The Tampa Bay Lightning prospect pool emerged as the unofficial league leaders in feel-good stories this season. The AHL affiliate Norfolk Admirals set a new record with an incredible 27 straight wins to finish the season and swept the award elections for the first time ever. AHL Coach of the Year Jon Cooper took a bow with AHL Defenseman of the Year Mark Barberio and AHL MVP and Rookie of the Year Cory Conacher.
Conacher, a distant relative of Hockey Hall of Famers Charlie and Lionel Conacher, started the season as an AHL tryout and became the first rookie to win the MVP since Stephan Lebeau in 1989. Like Lebeau, Conacher is undersized and undrafted but with tremendous determination to succeed. Unlike Lebeau, he is also a Type I diabetic who started giving himself insulin injections as a child. This little engine who could established instant chemistry with fellow undersized free agent Tyler Johnson and is now on the edge of making his improbable NHL dream come true.
1. (2) Richard Panik, RW, 7.5C
Drafted in the 2nd round, 52nd overall, 2009
Drawing into the top prospect spot by default after the graduation of Brett Connolly, Panik continued to take two steps forward and one step back in his progress. The big Slovak can titillate at times with his outrageous skill levels, while frustrating at others with his lack of applied effort. While drawing comparisons to Marian Hossa and eliciting gasps from YouTube watchers for his unreal highlight goals, Panik can look like a sure thing. When floating for long stretches and failing to compete in the "dirty areas" he can look like an impending bust. While nothing is for certain with prospects when it comes to mental strength, Panik has the size and skill to be an impact NHL player and the excellent coaching staff of the Tampa Bay Lightning are sparing no effort to help him make the most of it.
2. (3) Vladislav Namestnikov, C, 7.5C
Drafted in the first round, 27th overall, 2011
A key cog in the powerful machine known as the London Knights, Namestnikov centered the first line for the OHL's best team. Dishing out 49 assists in 63 games, the slick playmaker was second on the London Knights' scoring chart with 71 points and was the poster boy for the hard-working, ultra-competitive brand of hockey the Knights endeavor to play. Known to be an elite "chirper" Namestnikov can be maddening to play against but his elite speed keeps him out of the reach of vengeful opponents. Having bulked up his slight frame and improved his dedication to the defensive side of the game, Namestnikov looks ready to make the jump to the pros next year. Although a stint in the AHL is prepared, Namestnikov may get a chance to beak the big leaguers right out of training camp.
3. (12) Mark Barberio, D, 7B
Drafted in the 6th round, 152nd overall, 2008
The reigning AHL defenseman of the year, Barberio made it a clean sweep of the awards voting for the Norfolk Admirals this year. The 22-year-old from Montreal improved his game dramatically in every aspect and played in all situations; anchoring the first pairing, quarterbacking the power-play and leading the penalty kill. A sixth round project out of Moncton of the QMJHL, Barberio was a skinny kid who struggled in his own end when drafted, but has bulked up and solidified his all-around game. On the cusp of a regular NHL spot, Barberio will report to training camp full of confidence after an amazing season with the Admirals.
4. (NR) J.T. Brown, RW, 7C
Signed as a free agent in March 28th, 2012
Stepping in to the skates left vacant by the traded Steve Downie, J.T. Brown is a sparkplug winger and heavy hitter who has also shown some clever hands around the net. A 34 goal scorer in the USHL before committing to the University of Minnesota-Duluth two years ago, Brown was a catalyst for the Bulldogs this season with 24 goals in 39 games and a portfolio of punishing hits. A sought after free agent signing, Brown reportedly turned away interest from a dozen other NHL clubs to sign with the Bolts. Scoring his first NHL assist during a five game stint with Tampa Bay, the 5'10 winger will benefit from some further AHL seasoning but did not look far off the pace in his first taste of big league action.
5. (11) Alex Killorn, LW, 7C
Drafted in the 3rd round, 77th overall, 2007
The Harvard University graduate proved to be worth the long wait when he finally signed his first pro contract, five years after being drafted. After a breakthrough 23 goals in 34 games in his senior year with the Crimson, Killorn reported to the Admirals in time to help them ride out the last ten wins of 27 straight. The big winger showed exciting acceleration and edge control and added some welcome size and grit to the Admirals top lines. His two goals and four assists showed his readiness for the AHL game and a lengthy playoff run will only enhance his ability to make the senior squad out of training camp next season.
