While Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steven Yzerman made a number of shrewd moves with the team's NHL roster over his first two seasons as general manager, his best work perhaps has come through building the team's prospect depth.
When Yzerman took over in May of 2010, the Lightning's top prospect was Carter Ashton (now with Toronto), and there was little depth in the system. Since then, with his willingness to select Russian-born players in particular, Yzerman has stocked the Lightning's cupboard with a bevy of high-potential prospects including Slater Koekkoek, Vladislav Namestnikov, and Andrey Vasilevskiy.
The development of prospects already in the system was phenomenal over the past year, as well. Under head coach Jon Cooper, a number of Norfolk Admirals improved their game this past season, eventually coming together to win the AHL Championship over the Toronto Marlies. Dustin Tokarski, Mark Barberio, and Richard Panik all elevated their game a notch this past season, and could potentially all see time with the Lightning in 2012-13.
1. (NR) Andrey Vasilevskiy, G, 8.0C
Drafted 1st round, 19th overall, 2012
A big goaltender at 6'3, Vasilevskiy, naturally covers quite a bit of the net, but it is his mobility that has the Lightning excited about his future, so much so that they selected him 19th overall in this past June's NHL Draft. Vasilevskiy was one of only two goaltenders selected in the first round, and with good reason. In the Russian junior league, with Tolpar UFA, he posted an impressive 2.23 goals against average and a .931 save percentage, and while he didn't get to start the gold medal game in the World Junior Championships, he was one of the top goaltenders in the tournament, registering a 2.01 goals against average and a .953 save percentage. His only blemish came against the Canadians in the semi-final, but obviously, his play throughout the year was enough for Yzerman to select him in the first round.
He is not expected to come to North America in the near future, but given his high selection, Yzerman and the Lightning feel confident he'll be in their lineup in due time. Nikolai Khabibulin isn't exactly a perfect comparison, but both are big-bodied Russian netminders, and the Lightning and hoping that, like Khabibulin, Vasilevskiy can lead the team back to a Stanley Cup.
2. (2) Vladislav Namestnikov, C, 7.5C
Drafted 1st round, 27th overall, 2011
After scoring 30 goals in his first season in North America with the London Knights, Namestnikov seemed to develop his playmaking skills last year, scoring just 22 goals but adding 49 assists for 71 points in 63 games to finish second on the team in scoring, behind Seth Griffith (BOS). He continued to impress with his passing in the playoffs, picking up 14 assists in 19 games.
While most feel he doesn't quite possess the potential to become a first-line center, he could become a very effective second-line center or fill-in on the top line of an NHL team. And though he shares the same type of high-end offensive talent that many Russian top prospects display, he isn't your prototypical Russian forward. Instead, Namestnikov plays with more of an edge; he's a hard-worker who isn't afraid to go to the net, and doesn't mind getting involved in the psychological aspect of the game with opponents. At just 170lbs, he'll need to bulk up and add muscle to his 6'0 frame before he becomes an everyday NHL player, but given his talent he's certainly not far off.
3. (1) Richard Panik, RW, 7.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 52nd overall, 2009
Richard Panik, the former number one prospect in the Lightning organization, has done nothing to warrant a drop to number three; rather, his rookie season in Norfolk passed expectation. In 64 games, he scored 19 goals and added 22 assists, finishing fifth on the team in scoring. But with the consistent play of center Vladislav Namestnikov, along with the addition of Andrei Vasilevski, Panik has become a victim of increased organizational depth.
That said, Panik could very well be in the NHL as early as this season. In just one professional season, he's shown he can contribute offensively, and at 6'2, 215lbs, the Slovak definitely has the size to stick with Tampa Bay. He is likely best suited with another year in the AHL, however. If he can continue to improve his conditioning and work ethic, combining with his size and talent, he could become a top-six winger at the NHL level.
4. (3) Mark Barberio, D, 7.0B
Drafted 6th round, 152nd overall, 2008
Mark Barberio's 61 points in just his second AHL season was a bit of a surprise. The former Moncton Wildcat had a very strong rookie season with 31 points in 68 games, but as a former sixth round selection the production was a bit unexpected. With Moncton, Barberio was overshadowed by Columbus Blue Jackets draft pick David Savard. In his final season with the Wildcats, Barberio's 60 points was overshadowed by Savard's 77, and while Savard would be named the best defenseman in the QMJHL that year, many failed to mention the contributions of Barberio.
