Role players populate European and NCAA prospect pool for Tampa Bay Lightning

By John Henry Schroeder
Photo: A former first round pick, Riku Helenius was once dubbed the Lightning’s goaltender of the future. After two and a half relatively unimpressive seasons in North America, he returned to Europe where he currently plays for Sodertalje SK. (Photo courtesy of Holly Gunning/HF)

The Lightning do not have a lot of high-upside talent playing college hockey right now, but they do have a couple of players that have the potential to develop into useful role players down the road. Only four prospects are currently playing college hockey, which may reflect the Lightning’s preference to pursue Canadian juniors players.

The Lightning’s European prospects consist of a collection of high upside, high risk players, from four different countries. Two of these players have seen action in the KHL this season.

NCAA

Alex Killorn, C, 21
Acquired: 3rd round, 77th overall, 2007


In almost every manner, Killorn carried the Harvard Crimson offense this year. On a team that struggled mightily, the slick Killorn finished with the team lead in goals (15) and second in points with 29. In addition to centering Harvard’s top offensive line, the junior center also was the primary weapon on Harvard’s powerplay. Despite being a smaller player, Killorn likes to play out of the corners on the powerplay. In addition, the Nova Scotia native played a primary role in the powerplay breakout, oftentimes carrying the puck the length of the ice. Killorn had a strong showing in Harvard’s Beanpot consolation win over Boston University, notching two goals

The gifted forward has filled out nicely in his three years at Harvard, both in physical stature and in his game. He is now listed at 195 pounds, in addition he has added quite a bit of offensive flair to his game. This year, was somewhat of a rebuilding year for Harvard. With a full complement of players at Norfolk, expect Killorn to return to Harvard to enjoy a productive senior season.


Kirill Gotovets, D, 19
Acquired: 7th round, 183rd overall, 2009

On the strength of his solid performance for the legendary Shattuck St. Mary’s program, Gotovets was recruited to play college hockey for Cornell. As expected, his freshman season had some ups and downs, but the 19 year-old held his own against older, more mature players. Gotovets played in all 34 games for a young, rebuilding Cornell team, and, like his teammates, got better as the year went on. The Big Red made it all the way to the finals of the ECAC tournament despite a disappointing regular season. The young Belarusian recorded one goal and six assists this season, good for fourth amongst scoring among Cornell defensemen. One positive for Gotovets, historically known for undisciplined play, he limited himself to 32 penalty minutes this season.

The native of Minsk, Belarus has much more developing to do. Despite playing two years for Shattuck St. Mary’s, playing for Cornell should afford him a much better opportunity to adapt to the North American style of hockey. Head coach Mike Shaffer is known for coaching a tough, disciplined brand of hockey, both areas in which Gotovets could use improvement. Expect Gotovets to grow significantly in his second year in the Cornell system next season.


Matt Marshall, RW, 22
Acquired: 5th round, 150th overall, 2007

Marshall and his Vermont Catamounts teammates struggled noticeably to score this season. Once touted as the top recruit of the 2008-09 Vermont recruiting class, Marshall has done little to live up to the hype in his three seasons in Vermont. He did notch three goals and two assists this season, including a multi-goal performance against Dartmouth in December. Nevertheless, Marshall has failed to fit into head coach Kevin Sneddon’s system, doing little to improve his billing as a pro prospect.

Despite having many of the skills necessary to be a professional player, namely good size and skating ability, Marshall has consistently underwhelmed in three seasons of college hockey. It will take a considerable improvement over his prior totals to factor into the Lightning’s long-term plans. At twenty-two years of age, time may be running out for Marshall.

Luke Witkowski, D, 20
Acquired: 6th round, 160th overall, 2008

The Western Michigan Broncos surprised many pundits this season by reaching the finals of the CCHA tournament and receiving an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament. Sophomore Luke Witkowski was an important part of the Broncos 12th ranked team defense. Known for his strong leadership skills from his junior hockey days, Witkowski played in all 41 games for the Broncos this season and performed well recording one goal and eight assists. Most notably, the strong, stay at home defenseman improved from his minus-13 a year ago to be plus-10 this season.

Witkowski is a big strong defenseman, and he plays to these strengths, which leaves the potential for him to develop into a bottom pairing NHL defenseman at some point in his career. Playing on an improved Western Michigan team this season, he shouldered less responsibility as a puck-moving defenseman, which should be a trend if his career takes him to higher levels.


Europe

Riku Helenius, G, 23
Acquired: 1st round, 15th overall, 2006

Once billed as the goaltender of the future, Helenius was sent to Europe last season as the emergence of Dustin Tokarski and the subsequent trade for Cedrick Desjardins made Helenius expendable. Playing for Sodertalje of the Swedish Elite League, Finland native Helenius has been unspectacular. He has played in only 18 of the team’s game, with a pedestrian 3.03 goal- against-average and .884 save percentage.

It was likely a big blow to Helenius’ future with the Lightning that he was sent back to Europe. Prospects that come to North America only to return to Europe very rarely make a second trip west across the Atlantic. As a result of his continued mediocre performanc, Helenius is quickly falling on the goaltending depth chart within the system.

Martins Karsums, RW, 25
Acquired: Trade with Boston, 2009

Allowed a brief audition with the Lightning following his acquisition in the Boston Mark Recchi trade, Karsums returned to Europe last season to play in the KHL. Karsums has played well this season for the Riga Dynamo with a useful 17 goals and 15 assists. Tied for second on the team in goals, Karsums has always been an effective player, able to play a gritty game, despite his smaller size.

Karsums is a proven player at the professional level, but has not quite showed the extra level to his game, or the consistency to stick at the NHL level. The Lightning brass remains interested in his development, and may try to lure him back to North America at the end of his two-year contract with the Dynamo.

Denis Kazionov, LW, 23
Acquired: 7th round, 198th overall, 2006

Kazionov has spent the last three seasons trying to stick with four different KHL teams. His longest stint was 51 games in 2009-10 with Yekaterinburg. This season he has had call ups with two different teams, neither one with much to show for himself, registering a single assist in seven games. While he looks the part of an NHL player sporting a solid six foot, three inch frame, Kazionov is not much more than a depth forward in the KHL.

Many experts pegged Kazionov’s selection in 2006 as an attempt to lure his older, more talented brother Dmitri to North America. Dmitri has had more success in European hockey, but still, neither player factors in either the short-term or long-term plans of the Lightning at this point.


Jan Zapletal, D, 24
Acquired: 6th round, 188th overall, 2008

The Czech defenseman, Zapletal, had brief, unsuccessful stint of North American hockey in 2004-05 when he played for the Regina Pats of the WHL. He has since returned to Europe and has been unable to crack into the Czech’s top league, and has mostly toiled at lower levels. Drafted primarily as a long-shot prospect, Zapletal has not improved much in his career. He has no realistic shot of coming to North America and playing in the Lightning system at any level.