Tampa Bay Lightning possess great depth and character at minor-league level

By John Henry Schroeder
Photo: Defenseman Kevin Quick struggled on defense this season to the point where he was occasionally deployed as a forward. (Photo courtesy of Holly Gunning/HF)

The Lightning had almost half of their prospects, 16, playing in minors this season for the Norfolk Admirals in the AHL and the Florida Everblades in the ECHL. The Admirals had a strong bounce-back season, registering 93 points, good for sixth in the AHL‘s Eastern Conference. The team fielded an exciting group this year; their 265 goals were good for second in the AHL. After jumping out to a 2-0 lead in their first round playoff series against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, the Admirals dropped four straight to lose their first round series. The Everblades, an ECHL affiliate shared with the Carolina Hurricanes, dropped their first round series 3-1 to the Kalamazoo Wings.

Forward

Johan Harju, LW, 25

Harju, a talented import from the KHL, was expected to make an immediate impact with the Norfolk Admirals this year, and even contribute as a part of the Lightning’s bottom six forwards. The big winger failed to make the Lightning out of training camp, but got off to a scorching start for Norfolk, only to finish with 23 goals and 30 assists, good for third on the Admirals in scoring. In ten games with the Lightning, Harju played more of a depth role, contributing a goal and two assists, playing most often with Dana Tyrell on the fourth line. Despite his early season success, Harju seemed to lose his rhythm as the season progressed, and only notched one point in the playoffs. Nonetheless, his slick offensive skills should make him a priority for the Lightning, either as a veteran scoring presence with the Admirals or providing some depth scoring to the Lightning.

Alex Hutchings, LW, 20

A major scoring dynamo as a junior in the OHL, Hutchings was a major disappointment in his first season of pro hockey. Hutchings failed to make the Admirals out of training camp and was sent to the Everblades in the ECHL where he languished for most of the season, despite racking up nine points in ten games during the month of January. The former Barrie Colt finished with a paltry 13 goals and 13 assists, an unlucky 13th on the team in scoring. On a more positive note, Hutchings looked very strong for the Everblades in the playoffs, notching three points in four games, earning himself a call-up to the Admirals. Hutchings made his first AHL appearance in the first round of the playoffs, but did not register a point against Wilkes-Barre in his one game. Hutchings has the type of offensive skill to be a factor for the Admirals next season, but given his small stature, it will take a much greater commitment than he showed this season.

Stefano Giliati, LW, 23

Giliati, a Montreal native acquired from the Toronto Marlies prior to this season, was not expected to be a much of a contributor this season for the Admirals. However, the Admirals, and Coach Jon Cooper got a valuable, gritty depth winger. The 23-year old contributed nicely to the offense with seven goals and 14 assists, and also kept his penalty minutes in check for the up-tempo Admirals. Giliati was pressed into service in the Admirals top-six in the playoffs due to call-ups and injuries, and notched a powerplay goal in the third game against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Giliati doesn’t have a skill set that makes him anything more than a checking line forward in the AHL, but he still has provided the Admirals with some much needed depth in this area.

James Wright, C, 21

Selected in the 2008 draft as much for his defensive prowess as his scoring in junior, the 2010-11 season really saw youngster James Wright round into form. Only 20 years of age to start the season, Wright has added some muscle to his tall 6’4 frame, which allowed him to play a more physical, complete style this season. Wright also hit the score-sheet regularly for the Admirals, finishing the year with 16 goals and 31 assists. His assist total was tied for second on the team in that category. Wright still has a year left on his three-year entry-level deal signed at the beginning of the 2009-10 season, and certainly has the look of a checking forward for the Lightning in the near future.

Mattias Ritola, C, 24

New Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman wasted little time in plucking a talented player from Detroit when Ritola was placed on waivers in October. Ritola, a highly skilled, but smaller, Swedish forward saw a significant amount of time with the Lightning this season. He had four goals and four assists in 31 games, playing mostly in a depth role, and never playing more than 14 minutes a game. Ritola was a revelation in his time with the Admirals piling up nine goals and 18 assists in just 17 games. Ritola did not score at nearly the same pace when playing in the Red Wings system, with just 42 points in a full season of play in 2009-10. The Lightning, with a thinner system that Detroit, were able to allow Ritola to see a lot of ice in the AHL and become the real catalyst for the team down the stretch. Ritola had five points in four playoff games and he was also an emergency call-up for the Lightning following the Steve Downie suspension.

Levi Nelson, C, 23

When he was acquired by the Lightning in December, Levi Nelson was never supposed to be much more than a depth player for the Admirals, but numerous injuries and call-ups placed Nelson in an increasingly important role with the team. His uptick in minutes, instead of affording him opportunity to shine, revealed his limitations as a professional player. In 20 games with the Admirals, Nelson record just three goals and one assist. For a severely undermanned Admirals team in the playoffs, Nelson had zero points. His utility is limited to a minors-level checking forward, who noted for his workmanlike mindset, can still be helpful to the Admirals in this way. Nelson is in the last year of his entry-level contract, it remains to be seen whether he will be brought back next year.

Alex Berry, RW, 25

Former UMass-Amherst Minuteman Alex Berry had a strong showing in his first stint with the Norfolk Admirals. In addition to chipping in a career high 14 goals and 20 assists, Berry racked up a whopping 150 penalty minutes this year. Berry’s offensive growth this year really showed off his growth into a complete player. Always noted as a good teammate, and hard-worker, his major shortcomings were in the offensive zone. A crucial part of the rejuvenated Admirals, Berry was one of the missing pieces in the playoffs, as he was forced to sit out the whole series with an injury.

