The Lightning have had a tough time developing their own prospects for most of their history. After the lockout, it became even more evident as the team struggled. However, they may be able to turn this around with their current crop of prospects. With Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman already on board, it’s a good start. The organization has solid talent up the middle, and in net, but they need to improve their prospects on the wing and on the back line.
The Lightning have a good potential crop of center prospects, but the two top lines in Tampa have centers who will be nearly impossible for prospects to supplant. Right now, the young center who is making a current impact on the big club is James Wright. Wright is playing wing on the third line centered by Jeff Halpern. While scoreless so far this season, the 2008 fourth-round pick, who was never an overwhelming scorer for the Vancouver Giants, is forcing the Lightning to decide to keep him or send him back to juniors as he is only 19.
A good majority of the Lightning’s center talent in the system is plying its trade in Norfolk. Two intriguing players are Dana Tyrell and Mitch Fadden, two 2007 draft picks who lit it up in juniors. Tyrell, a second-round pick, got a taste of the AHL in 2009, playing 11 games for the team and scoring six points. With his great work ethic, the 20-year-old is trying to increase these totals and make more of an impact in his first full season in the pros. Fadden is making his first appearance in a professional league this season. The playmaking center, who will be working on developing more defensive skills with Norfolk, has scored more than a point per game the last three seasons in the WHL. Both players could be assets for the Lightning if they develop properly.
Two other centers playing for the Admirals who have had a taste of Tampa are Blair Jones and Paul Szczechura. Jones, the fourth-round pick in 2005, has steadily increased his point total each year in the AHL. He peaked with 20 goals and 54 points last year. A product of Western Michigan University, Szczechura finished with the Lightning and played pretty well last season, but had to start in Norfolk this year with the additions acquired by the team. With good play and injuries on the main club, he could find a way back to Tampa.
Richard Panik, the second round pick in 2009, had a decent World Junior Championship with five points in seven games for Slovakia. For the current season, Panik has arrived in Canada to play for the Windsor Spitfires. In 11 games, he has six points as he gets acclimated to the North American game.
There is less talent on the left wing. The most ready prospect in this position was just reclaimed off waivers. Radek Smolenak, an original draft pick of the Lightning, has very gradually improved in the minors. He received a taste of playing for the Lightning, but his size and hands were not enough to secure a spot.
Two prospects who are not ready to play professionally in North America yet are Johan Harju and Alex Killorn. Harju, a Swedish product and a sixth-round pick in 2007, has moved from Sweden to Russia to play. Harju had a breakout season with Lulea last season and then signed a contract with Dynamo Moscow. A strong player overall, Harju has scored 20 goals or more the past two seasons. However, in the KHL so far he has just three points in 16 games. Killorn, a smallish player, spent the last season with Harvard. Killorn had a decent freshman year with 14 points in 30 games. He will have to use his speed and work ethic to try to improve his game in the upcoming season.
Alex Hutchings, a fourth round pick in 2009, is playing his fourth season for the Barrie Colts in the OHL. The speedy 18-year-old has improved on his point totals throughout his career. In 12 games this season, he already has 15 points.
Juraj Simek, a former farmhand of the Canucks, has not fully developed on a professional level so far. Topping out at 22 points last season in Norfolk, the 22-year-old is looking to improve on that. He can play either wing.
Two lower-end prospects are Justin Courtnall and Denis Kazionov. While not expected to make an impact in the near future, Courtnall is a freshman at Boston University. Kazionov has bounced all over Europe and is not expected to come over to North America anytime soon.
This position has more bodies, but more question marks. Their biggest and most important prospect at right wing is Carter Ashton. The Lightning valued him enough to make a trade to move back into the first round to select him in June. Ashton, the son of former NHL player Brent, is a very good two-way player. He developed by leaps and bounds during last season in Lethbridge, scoring 30 goals. He is on a roll so far with six goals this season in eight games. Ashton will spend at least one more season in juniors as he will not turn 19 until next April. He could easily be a top-six forward for the Lightning down the line.
Steve Downie is playing the right wing on the fourth line in Tampa. Playing on a line with Zenon Konopka and Todd Fedoruk, Downie plays more of a pest role and less offense than in juniors.
Another player who could make a future impact for the team is Martins Karsums. Arriving in a trade for Mark Recchi, he played 24 games total for the Bruins and the Lightning last season. He did not make a spectacular impression in his time after developing nicely for Providence in the AHL. While not a large player, he is a physical and strong skater. He may be the first forward to be recalled. The Latvian is scoreless in five games so far this season in Norfolk.
The team has some potential players at right wing, but none of them top prospects. This list includes Lauri Tukonen, Chris Lawrence, Kyle DeCoste, Matias Sointu, and Matt Marshall. Tukonen, who came over from Dallas last season, has been playing in Finland since the beginning of last season. The former first round pick of the Kings is playing for Lukko this season. He has seven points in nine games. , who has switched to right wing in Norfolk, has never shown his true potential in the pros yet. Bouncing around from the AHL to ECHL, Lawrence has totaled just 28 points in two seasons. DeCoste, a two-way player that was drafted in 2008, is coming along slowly in the OHL. With one goal in eight games this season, DeCoste may never make it to the NHL. Sointu is spending his first season in North America with the Ottawa 67’s with six points in 10 games. Sointu’s lack of size could impede his progress in his career, but he does have a natural scoring ability. Finally, Marshall is a sophomore at Vermont, the alma mater of Martin St. Louis. If he even matures into a NHL-quality player, it will not be for at least two years. Marshall can also play center.