6. (6) Nikita Kucherov, RW, 7.5D
Drafted in the 2nd round, 58th overall, 2011
A slippery little winger with dazzling puck-control skills, Kucherov was overwhelming within his own age group again this year. Scoring at a goal per game pace in Russia's junior league, Kucherov was also a sparkplug for the WJC team that won gold. A call-up to the KHL saw him score his first goal at that level but also reinforced the learning curve he has still to overcome playing against bigger defenders. Kucherov may have breathtaking skills, but his penchant for "puck-hogging" and fondness for dramatic embellishment are traits he has yet to grow out of. Plans of him coming to North America remain cloudy at this point.
7. (NR) Cory Conacher, LW, 7.5D
Signed as a free agent March 1st, 2012
Recently signed to a two-way, two-way deal after being named AHL MVP and Rookie of the Year, Conacher has had a dream season. Signed to an AHL tryout by Milwaukee last season after four years with Tier II school Canisius College, Conacher made the most of an invite to Tampa Bay training camp. Playing the season on an AHL contract, the 5'8 winger finished the season as the league's top scorer with 39 goals and 81 points in 75 games and has earned a shot at the big time. While detractors will point to his size and foot speed as reasons why the winger will never make the NHL, Conacher has shown such a single-minded determination and relentless will to win this season that anyone betting against him should be ready to shell out come training camp.
8. (9) Tyler Johnson, C, 7.5D
Signed as a free agent March 7th, 2011
Another astute free agent signing, Johnson went undrafted despite four dominant years in the WHL with his hometown Spokane Chiefs. The MVP of the Memorial Cup run in 2008, Johnson has blazing speed and quick hands and can play in any situation. His obvious handicap is his size, standing at 5'8 with a fighting weight of 175 lbs, however Johnson has established his credentials as an all-round gamer and blew up the AHL as a rookie. The skilled pivot sniped 31 goals and totaled 67 points in 76 games, second only to teammate Conacher in rookie scoring in the AHL. With that kind of success in year one of his entry-level contract, Johnson can expect to raise the ante for the Lightning come training camp and push hard for an NHL job.
9. (13) Dustin Tokarski, G, 7C
Drafted in the 5th round, 122nd overall, 2008
While the entire Norfolk Admirals team exceeded expectations this season, their goalie was a big reason for their record setting winning streak, posting 32 wins in 45 starts and a 2.23 goals against average. Tokarski has been coming along slowly since his pro debut three years ago but made his breakthrough this year. A quiet goalie who depends on sound positional play, Tokarski has benefitted from playing for bad AHL teams and learned to refine his technique. The next stage in his development, once he has a high-pressure playoff run with the Admirals to learn from, is to get further exposure to NHL shooters. His five NHL games this year proved that he has some adjustments to make at the next level and the Lightning will no doubt be looking for a stable veteran mentor to help him along with that learning process.
10. (5) Radko Gudas, D, 7C
Drafted in the 3rd round, 66th overall, 2010
Entering the final year of his entry-level deal, Gudas has to be considered a contender to make the Lightning blue line next season. Although he has yet to play an NHL game, the stocky Czech with the penchant for big hits has been as steady as could be hoped for in two AHL seasons. An ultra-competitive defender who plays on the line between physical and nasty, Gudas spends a lot of time in the penalty box and needs to prove he will not be a liability in that regard. He continues to work on his mobility and puck movement however he is solid enough in both those areas to compete for a spot at training camp.
11. (NR) Jaroslav Janus, G, 7C
Drafted in the 6th round, 162nd overall, 2009
One of two quality prospects in the Admirals crease, Janus started 34 games for Norfolk this past season, winning 23 of them with a 2.36 goals against average. The number two to Tokarski, the big Slovak is on the crest of a wave of confidence and gives the team a quality option if they need to rest their starter heading into what should be a long playoff season. Derided as a "flopper" when he came over to North America, Janus is still unorthodox in his approach and sometimes frantic in his crease. While observers hesitate to put a label on his style, Janus simply hates to concede goals and has gotten increasingly better at keeping them out.
12. (20) Nikita Nesterov, D, 7D
Drafted in the 5th round, 148th overall, 2011
Unable to come over to North America this season, Nesterov made the most of his situation in Russia. Despite being drafted by Tri-City of the WHL in the Import Draft. Nesterov was not released from his contract with Chelyabinsk. Starting the season with the team's MHL affiliate, Nesterov dominated amongst his peers and was also a standout for Russia's WJC entry. Making his KHL debut, the two-way defender did not look out of place against men and stuck for 10 games and two playoff appearances. Very much a work-in-progress, Nesterov has a very intriguing upside and Bolts' brass must be itching to get a closer look at him on a CHL team. Until his contract issues are resolved, they may have to continue watching him from across the pond for the near future.
