Brett Connolly leads skilled group of CHL prospects for Tampa Bay Lightning

By John Henry Schroeder
Photo: One of the top offensive players in the WHL, Brett Connolly still has to prove that he is durable enough to handle the rigors of the professional game. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

Most of the Lightning’s elite talent is currently in the junior ranks including top forward prospects Brett Connolly, Carter Ashton, and Richard Panik. The Lightning’s current crop of junior prospects are somewhat older, close to getting their chance, either with the Norfolk Admirals in the AHL or, for a select few, possibly breaking camp with the Lightning next season.

WHL

Brett Connolly, RW/C – Prince George Cougars
Acquired: 1st round, 6th overall in 2010


Considered one of the riskier selections at the top of the 2010 entry draft, Brett Connolly has answered many questions this season by playing 59 games for the Prince George Cougars. Having played only 16 games in 2009-10, many front offices were scared away, billing Connolly as injury prone, and an unknown commodity. This season, with 46 goals and 27 assists, Connolly cemented his status as an elite goal scorer. His goal total was good for third in the WHL this season despite playing more than ten games fewer than leading goal scorers Tyler Johnson and Ryan Howse (CAL).

Connolly certainly has the talent to become a top-six forward for the Lightning in the near future. He has a great mind for the game, noted for his anticipation, particularly in the offensive zone. His offensive game is, at this point, by far the most polished. The Prince George native has developed a reputation for having a great shot. His lower assist totals might be attributed to playing on a weak Prince George team that finished seventh in the WHL‘s Western Conference.

Unfortunately, Connolly’s season came to a crashing end when he suffered a Grade 2 shoulder separation in the Cougars’ first playoff game. This injury raises concerns over whether Connolly has matured enough physically to play in the NHL next season. In light of comments by Lightning management, Tampa Bay will probably leave Connolly in the WHL to spend another season getting bigger and stronger.


Carter Ashton, RW – Tri-City Americans
Acquired: 1st round, 29th overall in 2009

This maturing power forward took another step forward this year, flourishing after a mid season trade to the Tri-City Americans. Ashton finished the year with 33 goals and 38 assists, notching 71 points in 62 games. Ashton has also been productive to this point in the playoffs with eight points in ten games.

At 6’3, Ashton has played with slightly more finesse than many would like to see at times, but does up his compete level in big games. Having somewhat underperformed prior to this year, it was important that the promising right wing show some progress, especially now as an older player in the WHL. Ashton has done just that, showing he still has the potential to round into a top-six winger at somepoint in his career.


Tyler Johnson, C – Spokane Chiefs
Acquired: Free agent, 2011

Somewhat overlooked, likely because of his small stature, Tyler Johnson went undrafted, but has certainly blossomed in his age-20 season with the Spokane Chiefs. He finished with an impressive 53 goals and 62 assists this season. These totals were good enough to place first in the league in goals, and second in points. Johnson was really the dynamo that made the Chiefs relevant this season, as only one other forward scored more than 60 points for the Chiefs. Johnson has led the Chiefs into the second round of the playoffs with an impressive sweep of the Chilliwack Bruins. Through nine playoff games, he has five goals and four assists.

While there is somewhat of a tendency to overvalue prolific, overage, junior scorers, there are a lot of reasons to like Johnson. He is widely considered to be one of the top faceoff men in the WHL and has also earned the reputation of being quite talented defensively. He is a great skater, showing both burst and good high end speed. Perhaps most importantly, he plays bigger than his size, including showing some nastiness and edge to his game. Some will recall his role for the Gold Medal winning USA World Junior team in two years ago, where he operated primarily on a checking line against the other teams top scoring threats.

Regardless of what happens this spring, Johnson is projected to wind up in Norfolk next season until the opportunity arises for him to fill-in for the Lightning. His skill set makes him capable of filling either a top-six or bottom-six role with Tampa Bay down the road.


Teigan Zahn, D – Saskatoon Blades
Acquired: 7th round, 186th overall in 2010

As the captain of the WHL regular season champions Saskatoon Blades, Teigan Zahn showcased the many intangibles to his game. Never known as scorer, Zahn finished with a career best in points, with three goals and 20 assists this season. His more important contributions came in leadership, physicality, and consistency on the blue line. With a solid frame, Zahn was a leader on his team in both hits and fights.

Unquestionably, Zahn is not considered an elite prospect due to his below average skating and passing ability, but the tools he does possess may make him a perfect candidate to fill a depth defenseman spot, particularly in the AHL. This being Zahn’s last season in the AHL, he will have to try and stick with the Norfolk Admirals coming out of next summer’s training camp.


OHL

Richard Panik, RW – Guelph Storm
Acquired: 2nd round, 52nd overall in 2009

Talented and skilled as any player in the Lightning system, Panik teases followers with glimpses of how good he can be. He burst out of the gates this year, but tailed off considerably to finish with a still respectable 27 goals and 29 assists this season. Comparable in physical talents to fellow Slovak Marian Hossa, he came back from an ankle injury to register a goal and two assists in a first round playoff loss to the Saginaw Spirit.

If the Lightning fail to sign Panik by this June’s Entry Draft, he will be eligible to go back into the draft. Expect the Lightning to sign him and move him into the AHL to play against some stiffer competition. Questions have dogged Panik throughout his career, experts struggling curious to explain his inconsistency. Some observers note he looks bored playing against junior talent. Panik is as talented as any player in the Lightning system so it will be quite telling to see what sort of progress he makes if and when he his pitted against better players. Interestingly, instead of immediately signing a tryout contract with the Lightning, Panik has been placed on Slovakia‘s roster for the International Ice Hockey Championships in Slovakia.