After his impressive season with Norfolk last year, in which he led the entire AHL in scoring by a defenseman with 61 points in 74 games, he has more than put himself not only on the Lightning's radar, but the entire NHL. His consistent scoring – he put up at least eight points in every month last season – combined with his steady defensive play will make him a candidate to crack the Lightning's roster this coming season. And with seven powerplay goals with Norfolk, he could be a welcome addition to the Lightning's powerplay unit that finished 25th in the league last year.
5. (NR) Slater Koekkoek, D, 7.5C
Drafted 1st round, 10th overall, 2012
Though his season was cut short due to injury last year, the Lightning saw enough of Koekkoek in the 26 games he played to select him with their first selection in the draft. Known more for his defensive abilities and instincts, the 6'2, 183lb rearguard did show some offensive potential last year, scoring five goals and adding 13 assists. If he hadn't of suffered a season-ending shoulder surgery, it is likely he wouldn't have been available when Yzerman took the stage to make his first selection.
Before injuring his shoulder, Koekkoek was logging close to 30 minutes a night for the Peterborough Petes, and was the team's top defenseman. He took part in the Subway Series last year for team OHL, and showcased his ability to lay booming open-ice hits, as well as his sound defensive abilities. Heading into the 2012-13 campaign with a full bill of health, he'll look to build off what was a great start to an injury-shortened 2011-12 season.
6. (4) J.T. Brown, RW, 7.0C
Signed as a free agent, March 28th, 2012
Though he was passed up in three NHL drafts, it didn't take J.T. Brown too long into his collegiate career to earn an NHL contract. A smaller, offensive-minded talent at just 5'10, Brown took little time adjusting to the NCAA game, posting 37 points in 42 games for the University of Minnesota-Duluth in 2010-11. He became one of the team's go-to offensive players last year, which was evidenced by his team-leading 24 goals. Instead of returning for his junior year, Brown opted to sign with the Lightning toward the end of last season. He even suited up in five regular season games, picking up his first NHL point, an assist, while not looking too uncomfortable.
Primarily an offensive player, Brown will likely have to be a top-six player to be most effective, though, still just 22, there's plenty of time for his game to mature. His two best assets are his speed and his shot; once his game rounds into form, he could be a very effective NHL forward.
7. (9) Dustin Tokarski, G, 7.0C
Drafted 5th round, 122nd overall, 2008
Though Dustin Tokarski looked like a fish out of water in his seven combined appearances with the Lightning over the past two seasons, he has quietly become one of the top goaltenders in the AHL during that time. Last year, in particular, Tokarski took his game to another level, leading the Admirals to a Calder Cup. In 45 games, splitting time with Jaroslav Janus, he gave up just 96 goals en route to posting a 2.23 goals against average and a 32-11-0 record.
With the acquisition of Anders Lindback, it isn't likely that Tokarski cracks the Lightning lineup out of training camp, but he will likely at least see some time in the NHL considering the possibility of injuries. At 5'11, he isn't the biggest goaltender, but he's mobile and flexible, which should bode well for him going forward. If things go the way the Lightning hope, Tokarski will likely backup Lindback for the 2013-14 season, after Mathieu Garon's contract expires next summer.
8. (NR) Dylan Blujus, D, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 40th overall, 2012
Projected as an offensive defenseman, the 6'3 Blujus does have the physical tools and frame to become a complete defender if he rounds out his game. He was the top scoring defenseman on a low-scoring Brampton team last year, scoring seven goals and adding 27 assists through 66 regular season games. He picked up five points in eight playoff games.
Though he was ranked as a mid-round pick – Central Scouting had him as the 71st best North American skater – the Lightning apparently liked what they saw in Blujus, and expects his offense to grow in the next two years as he finishes his junior career. Certainly, given the lack of offensive defensemen in the Lightning system, they have high expectations for Blujus, but they'll have to be patient.
9. (5) Alex Killorn, LW, 6.5B
Drafted 3rd round, 77th overall, 2007
Though it's been five years since the Lightning selected the Halifax native in the third round of the 2007 NHL draft, he remains an intriguing prospect for the franchise. Killorn began playing for Harvard the year after being drafted, and played out his collegiate career with the team. With each year, his production steadily increased before taking a drastic jump last year; in 34 games, Killorn led the University in scoring with 46 points (23 goals and 23 assists). The next closest in scoring was Danny Biega (CAR) with 35 points in the same amount of games.
Killorn plays a complete offensive game, and is just as likely to set up a goal as he is to score one. A dangerous offensive player, he played in 10 games for Norfolk last year following the end of the college season and picked up six points; even more impressive however was his 12 points in 17 playoff games, contributing in a big way to the team's Calder Cup run. His time at Harvard also allowed him to put on the size necessary to compete in the NHL. Prior to being drafted, he was bordering on 160lbs, while he is now 6'1 and close to 200lbs. It would not be a shock to see him make the Lightning next year, though a year in the AHL wouldn't hurt either.