Hedman, drafted second overall, is making an amazing impact in six games this season. The Lightning have thrown Hedman to the fire and he has impressed with four points. The big Swede leads the team in ice time and is 11th in the league. With the tutelage of fellow Swede, Mattias Ohlund, Hedman is in good hands. While there may be some growing pains with the 6’6 native of Ornskoldsvik, Hedman appears to be the No. 1 defenseman of this team for the future.
Two players who may make an impact with the team are Matt Lashoff and Ty Wishart. Lashoff, who also came over in the Recchi trade, had a good showing with the Lightning last season with seven points in 12 games. A well-rounded defenseman, Lashoff is a steady rearguard who could be a top-four talent if he wants to be. With the acquisitions of Hedman, Ohlund, Matt Walker and with Meszaros and Ranger healthy though, Lashoff had to develop further in Norfolk to start this season. Wishart is the only remaining asset directly left from the Dan Boyle trade. The former first round pick of the Sharks showed a lot of offensive upside in the WHL. However, it has not transferred to the AHL yet. A tall, physical defenseman, he could be a dominant player, so he should get a fair shot. In Norfolk this season, the British Columbia native has one assist in three games.
Other defensemen in Norfolk who could make a statement in the NHL are Vladimir Mihalik, Kevin Quick, and Scott Jackson. Mihalik was the Lightning’s first draft pick after the lockout. A huge defenseman measuring 6’7, the Slovakian has the possibility to be a great pick or a total bust. He received a taste of playing in the NHL last season appearing in 11 games. The Lightning certainly do not appear to be quitting on someone who could be a defensive powerhouse. He has to produce more and become a more complete player before he receives full-time employment in Tampa.
The former Michigan Wolverine, Quick is still developing. Playing for Norfolk for a third season, the playmaking defenseman will be looking to refine his game. Quick is scoreless in four games so far this season. Jackson is a physical defenseman who is in his second season in the Lightning system. A draft pick of the Blues, the former Seattle Thunderbird is playing his second professional season. Jackson is the defenseman who is coming along the slowest of the three. He is trying to stay in the line-up in Norfolk.
Players that are also in the system are Mark Barberio, Kirill Gotovets, Luke Witkowski, and Michal Sersen. Barberio, a 2008 sixth-round pick, is still playing in the QMJHL with Moncton. An offensive defenseman, he has amassed good point totals in his three full seasons with the Wildcats. This season, the Montreal native has 10 points in 13 games. Drafted in the final round of 2009, the Belarusian, Gotovets is playing for Cornell University this season. He is an offensive defenseman who will work on his physical play here in North America. Witkowski, a 2008 draft pick is a freshman with the Broncos of Western Michigan. Sersen, who was acquired in a trade with Pittsburgh, was an offensive juggernaut in 2006 for the Quebec Ramparts. However, injuries and a lack of defensive play have hurt the Slovakian. Sersen has played the last three years in his native country.
Karri Ramo has a fair amount of experience with the Lightning. Ramo’s experience last season was skewed by the poor defense the team fielded at the end of the season. In 24 games last season, the Finn only had four wins. A restricted free agent, the Lightning have retained his rights as he plays for Omsk in the KHL. In 14 games there, he is 8-6-1 with a 2.13 GAA and a save percentage of .897. Ramo signed a two-year deal with Omsk, so he probably will not return until at least 2011-12.
Norfolk is using three goalies at this time with Tokarski, Janus, and Helenius all getting playing time. Tokarski, a fifth round pick in 2008, is the favored netminder. A former Spokane Chief, he was great the past two seasons with 30 wins or more and having a goals against average that was hovering around two. A World Junior Championship veteran, he is the goalie that has made the most starts for the Admirals this season. In four starts, Tokarski is 2-2 with 2.27 GAA and a shutout.
Janus could have returned to the OHL with Erie, but the Lightning had other ideas. The aggressive Slovakian shined in the 2009 World Junior Championships leading his country to upsets of Finland and the United States. A 2009 sixth-round pick, Janus has started one game for Norfolk, giving up two goals in a loss.
The former first-round pick in 2006, Helenius needs to assert himself. He had a good campaign for Seattle in the WHL in 2007-08. Last season, the Finnish native bounced around from Tampa to Norfolk to Augusta to Elmira to Mississippi. A butterfly goalie who has stickhandling that is lacking, he has played in one game for Norfolk this season with one loss and two goals allowed. He could see time in the ECHL again this year, but it’s unclear where, as the Lightning no longer have an ECHL affiliate.
Michael Zador is a good distance away from the pros right now. A backup on both Oshawa and London in his career, the Toronto native was drafted in the fifth round of 2009 because of his fine play in the Under 18 World Championships. An inconsistent goalie so far, Zador is splitting time in Oshawa this season with Keven Bailie (2010-eligible). The better goalie on the team, Zador is 6-1-1 with a 2.98 GAA and .903 save percentage.