07 season was a complete wash for him after he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the early stages of the Finnish SM-liiga season. 2007-08 was also fraught with difficulty, as the highly-touted netminder had his share of inconsistency, resulting in him splitting time with both his club team in Seattle, as well as with the Finnish World Junior squad. The 20-year-old Helenius will be making the jump to the pros this coming season. The athletic, hard-working netminder will look to rekindle the level of play that saw him become the 15th overall selection in 2006 if he wishes to unseat one of the two veteran netminders with Norfolk. Helenius has better potential than Rämo, but until he shows that he can play well at the professional level, Helenius slots in behind his Finnish counterpart.

4. (2) Matt Smaby, D – 7.0B

Age: 23
Acquired: 2nd round, 2003

The time is now for Smaby to assert himself in the Lightning organization. He nearly made the Lightning roster in his rookie season, and latched on with the team at the end of his second training camp, before being demoted to Norfolk after a lackluster handful of games with Tampa Bay. He spent the bulk of his sophomore season touching up his play in his own end, and working on bringing a more responsible physical game to the table. The maturity in Smaby’s game was apparent during a late-season call-up to the Lightning, where Smaby did not look out of place. The acquisition of Andrej Meszaros also meant the departure of two blue-liners ahead of him on the depth chart in Filip Kuba and Alex Picard. If Smaby brings the same kind of consistent play, he should be able to make the team and see full-time duty as a sixth or seventh defenseman.

5. (5) Vladimir Mihalik, D – 7.0B

Age: 21
Acquired: 1st round, 2005

One of Smaby’s primary challengers for that final defensive slot with the Lightning will be Mihalik. The Slovakian behemoth has taken great strides from when he came to North America as an ornery presence with very raw hockey sense to a physical, two-way threat on the point. Instead of over-committing in his own end, Mihalik worked on playing a simpler game in the defensive zone, using his immense size more effectively to play a strong positional game and improving his hockey sense. Mihalik still has plenty of work to do in his all-around game, as his offensive game is still relatively raw. Still, his size and brute physicality would be a great asset on the Lightning blue line. While he may challenge for a roster spot on the blue line, he would probably be better served seeing big minutes with Norfolk this season, plus a couple of short-term call-ups.

6. (3 – SJ) Ty Wishart, D – 7.5C

Age: 20
Acquired: trade with San Jose, July 2008

Wishart was one of the key components coming to the Lightning in the trade that sent long-time top defenseman Dan Boyle to the San Jose Sharks during the off-season. Wishart was a first-round selection by the Sharks in 2006, and split last season with Prince George and Moose Jaw in the WHL (as well as seeing a five-game end-of-season stint with Worcester in the AHL. Drafted as a big shutdown blue-liner (a market that the Lightning have been good at cornering in recent years), Wishart exploded offensively last season, notching nearly a point a game. Blessed with excellent hockey sense and great size, Wishart is the sort that would have scouts salivating, but inconsistency prevent him from being ranked higher. A jump to the pros should provide ample motivation for Wishart moving forward, beginning with an appearance for Tampa Bay’s entry at the Traverse City prospect tournament.

7. (4) Dana Tyrell, C – 7.0B

Age: 19
Acquired: 2nd round, 2007

Tyrell was a teammate of Wishart at the start of the 2007-08 season (before the latter was traded away mid-season). The diminutive centerman brought a tireless work ethic, consistency, great leadership and excellent skating ability to the rink on a nightly basis for a Cougars squad that had many long nights last season. Tyrell could have been more of a known commodity if not for a minor mid-season injury that kept him from participating in Team Canada’s World Junior tryout camp. The two-way Airdrie, Alberta product will be part of the discussion once again for a roster spot with Canada this December. While another year in the WHL is in the offing for Tyrell, his quickness, drive and desire will prove extremely beneficial once he turns pro.

8. (7) Luca Cunti, LW – 8.0D

Age: 19
Acquired: 3rd round, 2007

Cunti suffered through what was in large part a lost year in his development in 2007-08. Having committed to St. Cloud State, Cunti was stuck in the revolving door of the NCAA Clearinghouse, which took its time before declaring the Swiss-born forward ineligible as a result of his having played professionally for a short period in Switzerland. He spent the second half of the season for the Chicago Steel in the USHL, posting 32 points in 34 games. The Swiss sniper will have more stability this coming season, as the Rimouski Oceanic of the QMJHL selected him in the CHL Import Draft. With a cadre of quality forwards around him, as well as the added incentive of playing for the Memorial Cup host, Cunti should see his stock rise over the course of the season, with a full year of hockey on a strong squad.

