Though the Tampa Bay Lightning fell well short of an NHL playoff berth, many of the players affiliated with the organization still enjoyed a successful 2011-12 season. The greatest success was felt at the AHL level, where the Norfolk Admirals marched through the Calder Cup playoffs to a championship, posting a 15-3 record in the process and dominating the opposition at seemingly every turn.
Breakout Player for 2011-12: Cory Conacher, LW, Norfolk Admirals (AHL)
The undersized forward who never stops won an AHL contract in training camp and proceeded to make believers out of everyone. The AHL MVP and Rookie of the Year led the league in scoring (80 points in 75 games) and chugged over the hill to find an NHL two-way deal waiting for him in March. The 5'8 winger is fearless and feisty, a throwback to the days of his more illustrious ancestors Charlie and Lionel Conacher who grace the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Most Improved Prospect: Mark Barberio, D, Norfolk Admirals (AHL)
Barberio was already a good defender coming into the 2011-12 season, but this past season he established himself as the best in the AHL, earning the Eddie Shore award as the AHL's most outstanding defenseman. A lanky project player when drafted, Barberio has retained his mobility and offensive instincts during the process of bulking up and solidifying his defensive game.
Best Defensive Prospect: Radko Gudas, D, Norfolk Admirals (AHL)
A feared physical player, Gudas intimidates with the power of his hits. Able to close the distance with oncoming forwards at alarming speed, Gudas hits often and hits to hurt. A shot-blocker and crease clearer who complements the more gifted puck handlers on the blue line, Gudas has been patient in the AHL but must be ready to compete for an NHL spot in training camp.
Best Offensive Prospect: Tyler Johnson, C, Norfolk Admirals (AHL)
The slippery center has provided the ammo for Conacher to fire all season long. Although at roughly the same 5'8 height as his MVP linemate, Johnson is a much more fluid skater and a dynamic all-round player who can kill penalties as well run the power play from the half-boards. The former Spokane Chief is another astute free agent signing by GM Steve Yzerman.
Prospect of the Year: Cory Conacher, LW, Norfolk Admirals (AHL)
As good as he was this year, Conacher still wins this award by a narrow margin over Johnson and Barberio, a credit to the astonishing success the Admirals have had. There is some debate on whether he is a legitimate NHL prospect, given his small size and heavy feet, but he wins this award for his amazing determination, drive, and self-belief.
Between his abundance of skill and his ability to get under the opponents' skin, Namestnikov has become something of a target in the OHL. Thankfully he is very hard to catch up to. A noted chirper who can antagonize with the best of them, Namestnikov skates out of danger when opponents come looking for retribution.
Hardest Shot: Richard Panik, RW, Norfolk Admirals (AHL)
The big Slovak winger may frustrate with his effort level, but given a clear shot on goal he has a range of deadly shots. His wrister is quick and surprises goalies, his slapshot has little backswing and can overpower. While he gets lots of acclaim for his dekes and stick-handling moves, Panik's greatest asset is his shot.
Overachiever: Cory Conacher, LW, Norfolk Admirals (AHL)
A type 1 diabetic, Coancher has had fainting spells on the bench during his hockey career. He began giving himself injections at a young age and that experience may in part explain the self-belief that enabled him to ignore the doubters and prove wrong the naysayers. Never drafted and ignored by most recruiters, Conacher's story is one of big heart and great success.
Underachiever: Ondrej Palat, LW, Norfolk Admirals (AHL)
It's perhaps unfair to the smooth-skating Czech winger, but on a team where everyone seemingly overachieved he has to take the fall. Blessed with so many gifts, Palat is an effortless skater and sees the ice well, he can also deliver a deadly shot from in close. However too often this season he didn't apply maximum effort to make the most of those skills.
Highest Risk/Reward Prospect: Nikita Kucherov, RW, CSKA Moscow (KHL)
One of several Russian picks made by Yzerman, Kucherov has unreal skills with the puck and can do things few players on any continent can with the biscuit on his blade. A lightning fast little winger, Kucherov has dominated the junior levels in Russia to the point where it became unfair to the other kids. Now playing against men in the KHL, Kucherov needs to grow out of some bad habits and learn to play without the puck. His upside however is as high as any prospect in the Bolts' pool.
Hardest Worker: Cory Conacher, LW, Norfolk Admirals (AHL)
Perhaps one reason why the Admirals have been so successful is the lead-by-example efforts of their top scorer. Conacher plays each shift like it's his last and throws himself into the danger areas without a second thought. He hustles into position without the puck and drives to the net with it. He also rarely if ever takes a shift off.
Unsung Hero: Alex Hutchings, LW, Norfolk Admirals (AHL)
Demoted to the ECHL, Hutchings took a leadership role with the Florida Everblades, wearing the A for most of the season. A forgotten prospect amongst the Admirals amazing success, Hutchings was a top scorer in the OHL. He worked his way back into consideration for the Admirals this year and got a chance to lift the Calder Cup trophy as a fourth line energy player who kills penalties and does all the little things a team needs to win.
Breakout Player for 2012-13: Alex Killorn, LW, Harvard Crimson (ECAC)/ Norfolk Admirals (AHL)
The Harvard grad got his feet wet as a pro and took to it very well. A big physical player, Killorn has good wheels and can get into scoring positions. While the Admirals had two handfuls of breakout players in 2011-12, Killorn is one who should make a big impression in 2012-13.