Lightning 2008 system audit

By Vic Alvira

The Tampa Bay Lightning organization has few top tier prospects beyond Steven Stamkos, Karri Ramo and Riku Helenius. The organization has major holes to fill in their left and right wing positions, while defense and goaltending are the Lightning’s strongest assets. Players with the potential to make an impact in the NHL in the very near future include defensemen Matt Smaby, Vladimir Mihalik, Ty Wishart and the previously mentioned Ramo and Helenius.

Center

What was once considered a weak spot for the Lightning organization has grown in strength over the last few years. Garnering the most attention is their gifted 2008 first-round, first overall selection Steven Stamkos. Stamkos started the season with Tampa Bay centering their second line. Struggling for ice time in the early parts of the season, Stamkos has only collected four points in his first nine games.  He should improve his production as he adjusts to the NHL.

Dana Tyrell and Mitch Fadden are a pair of talented centers to keep an eye on.  The former second and fourth-round selections in the 2007 draft respectively are developing nicely. Tyrell, the captain of the Prince George Cougars, continues to succeed in the WHL by already posting 13 goals and 19 points in only 15 games. He is a speedy center and has developed quite the scoring touch to go along with his hard-working play. Tyrell got his first taste in the AHL last season for the Norfolk Admirals. He did not look out of place on his way to notching six points in his 11 games played.

Fadden may turn out to be quite a steal for the Lightning. He continues to be impressive as he plays for the Lethbridge Hurricanes of the WHL. Fadden scored 34 goals in the 2007-08 season and accumulated 89 points. He also had a deep playoff run in totaling 20 points in the 19 playoff games. Fadden’s maturity is growing and his previous concerns of work ethic seem to be slowly disappearing. If he is able to rid himself of that habit completely, Fadden should be a productive player for the Lightning.

Alexander Killorn is another quality player drafted by the Lightning in their 2007 draft. The former prep star is playing for Harvard now. It will be quite some time before he gets an opportunity to see ice time with the Lightning, but the youngster oozes with talent.

Blair Jones, Paul Szczechura, James Wright, and Chris Lawrence are other centers that round out a fairly strong group for the Lightning organization. Jones has tasted NHL action before in the 2006-07 and 2007-08 seasons. The numerous acquisitions by new Lightning management have forced him down the depth chart to start the 2008-09 season in Norfolk. Szczechura was quite a find for the Lightning after being acquired from the Iowa Stars. He excelled in the 2007-08 season for the Admirals and is continuing that production in the 2008-09 season by posting eight points in seven games played. Wright is off to a strong start for the Vancouver Giants of the WHL with seven goals and 14 points in 13 games played. The 2008 fourth-round draft pick is still a few years away from competing for a NHL job. Lawrence struggled in his first professional season with Norfolk in 2007-08. He needs to show the scoring touch he had in the OHL for his sophomore season with the Admirals, but currently he is scoreless in seven games played.

Left Wing

The left wing position in the Lightning organization remains mediocre at best, but there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Luca Cunti, Radek Smolenak, and Justin Keller are the bright spots for Tampa Bay.
Cunti’s character issues have yet to be a concern for the Lightning. The Swiss sensation wanted to play at St. Cloud State for the 2007-08 season, but a delay by the NCAA Clearing House denied him of that opportunity. The remainder of the 2007-08 season he suited up for the Chicago Steel of the USHL, and put up nearly a point per game production of 32 points in 34 games. For the 2008-09 season, Cunti is playing with Rimouski of the QMJHL and has accumulated 12 points in his 15 games played on the young season. He is a special talent with crafty moves and an excellent shot.

Smolenak had a nice comeback season in 2007-08. The former third round 2005 draft pick had been struggling in his professional career until the arrival of Szczechura to the Admirals. Smolenak seemed revitalized and started to show the potential he was capable of when he was first drafted. He is continuing that success so far in the 2008-09 season with four goals and seven points in seven games played for Norfolk. If the improved consistency can continue for the young winger, he may be able to crack the Lightning lineup in the next few seasons.

Keller has yet to find his scoring touch that he displayed in the WHL, struggling in his first two seasons of professional hockey in the AHL. Keller’s strength is putting the puck in the net, and his difficulties in doing so at the AHL level may prove worrisome. He has recently been sent down to the Augusta Lynx of the ECHL where he has already scored three goals in three games. Perhaps this reassignment can cure what ails the former eighth round 2004 draft pick. 

Johan Harju is turning out to be a nice selection from the sixth round of the 2007 draft. The Swedish winger is a big young man standing at 6’3, and has done quite well in the Swedish Elite League. Harju had 20 goals and 28 points overall in 51 games played for Lulea in the 2007-08 season. He is off to an impressive start in the 2008-09 season with six goals and 12 points in 16 games played. He possesses an outstanding shot, and along with his size could help the Lightning in the very near future if he decides to come over to North America.

Justin Courtnall and Denis Kazionov are the remaining left wings in the Lightning organization. They both will need a lot of work to climb the depth chart for Tampa Bay and have a shot at the NHL.

Right Wing

The cupboard remains bare for the Lightning at the right wing position. It is the organization’s thinnest position in terms of quantity and quality. Matt Marshall, Kyle De Coste, Juraj Simek, and Matias Sointu are the right wings for Tampa Bay.

