Tampa Bay Lightning boast skilled and deep group at minor-league level

By John Henry Schroeder
Photo: After signing a one-year entry-level deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning in the off-season, Johan Harju not only leads their AHL affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals in goals and points but has also seen 11 games of NHL play. (Photo courtesy of the AHL)

With a new coach, a new system and several new faces, the Norfolk Admirals have been much improved in 2010, sporting an impressive 18-6-5-1 record. The Admirals, currently second in the East Division, boast the league’s best offense, averaging four goals per game. Seventeen of the Lightning’s top prospects are currently playing in the minors at some level, with top goalie Dustin Tokarski and top defenseman Ty Wishart both currently playing for Norfolk.

AHL

Mark Barberio, D, 20

Barberio, a slick offensive defenseman, burst onto the scene with the Admirals this year, in his first season of professional hockey. In addition to seeing a lot of time on the powerplay, Barberio has been frequently paired with Ty Wishart or Vladimir Mihalik, providing the Admirals a very nice offensive, defensive punch from the same pairing. Through 23 games, Barberio has two goals and ten assists.

Alex Berry, RW, 24

Noted more for his toughness, than for his skill, Berry has begun to show some of the offensive flair that made him a 30 point man for UMass-Amherst back in 2008-09. Through 28 games, Berry has racked up nine goals and seven assists, already his most productive season as a professional. As of late, Berry has been playing wing on a line with Johan Harju and Chris Durno. The sudden development of Berry’s offensive game increases the chances of him landing a depth role with the Lightning down the line.

Cedrick Desjardins, G, 25

Desjardins, coming off a career season for the Hamilton Bulldogs, has seen his numbers slide through the beginning of this season. The good news for Desjardins (perhaps bad news for the Admirals) is that he has worked his way to the number one goaltender for the Admirals, ahead of top prospect Dustin Tokarski. Nevertheless, the former Bulldog has a sterling 12-5-1-1 record in net this year. The new, up-tempo system has forced some adjustment from Desjardins, who prefers to play a simple, calculated butterfly style.

Stefano Giliati, LW, 22

Since Giliati came over from the Toronto Marlies, along with Alex Berry, he has worked very hard to improve his game. Most impressive has been the reduction in bad penalties, recording 13 penalty minutes through 20 games. Best of all, Giliati has shown some scoring ability. Despite being relegated to more of a checking role, Giliati has chipped in four goals and six assists. While there is not a lot of upside with this player, it is nice to see him making strides in the right direction.

Radko Gudas, D, 20

Despite this being just his second season in North America, Gudas already seems well adjusted to the North American style of game. Tough, physical, and competitive, Gudas drew high praise for his showing during training camp this year. He has carried this strong play into the season, leading the Admirals at plus 17 for the season. Gudas has also made modest contributions offensively, notching a goal and six assists, while playing in 27 games.

Johan Harju, LW, 24

The big-bodied Swedish winger exploded upon his long awaited arrival to North America. Touted for his offensive skills and instincts, Harju did not disappoint, quickly becoming the most dynamic offensive player for the Admirals. He leads the team in scoring, 14 goals and 10 assists, despite missing 11 games to an NHL call-up. Now back in Norfolk, Harju has restored some bite to the AHL’s most potent offense.

Scott Jackson, D, 23

One of the leaders for the Admirals, Jackson continues to prove a strong defender in his own zone, and has been a good penalty-killer this season. However, he is still prone to being exposed both defending on the rush, or in leading a breakout. Jackson’s foot speed is the biggest impediment to him nailing down a larger role. At this point, he is not sharp enough in the other areas of his game to compensate for being exposed on the rush. It will be an uphill battle for him to become anything more than an AHL depth player.

Blair Jones, C, 24

More noted for his reliability, than any sort of dynamic skill, Jones is currently reliving some of the elite scoring of his junior days with the Moose Jaw Warriors. This is by far the best Admiral team Jones has ever played for, and perhaps the opportunity to be a useful piece more so than a go to player has finally allowed him to pile up some points. A better passer than scorer, Jones has managed to register nine goals to go with his 15 assists through 20 games.

Vladimir Mihalik, D, 23

The hulking Mihalik remains a work in progress, now in his fourth season with the Admirals. Despite the team’s success, 6’7” Mihalik is only even on the season. This may be a function of being paired with some of the Admirals smaller, more aggressive defenseman, but still creates a suspicion that Mihalik is still struggling to find his footing in North American hockey.