9. (8) Mitch Fadden, C – 7.0C

Age: 20
Acquired: 4th round, 2007

Fadden had a second straight strong offensive performance for the Lethbridge Hurricanes in the 2007-08 season, giving some reassurance to the Lightning who chose the overage Salmon Arm forward with a mid-round pick in 2007. Fadden’s stay in the WHL is likely over, as he should make the jump to the pros this season, starting with an appearance in Traverse City. Pending his signing a contract, it is anticipated that the slick, strong-skating forward will play for Norfolk this season. Fadden had been dogged with concerns over his work ethic in the past, and it has been an aspect of his persona that has taken a turn for the better since he was drafted. He will have to continue working on bringing his defensive game up to snuff to complement his excellent offensive ability if he is see regular scoring line duty with Norfolk (should he sign). 

10. (6) Blair Jones, C – 6.5C

Age: 22
Acquired: 4th round, 2005

This will be a telling year in Jones’s development. Many veterans from last year’s Norfolk squad are gone, and Jones will play an integral role in the Admirals forward group. He was auditioned in a top role last season with average results, as the likes of Mathieu Darche and Craig MacDonald, deemed top line players with Norfolk, spent the most of 2007-08 with Tampa Bay. Jones suffered through bouts of inconsistency despite his increase in production, and also had problems utilizing linemates effectively. He is now a veteran face with the Admirals, and will have to perform as such night in, night out. He will likely play in Norfolk all season given the crowded depth forward situation in Tampa Bay, in all situations, in a top-six role. This, coupled with the fact that he is in the final year of his entry-level contract, should provide ample motivation.

11. (16) Radek Smolenak, LW – 6.5C

Age: 21
Acquired: 3rd round, 2005

No player in the Lightning prospect system had a bigger renaissance in 2007-08 than Smolenak. After a season and a half where he looked lost and uninterested on most nights, Smolenak began to “get it” after a call-up to Norfolk. Playing alongside new arrival Paul Szczechura, Smolenak had an offensive explosion, producing nearly all of his goals in the final two months of the season. He also brought a more determined effort to the rink for the Admirals, playing seemingly harder than he had since junior. He has excellent finishing ability, good size and a smooth skating stride, and is one of the few offensive threats on the wing in the Lightning system. Now it will be up to Smolenak as to whether or not he continues his maturity from the end of last season, and play hard every shift, or lapses into the lackadaisical approach of his first 100 professional games.

12. (13) Alex Killorn, C – 7.0D

Age: 18
Acquired: 3rd round, 2007

Killorn was a man among boys playing prep school hockey for Deerfield Academy last season. It will be the complete opposite situation for the lanky centerman, as he will suit up as a freshman for Harvard this coming season. The transition will be a great test for the slight Killorn. It is one thing to display outstanding offensive ability against players his own age or younger who may not have as bright a future in hockey. If Killorn were able to translate that level of play to the NCAA level, then the Lightning would certainly have a steal in their prospect corps. He should play every game for Harvard, given numerous graduations from last year’s team. Killorn is an excellent offensive talent, great vision, surprising grittiness, and a tireless work ethic. He will need every ounce of it next season.

13. (15) Johan Harju, LW – 6.5C

Age: 22
Acquired: 6th round, 2007

Harju was another of the Lightning’s recent shrewd draft picks. The Swedish winger was drafted as a 20-year-old in 2007, and showed the scouting staff had done their homework, producing an impressive offensive output last year, which placed Harju in the top 10 in goal scoring for much of the season. Harju will return to Lulea once again this coming season, looking to follow up on last year’s production. The 6’3 winger brings a sniper’s mentality to the ice, with a great mix of skill and aggression, and would be a welcome addition to the Lightning system at some point in the future. Contract negotiations should begin in earnest in 2009 should Harju replicate his performance of last season. One thing to watch out for is whether a hamstring injury Harju suffered in training will have a lingering effect once the Swedish Elite League season begins.

14. (nr) Dustin Tokarski, G – 6.5C

Age: 19
Acquired: 5th round, 2008

Tokarski was the brightest star in this past May’s Memorial Cup, backstopping the Spokane Chiefs to the title and winning the most valuable player award for the tournament, turning aside 53 shots in the championship game. His play was instrumental in his being selected by the Lightning, and their hope is that his star will remain bright for several years, and that the Memorial Cup championship was not his crowning achievement. Tokarski has one more year of junior eligibility left, and will return to Spokane next year. He is a highly competitive netminder with great lateral movement and a drive to win. Displaying great focus game in, game out, and proving that he can be cool as a cucumber under pressure, Tokarski is another in a long line of quality goaltending prospects in the Lightning’s pipeline in recent years.