10. (6) Nikita Kucherov, RW, 7.5D
Drafted 2nd round, 58th overall, 2011
A skilled offensive winger, Nikita Kucherov had a busy year last season, splitting time with CSKA Moscow in the KHL and their junior team, as well as having a successful World Junior tournament. In his first year with the Russian U-20 team, Kucherov posted a point-per-game, scoring twice in seven games while picking up five assists. His five points in 18 KHL games was even impressive given the fact that at just 18 he was playing in a men's league. And of course, his time spent in the KHL was well warranted; he scored 24 goals in 23 games in Russia's top junior league, accumulating 43 points in 23 games.
Drafted by the Quebec Remparts in this summer's Import Draft, Kucherov has already settled with the team and will be spending the year playing in the QMJHL. Steve Yzerman hasn't been afraid to select Russians near the top of the draft, and with Kucherov already in North America, it seems to be paying off. Given his talent, he could very well become one of the top offensive threats in the league, particularly considering he will be playing with Buffalo Sabres first-round selection Mikhail Grigorenko (BUF).
11. (7) Cory Conacher, LW, 7.5D
Signed as a free agent, March 1st, 2012
Despite going undrafted, it may be tough to label Cory Conacher as late-bloomer. In his one year of Junior A hockey, he posted over a point-per-game, and immediately took to college hockey, posting 17 points in 20 games as a freshman for Canisius College. The offense has always been there for Conacher, but at just 5'8 and 175lbs, size has always been a factor. Regardless, his collegiate career was so impressive that he was offered an AHL tryout contract in 2010-11 with the Rochester Americans, and then by the Milwaukee Admirals. He didn't play much, but did show flashes of talent in those few games, enough to earn a one-year deal with Norfolk last season, and it was there, with consistent ice-time, that he showed what he's capable of.
Conacher was by far the team's top offensive player, leading the Admirals in goal-scoring and points, with 39 and 80 respectively. He also finished second on the team in playoff scoring, with 15 in 18 games. His performance was enough to finally earn himself an NHL contract from the Lightning, while in the process becoming one of the team's top offensively-skilled prospects. Martin St. Louis' success in Tampa Bay proved that, if skilled enough, smaller players can succeed at the NHL level, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see Conacher don a Lightning jersey at some point next season.
12. (8) Tyler Johnson, C, 7.5D
Signed as a free agent, March 7th, 2011
Johnson is much like Conacher in many ways: both players are considered undersized, and because of that went undrafted, but it was the pair of undrafted free-agents that led the Norfolk Admirals to a Calder Cup last season. And much like Conacher, Johnson's offense was never in question. In his final year with Spokane of the WHL, he scored 53 goals and added 62 assists for 115 points in 71 games, and it took him no time to transition to the AHL, registering near a point-per-game last year with Norfolk. He also picked up 14 points in 14 playoff games.
Johnson's best asset, despite his offensive talents, may be his speed. And while undersized, his willingness to get involved in the corners may help his NHL aspirations. He'll need to add muscle if he's going to grind it out with the best in the NHL, and if he does he could be useful on a bottom-six energy line if his offense does not develop enough to make him effective in a top-six role. Like Conacher, Johnson could very well see time with the Lightning this year.
13. (11) Jaroslav Janus, G, 7.0C
Drafted 6th round, 162nd overall, 2009
Despite the fact that Janus will be leaving North America to play in Europe next season, it bears no detriment to his ranking as a prospect. With the glut of goaltenders in the Lightning organization, as former first-round pick Riku Helenius will be returning will be returning to play with the team's AHL affiliate, the organization decided it would be best for Janus to earn more consistent playing time overseas. The move is by no means a sign that the athletic Slovak is finished with the organization, and as an RFA, they'll still retain his rights.
Splitting time with Tokarski last year for Norfolk, Janus looked fantastic between the pipes, sporting a 2.36 goals against average and a .914 save percentage in 34 games. He doesn't necessarily adhere to a particular style, but his athleticism allows him to make often awkward and out of position saves. Former director of scouting Jim Hammett, upon drafting Janus in the sixth-round, said that the goaltender had a playing style similar to that of Dominik Hasek.
14. (NR) Brian Hart, RW, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 53rd overall, 2012
Though a fairly raw prospects having only played as high as the high school level, Brian Hart has great offensive potential. With Phillips Exeter Academy, he posted 129 points in just 56 games over two seasons; obviously numbers are inflated at that level, but Hart was one of the premier offensive players nonetheless.