Geoff Schemitsch, D – Owen Sound Attack
Acquired: 4th round, 96 overall in 2010

Despite playing on a deep, talented Owen Sound team that finished first in the OHL‘s Western Conference, Schemitsch regressed statistically this year. The smooth, two-way defenseman had only half as many points this season, one goal and 19 assists, as he did in 2009-10, albeit in fewer games. Nevertheless, with his ability as a passer being his top attribute, it was quite disappointing to see his assist total drop. The knock on Schemitsch has always been his thin stature and unwillingness to play any sort of physical game. Suffering a broken arm this spring does nothing to dispel the notion that, while responsible defensively, Schemitsch is a fragile player.

The 19-year-old did receive first star honors in Game 2 against the Plymouth Whalers. With their sweep of the Whalers, the Sound, and Schemitsch, will have additional opportunities to showcase their talents. Schemitsch could really use a strong playoff showing to overshadow what has otherwise been a frustrating and confusing year. It would certainly help his game for him to return to the Sound for another season and fill out his frame before he tries to make the leap to professional waters.


Michael Zador, G – Owen Sound Attack
Acquired: 5th round, 148 overall in 2009

Zador has struggled mightily since his selection in the 2009 Entry Draft, particularly in his time with the Oshawa Generals. However, a mid-season trade to the Owen Sound may have breathed life back into Zador’s floundering career. Zador improved dramatically with Owen Sound, posting a 3.06 goals against average and a .900 save percentage over the second half of the season. At the top of the Western Conference, Zador was huge in limited action in the first round of the playoffs, not surrending a goal in 123 minutes of action.

Unfortunately for Zador, the Sound’s top goaltender, Scott Stajcer (NYR), has returned from injury to reclaim the starting spot for, likely, the remainder of the playoffs. For someone who was on the verge of being written off as a prospect, it was exciting to see Zador’s return to form this spring. Youngster Jordon Binnington appears primed for major playing time next season with the Sound, so it is unlikely Zador will be brought back as an over-ager. He may have done enough this spring to earn a spot with the Everblades in the ECHL next fall.


QMJHL

Adam Janosik, D – Gatineau Olympiques
Acquired: 3rd round, 72nd overall in 2010

Adam Janosik played with fellow Lightning prospect Richard Panik on this year’s Slovakian World Junior Championships team. As an 18-year-old, Janosik was second on the team in scoring notching an impressive five assists in six games. The emergence of Nicolas Deslauriers (LAK) and Mathieu Gagnon on the Olympiques blue line led to split powerplay time this year for Janosik, which lowered his scoring totals from 2009-10. He still managed to record seven goals and 25 assists this season, cementing his reputation as a skilled offensive defenseman.

Blessed with great offensive capability, Janosik can continue to develop next year in the QMJHL. Expect Janosik to add some weight to his frame, and contribute even more offensively as he grows more comfortable with North American hockey. Janosik will likely reprise his leading role on the Slovak Junior team, and is an early favorite to captain the squad. Janosik’s hockey abilities rate amongst the best of any defensemen in the Lightning system. Many will be watching to see if he can take the next step forward this upcoming season.

Charles Landry, D – Montreal Juniors
Acquired: Free agent, 2010

With departures of key defensemen prospects Ty Wishart (NYI) and Brock Beukeboom (STL), the September signing of Charles Landry looms much larger now than before. In the traditional offensive defensemen mold, Landry led the Montreal Juniors this season with 11 goals from the blue line, while chipping in a useful 29 assists as well. Landry was a key piece on the powerplay for the second best team in the Quebec League this season.

Interestingly, Landry played for current Lightning coach Guy Boucher when he was with the Drummondville Voltigeurs. Landry seems to be a perfect prototype for the up-tempo system the Lightning have implemented throughout their system. He still needs to develop his body more to compete with the bigger, physical players at the AHL level. Yet, for a free agent signing, Landry offers some useful potential as a back pairing defenseman somewhere down the road.

USHL

James Mullin, C – Fargo Force
Acquired: 4th round, 118th overall in 2010

Sent to the USHL to spend some time developing his body this year, Jimmy Mullin had a productive season for the Fargo Force. Mullin recorded 23 goals and 37 assists this season, good for seventh in the league in points. He was tied for first in the USHL with four short handed goals. Mullin’s most impressive moments this season came in the WJC where he led all players with six goals.

Mullin’s extra year of development should help him pay immediate dividends with the Miami Redhawks next season. Mullin is a versatile, albeit undersized, forward, capable of playing either wing and in all situations. The Redhawks are losing a lot of talent this season, most notably Andy Miele (PHO) and Carter Camper (BOS). With Miami’s lack of offensive talent Mullin should be given the opportunity right from the start to be a big contributor in all situations.


BCHL

Brendan O’Donnell, C – Penticton Vees
Acquired: 6th round, 156th overall in 2010

One of the better imports playing in the BCHL this season, youngster Brendan O’Donnell had a strong season for the Penticton Vees. Committed to play with North Dakota next season, O’Donnell led the Vees in scoring with 29 goals and 43 assists. He was also first in the league with 18 power-play goals. O’Donnell, while not huge, has a good frame that he uses well in front of the net. He combined well with Denver Pioneer commitment Joey Laleggia to lead one of the league’s better powerplays.

At North Dakota next year, O’Donnell will be allowed to further develop his body, and his game. He projects into a strong two-way player, as he will not be expected to be a primary weapon for the perennially strong Fighting Sioux as a freshman. O’Donnell, more of a sleeper pick, selected in sixth round of the 2010 draft, has impressed a lot of followers with a good season in the BCHL, and may be the exact type of player that continues to raise his game at each level, and may factor into the Lightning’s plans in the near future.