Defense

Kevin Quick, D, 23

The mercurial Quick was a popular pick to blossom under new coach Jon Cooper’s new up-tempo system. After butting heads with several of the Admirals’ coaches last year, Quick was badly in need of a fresh start. He responded well starting the season strong, becoming a factor on the Admirals powerplay. Unfortunately, a regression to his old, lazy habits, found him in and out of the lineup in Norfolk’s second half. Quick finished with a somewhat disappointing 15 assists in 45 games for the Admirals. His defensive zone play got to the point where he was used as an emergency forward in the playoffs, where he failed to register a point in two games. Quick may have seen his time with the Admirals come to a close, and it remains to be seen whether a new change of scenery will again revive this once highly thought of defenseman.

Mark Barberio, D, 21

Barberio was something of a revelation in his first season as a professional. A prolific offensive defenseman in the QMJHL, he worked his way into a role as the primary quarterback on the Admirals powerplay, finishing the season with nine goals and 22 assists for a very solid 31 points this year and good for second amongst Admiral defensemen in points. Barberio notched the Admirals lone goal in game five of their first round playoff series and showed he could handle increasingly heavy minutes following the trade of Ty Wishart. His adaptation to the pro game, coupled with his great vision and awareness as with the puck on his stick makes Barberio perhaps the top candidate to help out a Lightning blue line that may be in need of an offensive minded blueliner.


Radko Gudas, D, 20

Much like Barberio, Gudas was impressive in making the jump from Canadian Junior to professional hockey. However, Gudas did this after just one year with the Everett Silvertips in the WHL. Gudas, despite a similar build to Barberio, plays a much different, more physical game. The young Czech led the Admirals defense corps in games played and was second on the team in penalty minutes. He also chipped in four goals and 13 assists. Gudas tenacity and fiery competitive nature make him quite valuable to any blue line, the kind of attributes that could earn him a bottom-pairing spot with the Lightning down the road. Gudas will probably be back in Norfolk to start next season, but he along with Barberio, is on the short-list of defensive to jump up and contribute should a spot arise with the Lightning.

Vladimir Mihalik, D, 24

The hulking Mihalik has done little to dispel the notion he is a one-dimensional player. In his fourth full season with the Admirals, Mihalik regressed statistically with only one goal and eight assists on the season. He did post a career high in penalty minutes, which may indicate he is embracing his role as a lumbering enforcer. He has always been strong along the boards in his own zone, but his lack of solid first pass and ability to play up the ice in the Admirals up-tempo system have hampered his growth. Mihalik has worked very hard to improve his positioning in his own zone, but can still be exposed by the AHL’s quicker, more skilled forwards. Always considered a boom or bust type pick, Mihalik, in his fourth season with Norfolk, is running out of time to show he can still make it.

Scott Jackson, D, 24

Selected just seven picks after Mihalik in the 2005 Entry Draft, Jackson career has been quite similar. A powerfully built 6’4 defenseman from British Columbia, Jackson too has been cast a one-dimensional, stay-at-home, physical blueliner. A poor skater, Jackson has had to rely, perhaps too much, on perfect positioning, both in the transition game as well as his own zone. Like Mihalik, he saw his statistics regress this season with one goal and four assists. He was a very strong plus-14 on the year, which evidences his growth defending in his own zone. Both Jackson and Mihalik may have seen such a regression in their offense due to the new system the Admirals have implemented. Much like the Lightning, the Admirals 1-3-1 look has moved these big, slow blueliners even further away from the offensive action than they already were, especially in the transition game.


Goalie

Cedrick Desjardins, G,25

When he was traded for former goaltending prospect Karri Ramo in August, Desjardins was expected to be a back-up to top Admiral netminder Dustin Tokarski for much of the season. However, very strong play from Desjardins in the first half of the season allowed him to work his way into the starting spot, where a posted a solid 2.59 goals-against-average and an impressive 15-6-1 record. He also won two games for the Lightning this season allowing just a single goal in both his games in the NHL. His consistent, strong butterfly style should allow him to develop into a very serviceable NHL backup for the Lightning. Given the age of Dwayne Roloson, this could be sooner rather than later for the Lightning.

Dustin Tokarski, G, 21

Coming off a strong 2009-10 season, Tokarski struggled in the early going this year, only to right the ship with Cedrick Desjardings hampered by an injury. A strong second half propelled Tokarski’s numbers, as he finished with a 2.65 goals-against-average and a .901 save-percentage. With Desjardins on the Lightning roster for the playoffs, Tokarksi started all six playoff games for the Admirals and showed his ability to raise his game. Tokarski posted a strong 2.19 goals-against-average and a sparkling .924 save-percentage for the very shorthanded Admirals. Tokarski’s best attribute is his ability to raise his game in big situations, which makes him an intriguing prospect moving forward. The season started like musical chairs for the Lightning’s minor league goaltenders, ending with Tokarski in the starter’s spot in Norfolk. This bodes well for the 21-year-old next season, where he again should given the opportunity to seize the bulk of the minutes for the Lightning’s top minor league affiliate.


Jaroslav Janus, G, 21

Janus, a young Slovakian-born goaltender, lost out on starting time with Norfolk this season. As a result, he ended up playing 27 games for the Everblades in ECHL, where he had mixed results, but a fairly solid .912 save-percentage. Janus played somewhat poorer in nine games with the Admirals, posting a 3.64 goals-against-average and an .872 save-percentage. He is squarely behind Tokarski and Desjardins on the Lightning depth chart, and the spring signing of Ferris State goaltender Pat Nagle may push him even further back in terms of playing time. Janus must get off to a quick start next season to avoid becoming an afterthought to Lightning brass.