15. (nr) Paul Szczechura, C – 6.5C

Age: 23
Acquired: free agent, April 2008

Norfolk’s management must have known they were getting a special player when they acquired Szczechura from the Iowa Stars in January. He made an immediate impact with the Admirals upon his arrival, both offensively and as far as team chemistry was concerned. Szczechura was instrumental in Smolenak’s mid-season turnaround, and also provided excellent offensive production of his own, playing key minutes for the floundering Admirals. His performance garnered Szczechura his first NHL-level contract shortly after the end of the AHL season. He has excellent two-way ability, uses his teammates effectively, and has great determination, but may still have a long road to the NHL. While lack of size is less of an obstacle nowadays, Szczechura’s average skating ability could be a detriment. Still, his enthusiasm for the game should give him a chance in the Lightning organization.

16. (10) Kevin Quick, D – 7.0D

Age: 20
Acquired: 3rd round, 2006

2007-08 was quite a season for Quick – for all the wrong reasons. Quick committed to the Michigan Wolverines for the start of the season, and found himself playing regularly for Red Berenson’s Maize and Blue. Quick’s career (and possibly life) took a dramatic turn in early February, when he was unceremoniously ousted from the Michigan program as a result of a fraud charge involving a former teammate. Unable to join a CHL squad, Norfolk was the only place Quick could play for the duration of the season. Already a raw talent who could have used a couple years of seasoning, he occasionally looked overmatched with Norfolk last year. He would probably be better served spending time playing regularly in the ECHL before moving up the ladder. That is, of course, unless his legal troubles permanently derail his once promising career.

17. (9) Justin Keller, LW – 6.5C

Age: 22
Acquired: 8th round, 2004

Keller is another forward in the Lightning system in the third year of an entry-level deal who has yet to take the next step forward. A long-term ankle injury prematurely ended his first season and got his second season off on the wrong foot, but that has not been the only cause of his slow progression in the professional ranks. A former 50-goal scorer in junior, Keller has only been able to post modest numbers in the AHL, running into occasional bouts of inconsistency. He started to come on towards the end of the season, like Smolenak (who he will be in competition for top-end playing time with). Keller has shown in the past that he has excellent finishing ability, and he makes up for his average mobility with a gritty style of play. Small in stature, but large in spirit, Keller will be a key cog in the Admirals forward unit this season.

18. (12) Andy Rogers, D – 6.0C

Age: 21
Acquired: 1st round, 2004

It is imperative for Rogers that he remains healthy in this, his third professional campaign and the final year on his entry-level contract. Rogers, a former first-round pick of the Lightning, has suffered through a mixture of injury and inconsistency. A series of ankle and hip injuries have kept Rogers from appearing in more than 50 games since the 2003-04 season. When he has played, and has been at 100 percent, Rogers has been a solid stay-at-home blue-liner with solid mobility and great awareness in his own end. But those times have been few and far between. In this important season, the blue line will once again be crowded in Norfolk. Rogers has to assert himself as an invaluable, reliable component of the Admirals’ defensive corps. He had a good rookie camp in August, and will look to build on that when the main camp opens.

19. (nr) Scott Jackson, D – 6.5D

Age: 21
Acquired: free agent, July 2008

Jackson was a former second-round pick by the St. Louis Blues, having gone unsigned. He was a teammate of Helenius as an overager in Seattle, where he had spent five-plus seasons. The Lightning signed the 21-year-old blue-liner to a contract in early-July. Jackson seems like the prototypical Lightning selection: a defenseman with good size, great physicality, and not much offensive ability. He could bring an added aggressive dimension to the Admirals line-up this coming season, playing alongside Mihalik. While he does have a physical presence, he does not show reckless abandon on the ice, instead playing with great discipline; picking his opportunity to throw a big hit. It is best for him to play a simple game and do all the little things right rather than try to do too much. Professional hockey is a far different animal than the junior game, so a slower transition is possible.

20. (14) Chris Lawrence, C – 6.0C

Age: 21
Acquired: 3rd round, 2005

Lawrence was the turnaround story of 2007 in the Lightning organization after a breakout 47-goal performance. His first professional season did not result in such gaudy numbers, as Lawrence was buried on the depth chart and had the middle of his season derailed by a shoulder injury that kept him on the shelf for several weeks. He should see an increased role with the Admirals this season, and will be entering camp healthy. Likely playing a third-line role, he will look to gain some consistency with his regular playing time. He boasts excellent offensive upside and has improved his work ethic and attitude. Lawrence still has to make some progress in his all-around game and the Admirals coaching staff will have to be patient with him. He will make his second appearance for Tampa Bay’s Traverse City entry prior to the start of the pro camps.