13. (NR) Adam Janosik, D, 6.5C
Drafted in the 3rd round, 72nd overall, 2010
The smooth-skating Slovak was drafted for his offensive prowess from the blue line, however he has shown a greater emphasis on defensive awareness and physical play this season with the Gatineau Olympique of the QMJHL. While his offensive production has hit a plateau at 32 points in 51 games, his well-rounded approach is exactly what his development needs. Shading at 5'11 and 180 lbs, Janosik relies on mobility and an active stick to avoid getting beat in his own end but his enthusiasm for the physical side of the game will be tested more severely against the full-grown forwards of the AHL when he take a turn with the pros next season.
14. (17) Ondrej Palat, LW, 6.5D
Drafted in the 7th round, 208th overall, 2011
A quick and elusive winger with a sharp release on his shot, Palat has an intriguing upside. However, much as his rookie season in the QMJHL, his first year in the AHL raised concerns that the lightweight Czech may play too much on the perimeter to be effective. While his smaller rookie teammates Conacher and Johnson had monster years for the Admirals, Palat scored just nine goals in 61 games. A scoring star with Drummondville as a second year player, Palat will need to replicate that sophomore success in order to hold his position on the Bolts prospect rankings.
15. (NR) Danick Gauthier. LW, 6.5D
Signed as a free agent March 2nd, 2012
A grinder on the third line for the Memorial Cup winning Saint John Sea Dogs last year, Gauthier has emerged as an offensive force this season and parlayed that success into a three-year deal with Tampa Bay. Gauthier lead the team in scoring with 47 goals and 86 points in 66 games.
When turns up for training camp, the 6'2 winger will need to put aside any pretensions of being a finesse player and get back to the grinding, physical game that will get him to the next level.
16. (14) Jimmy Mullin, C, 6.5D
Drafted in the 4th round, 148th overall, 2010
A freshman with the University of Miami-Ohio, Mullin scored 11 goals and 26 points in 37 games for the Redhawks. A smallish forward with great speed, Mullin plays an elusive game with some grit and tenacity but he will need to keep hitting the gym in order to bulk up his 5'10 frame as he currently tips the scales at a featherweight 160 lbs.
17. (NR) Matthew Peca, C, 6.5D
Drafted in the 7th round, 201st overall, 2011
A little fireball of energy, Peca immediately took to the up-tempo game played at Quinnipiac University as a freshman and paced the team with 39 points in 39 games. With his vision, skill, and speed Peca played both special teams and centered the Bobcats top line. A high-energy player with no ounce of quit in him, Peca will need all that determination to overcome the objections that critics will place on his 5'8 shoulders. One of a smaller players emerging in the Bolts prospect pool, Peca will be given his chance in the pro ranks as soon as he feels ready to make the leap.
18. (15) Brendan O'Donnell, C, 6.5D
Drafted in the 6th round, 156th overall, 2010
The top scoring rookie in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League when he was drafted, O'Donnell found his fellow freshman at the University of North Dakota to be of a much higher standard of competition. Limited to just 17 games for the Fighting Sioux, O'Donnell showed flashes of the skill game that caught the eyes of Lightning scouts and managed to score five goals. With a large outgoing class of players next season at North Dakota, O'Donnell should find more opportunities to get into the lineup on a regular basis.
19. (16) Adam Wilcox, G, 6.5D
Drafted in the 6th round, 178th overall, 2011
Traded away from Green Bay, Wilcox saw a lot more activity in the net as the starter for the Tri-City Storm in the USHL. Swept in the first round of the playoffs by Waterloo, Wilcox was lit up for eight goals over two games and the experience of playing behind a porous defense may have rattled his self-esteem. An aggressive goalie who plays at the edge of the blue paint, Wilcox will need all his poise and confidence when he tries to win the starter's job at the University of Minnesota next year. A good puck-handler and a vocal presence, Wilcox has the tools to be a good pro goalie and the Lightning can afford to be patient with him.
20. (NR) Luke Witkowski, D, 6C
Drafted in the 6th round, 160th overall, 2008
The big defender took on a leadership role in his junior year with Western Michigan and earned some approval from Bolts brass for his physical play and steadiness in his own end. The former USHL all-star is a stand-up guy who takes care of business with some authority and will protect his teammates. Although two goals and 13 points in 40 games represents a career best for him, Witkowski is not going to make the show by trying to do too much with the puck.