Levi Nelson, C, 22

Acquired from the Providence Bruins on December 9th, in exchange for winger Juraj Simek, Nelson already has one goal and one assist in his first three games with his new club. In limited experience with the Admirals, Nelson has seen most of his time centering for the third and fourth lines, including players like Stefano Giliati, Tim Marks and Pierre-Cedric Labrie. The twenty-two year old has a high compete level, and is an adept skater, so it remains to be seen if he can work his way int
o a more prominent role with the team.

Kevin Quick, D, 22

Many experts predicted that the new system and new head coach Jon Cooper would be exactly what was needed to rekindle Kevin Quick’s sputtering professional career. Quick, who may be the Admirals best passer, fits perfectly into the open, up-temp, puck-moving system, evidenced by his 12 assists through 25 games this season. Quick is the primary defenseman on the powerplay, and logs a lot of minutes for the Admirals. Even better, the young defenseman is plus-seven on the year, perhaps finally developing into a player the coaching staff can trust.

Dustin Tokarski, G, 21

To this point, it has been somewhat of a difficult season for Tokarski, the number three rated prospect in the Lightning’s system. His goals-against-average has risen by almost half-a-goal per game to a bloated 2.98 and his save percentage is below .900 percent for the first time since 2006-07 when he was with the Spokane Chiefs. Despite this, Tokarski has won six of his twelve starts. Tokarski is the more aggressive of the two goaltenders currently in Norfolk, which may make his style more incompatible with the now more free-wheeling team. Despite the fact Tokarski has slid behind Desjardins on the depth chart, their numbers are quite comparable, with the exception of their record. This youngster’s best trait is his extreme competitiveness, which would point towards a strong return to form over the second half of the AHL season.

Ty Wishart, D, 22

At only twenty-two, the former San Jose Sharks first-round pick continues to improve at Norfolk, becoming even more adept offensively this season. Wishart leads the Admiral blueline in scoring with four goals and fourteen assists through 30 games. Last season, Wishart was minus-18 for the Admirals, but has changed that around, and is now plus-13. Wishart, the top defenseman in the Lightning system, certainly portends of a valuable player sometime very soon for Tampa Bay. Always replete with tremendous physical skill, this once highly touted prospect is finally beginning to ripen.

James Wright, C, 20

It was a wise decision to send Wright back to the AHL this season, despite making the Lightning out of camp the season before. At just 20 years of age, there is no rush for Wright, and it makes sense to allow him time to develop offensively. Heralded as a great skater and projected two-way center, Wright has been given much responsibility this season, including centering for the team’s most successful powerplay unit. Alongside Paul Szczechura and Mark Fortonaro, Wright has been highly effective at both even strength and on the powerplay. Wright is tied for first on the team in points with 24 points through 30 games.

ECHL

Mitch Fadden, C, 21

As loaded with offensive talent as the Admirals are, it was still a surprise that Fadden, a truly gifted offensive playmaker in junior ended up beginning the season with the Florida Everblades of the ECHL. While Fadden has starred for Florida, leading the entire ECHL with 42 points in 30 games, it may have greatly set back his NHL career by playing him at such a low level. Fadden is someone who was expected to be dynamic at the AHL level this year, and make the jump to the Lightning sometime soon. Nonetheless, it is encouraging to see Fadden dominate the ECHL, as he was expected to.


Alex Hutchings, LW, 20

Hutchings, who recently turned twenty years old, is rated as the top left-wing in the Lightning organization, but has fallen upon hard times this season. Like Fadden, many people were surprised to see Hutchings demoted to Florida so soon, but unlike Fadden, Hutchings has done nothing to prove it was a mistake. Hutchings has only ten points, played in twenty-three games, and is minus-twelve. Hutchings’ one redeeming virtue, at this point, may be his age, which would indicate it is still possible for this youngster to figure it out and recapture the scoring touch that allowed him to score 47 goals for the Barrie Colts just last season. Hutchings has been fighting a groin injury as of late, but this does not account for his struggles all season.

Jaroslav Janus, G, 21

To this point in the season, Janus has been badly outplayed by Bobby Goepfert, but Janus has showed flashes of brilliance including a 48 save performance in a 5-2 win on December 1st. The Slovakian goalie is prone to many flashes of brilliance, the only problem being his record is equally marred by bouts of inconsistency. He has certainly not played well enough to move above either goalies at the AHL level in the system’s depth chart.