Already at 6'2 and 216lbs, Hart has the makings of a top-six power-forward winger. A great athlete, but he'll need to improve on his skating and acceleration if he is to reach his potential. He is committed to Harvard University for the 2012-13 season.
15. (10) Radko Gudas, D, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 66th overall, 2010
A hard-nosed defender, Gudas is considered one of the more physical blueliners in the Lightning system. Not only can he dish out crushing body checks, but he's a bit of a best, getting under the skin of approaching forwards. He isn't the biggest defenseman in the organization, but is built solid, and enjoys punishing the opposition.
And while his pugnacity is perhaps his greatest asset, he isn't completely one dimensional. In his second season with Norfolk last year, Gudas scored seven goals and added 13 assists through 73 games. He was also a key cog in the team's post-season run, playing shutdown defense. He's expected to begin the season with the team's new AHL affiliate in Syracuse, but of all the club's defense prospects, he's likely the most NHL ready.
16. (12) Nikita Nesterov, D, 7.0D
Drafted 5th round, 148th overall, 2011
Another one of the Lightning's emerging group of Russian prospects, Nikita Nesterov took a big step forward last season. After two plus years of playing in the Russian junior league, he was summoned to Traktor Chelyabinsk of the KHL where he played in 10 games, picking up one assist. A two-way defenseman, his offensive production also increased at the junior level, going from 19 points in 2010-11 to 31 points last season.
Nesterov also played for the Russian World Junior team, and was one of the team's top defenders, scoring two goals and adding three assists in seven games. He isn't very physical or overpowering, but he plays a fairly complete game otherwise. He'll likely play the entirety of next season in the KHL, and is likely a couple years away from the NHL.
17. (15) Danick Gauthier, LW, 7.0D
Signed as a free agent, March 2nd, 2012
Given the Lightning's success with undrafted free agents (Cory Conacher and Tyler Johnson), it wouldn't be surprising to see recently-signed Danick Gauthier have success in his first AHL season this year. That said, where Conacher and Johnson were always highly-skilled offensive players, Gauthier only seemed to find his offensive game last year with the Sea Dogs, and part of that can be attributed to the fact that Saint John were one of the top teams in the CHL.
Regardless, he did manage to lead the team in goals and points and finished fourth on the team in post-season scoring with 21 points in 17 games. He owns a quick, accurate shot, and playing with Saint John for the past four seasons he has gained invaluable experience playing in big games with a bevy of talented players.
18. (NR) Tanner Richard, LW, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 71st overall, 2012
Richard, a native of Switzerland, went undrafted in 2011 despite dominating the Swiss U20 league, and posting over a point-per-game at the U18 World Junior Championships. A year later and a move to North America, playing for the Guelph Storm, Richard saw his stock rise drastically, evident by his ranking as the 41st best North American skater heading into the 2012 draft.
He showcased his playmaking abilities with Guelph, picking up 35 assists in 43 games, scoring 13 goals along the way as well. He was hampered by lingering injuries throughout the year, but showed enough in those 43 games to be selected early in the third round by the Lightning. At 6'0 and just 180lbs, he'll need to add muscle, but he's already shown a willingness to compete physically. He'll be expected to be one of the offensive leaders on the Storm next season.
19. (16) Jimmy Mullin, C, 6.5C
Drafted 4th round, 118th overall, 2010
The speedy, tenacious Mullin had a fantastic freshman season at Miami University of Ohio, finishing third in team scoring with 26 points in 37 games. The production should not be surprising however considering Mullin already led Shattuck St. Mary's and his USHL team, the Fargo Force, in scoring.
He's comparable to Cory Conacher and Tyler Johnson – a speedy, undersized forward with an above-average offensive skill set. Even though in just one year he showed the ability to contribute at the collegiate level, it is unlikely that he leaves school early to sign a pro contract. Three more years gaining size and adding muscle could do wonders for Mullin's development.
20. (14) Ondrej Palat, LW, 6.5D
Drafted 7th round, 208th overall, 2011
After a prolific 2010-11 campaign with Drummondville of the QMJHL, the Czech winger had a slow start to his rookie season with Norfolk. In his first 36 games, Palat picked up just 10 points, and his ice-time was severely limited. In his next 35 games, as his ice-time rose, so did his production, and he accumulated 20 points.
Like many of the Lightning's forward prospects, Palat needs to put on size, and the biggest knock on his game is that he tends to play more to the outside, and hasn't shown much of a willingness to get to the dirty areas of the ice. After a strong finish to last year, Palat could be a top-six winger in the AHL next year; NHL aspirations are still a year or two away.