Marshall is a fast skater and brings a tenacious attitude to his play. He is a freshman with the University of Vermont and has posted one assist in three games.  He’s in the mold of a top third or fourth line player.

The two new additions to the Lightning organization are Simek and Sointu. Simek was acquired in a trade with Vancouver, along with Lukas Krajicek, in the beginning of the 2008-09 season. Sointu was drafted in the seventh round of the 2008 draft. Sointu is a fairly good goal scorer and sees the ice well. A major concern is his size, as Sointu is listed at 154 pounds and stands at 5’10. He still has a long way in terms of development, but can turn out to be a good player at the professional level if he can add some muscle. Simek had some difficulty adjusting to the professional level as he only put up 17 points in 66 games for the Manitoba Moose last year. He his strong with the puck and has a very nice shot. With Norfolk in the 2008-09 season he currently has three points in seven games.

DeCoste, the team’s fifth-round 2008 draft pick, has a lot of work to do before being considered as an option for the NHL.  He has five points in 12 games for Brampton this year.

Defense

The Lightning depth on defense is not as bright as it once was, but is still a fairly strong group of players. The strong core is highlighted by Matt Smaby, Vladimir Mihalik, Ty Wishart, and Andy Rogers.

Smaby and Mihalik have some NHL experience, and did not look out of place with their respective stints at the top level. Smaby has more experience of the two, with 14 games played in the 2007-08 season. Due to the number of defensemen acquired by Tampa Bay, Smaby has had to start the 2008-09 season in Norfolk. He is a very physical and smart player and could see time with the Lightning at some point later in the season.

Mihalik has improved steadily since being drafted in the first round of the 2005 draft. He played fairly well in his first professional season last year for the Admirals by putting up 16 points in 68 games. Mihalik started the 2008-09 season with the Lightning over in Prague, but was sent back down to Norfolk upon their return to North America. He has a good offensive touch and a superb shot. The massive 6’8, 241-pound defenseman could afford to use his body and be more of a physical presence. He has the ability to be a mainstay in Tampa Bay very soon.

Wishart has the ability to be the best defenseman in Tampa Bay’s ranks. He is in his first full professional season with Norfolk this season, and has one assist in eight games. Wishart is a fine two-way defenseman and is very good at positioning himself. He has the potential to see NHL time in a year or two.  He was originally selected by the San Jose Sharks in the first round in 2006.

Rogers is loaded with talent, but the injury bug is starting to catch up with him. The former 2004 first-round draft pick continues to fall down the depth chart due to not being able to play in games. If the youngster can find a way to stay healthy and show Tampa Bay his skill, he has the ability to be a solid defenseman for the Lightning.

Kevin Quick and Scott Jackson are a pair of defensemen who have hard work ahead of them. Quick has gottin into legal troubles, which forced him to be dismissed from the University of Michigan. Quick is a good skater with offensive potential. He is currently playing for Augusta of the ECHL and has put together two points in seven games. Jackson was signed as an unrestricted free agent in July. The former second-round pick in the 2005 draft of the St. Louis Blues is getting a second chance with Tampa Bay. He is currently playing in Norfolk and is scoreless in four games.

Mark Barberio and Luke Witkowski are two of the 2008 draft selections on defense for the Lightning. Barberio has a ton of offensive upside. He is great in quarterbacking the power play and has a nice shot. Barberio needs to improve on his defensive game and avoid mistakes in his own end. He currently sits at four goals and 15 points in 15 games played for the Moncton Wildcats in the QMJHL. Witkowski remains in the USHL this year.

Michal Sersen, Michael Ward and John Wessbecker are the remaining players in the defensive ranks for the Lightning. They need to show improvement if they want to climb up the deep prospect depth chart on defense.

Goaltending

Goaltending looks very promising for Tampa Bay. Their strong group of goaltending prospects is led by Karri Ramo and Riku Helenius.

Ramo got a taste of the NHL in 22 games for the Lightning last year. He played respectably given the fact that the team that was dressed in front of him finished last in the league. Ramo is now the starting goaltender for the Norfolk Admirals. Ramo give ups rebounds, but showed considerable improvement over the course of the 2007-08 season. He has a confident attitude and frequently makes a highlight reel save or two during games.

Helenius responded nicely in his first year of North American play with the Seattle Thunderbirds of the WHL in the 2007-08 season.  He had some troubles at first due to a shoulder injury in the 2006-07 season, but found his groove as the season progressed. Helenius gets his first crack at the professional level with the Augusta Lynx for the 2008-09 season. He has a 3.12 GAA and a .904 save percentage in four games played.

Dustin Tokarski and Torrie Jung are the remaining goaltenders. Tokarski, the 2008 fifth round draft pick, has been jaw dropping yet again for the Spokane Chiefs of the WHL. He has an 8-2-2 record, with a 1.60 GAA and a .950 save percentage, in 13 games. He is known to have ice water in his veins when the game is on the line, and is as clutch as they come.

Even though Jung is at the bottom of the depth chart for goaltenders in the Tampa Bay organization, does not mean he isn’t a quality netminder. He was recently traded to the Edmonton Oil Kings of the WHL after starter Dalyn Flette was injured, and has put together a 2-0-1 record, with a 1.62 GAA and a .947 save percentage already. Jung could be a very reliable backup goaltender in the NHL down the line.