Distinct Russian flavor in Tampa Bay Lightning’s 2012-13 prospect preview

By Chris Roberts

Dutin Tokarski - Tampa Bay Lightning

Photo: With a deep pool of goaltending talent in the AHL, Dustin Tokarski will have a challenge maintaining his starter status. (Fred Kfoury/Icon SMI)

The Tampa Bay Lightning have a number of prospects playing at different levels and in different leagues this season, and with one of the top prospect pools in the league, there are a number of notable names in this year's Prospect Preview.

Pro

Top Pro Prospect
Vladislav Namestnikov, C, Syracuse Crunch (AHL)

Though it might take awhile for the 19-year-old Russian to adjust to the toughness and intensity of the pro game, there's no denying his talent. In 63 games last season, Namestnikov posted 71 points on offensively-charged London Knights, finishing second on the team in scoring. His skating is already on par with most NHL players, and he has a nose for the net which he is willing to get dirty for the good of the team. He may not light up the league upon arrival, but that is in part due to the fact he will be sheltered by playing on the defending Calder Cup champions, and likely playing behind centers Tyler Johnson and Dana Tyrell. Ultimately, Namestnikov should be a key cog in the Syracuse offense by season's end.

Offensive Breakout
Ondrej Palat, LW, Syracuse Crunch (AHL)

Ondrej Palat's contributions to the Calder Cup winning Norfolk Admirals did not go unnoticed. Undrafted after the 2009-10 season, the Lightning took a chance on the Czech winger after he exploded offensively in 2010-11, leading Drummondville of the QMJHL in scoring with 96 points in just 61 games. As a rookie in the AHL last year, he scored at a 0.5 points per game clip in both the regular season and playoffs, and seemed to grow more and more confident throughout the year. With the club's top left winger Trevor Smith signing with the Penguins in the off-season, Palat should get a good look in a top-six role, and playing with either Tyler Johnson or Cory Conacher, who lit up the AHL last year, will see his production skyrocket.

Unsigned for 2013-14
Dustin Tokarski, G, Syracuse Crunch (AHL)

Tokarski's numbers through his first two pro season left every reason to believe he would be offered another contract with the Lightning. While he led the Admirals to a Calder Cup, the organization's new-found goaltending depth is really going to force Tokarski to set himself apart from the others this season. Former first round pick Riku Helenius is back with the club and will be splitting time with Tokarski between the pipes, while Jaroslav Janus, despite going back to play in Europe, is not forgotten by any means. And with Anders Lindback the current starting goaltender in Tampa Bay and recently drafted Andrey Vasilevskiy hyped as the goaltender of the future, it will be a big year for Tokarski.

Junior

Top Junior Prospect
Slater Koekkoek, D, Peterborough Petes (OHL)

Before being sidelined with a shoulder injury that cut his season short, Koekkoek was having an impressive 2011-12 campaign with the Peterborough Petes. He emerged as one of the team's best defensive defensemen, and was already close to a new career high in points in just 26 games. He also developed a bit of a reputation for being a heavy hitter, particularly after showcasing that skill in the CHL Subway Super Series in Ottawa. This year, after being selected 10th overall by the Lightning, he returns to Peterborough as the team's captain, and is primed to be one of the league's top defenders. He will likely begin the season in the press box after suffering an injury to his surgically-repaired left shoulder in exhibition, but it is not expected to be serious and he should be back in the lineup a few weeks into the season.

Offensive Breakout
Cedric Paquette, C, Blainville-Boisbrand Armada (QMJHL)

In his first full year with the new Blainville-Boisbriand Armada, Paquette scored a team leading 31 goals, and that was without spending much of the year on the top line – he was just fifth on the team in total points. Yet, with two of the team's top four scorers from last year not coming back and with another year of maturity under his belt, Paquette seems poised to take the reins for the Armada and lead the charge offensively. His production also picked up in the playoffs last year and his 10 assists in just 11 games showed he has the potential to be more than just a goal scorer.

New Team in 2012
Nikita Kucherov, RW, Quebec Remparts (QMJHL)

Former second round pick Nikita Kucherov, fresh off of signing a three year entry-level contract, will be crossing the pond to play in North America this year. The offensively-talented winger dominated the Russian junior league last year, scoring 24 goals in 23 games, and he should be a top offensive player in the QMJHL with the Quebec Remparts. The chance to play with fellow Russian Mikhail Grigorenko (BUF) should only help Kucherov.

Amateur

Top Amateur Prospect
Jimmy Mullin, C, Miami Redhawks (CCHA)

With 26 points through 37 games last year for Miami (Ohio) University, the former Shattuck St. Mary's forward had more than an impressive freshman year. He put on about 10 lbs since being selected in the 2010 draft, but will need to continue to add strength and muscle over the next couple of years if he is to be an effective NHL player. Mullin will be expected to help carry the load offensively for the Redhawks this season, and should improve upon his point total.

Freshman to Watch
Brian Hart, RW, Harvard Crimson (ECAC)

After two 60-plus point seasons with Phillips Exeter Academy which included over a goal-per-game, Brian Hart will be bringing his offensive talents to Harvard University this fall. A two sport athlete, Hart received offers to D1 schools in both soccer and hockey, but ultimately chose to chase his dream on the ice. By his own admittance, Hart needs to work on his defensive game, but his strength lies in his speed, shot, and skating ability. With Harvard losing their top scorer, fellow Tampa Bay Lightning draft pick Alex Killorn, Hart, as a freshman, should be given the opportunity to earn significant ice-time.

Europe

Top European Prospect
Andrey Vasilevskiy, G, Ufa Salavat Yulayev (KHL)

With just a few prospects playing in Russia constituting the club's European prospects, it is no surprise that the top prospect amongst them in first-round pick Andrey Vasilevskiy. The big, mobile netminder impressed during last year's World Junior Championship, posting a .953 save percentage through five games. He had a great year in the Russian junior league, but failed to get a taste of professional hockey in the KHL, though it is likely that he at least plays a few games in the top European league in 2012-13. He is still quite a few years away, but he has the raw talent and ability that, if brought along the right way, he could become a star in the NHL.

Offensive Breakout
Nikita Gusev, LW, CSKA Moscow (KHL)

Last year's seventh round pick is an offensive dynamo, and by no means a typical seventh rounder. His 76 points in 34 games in Russian's top junior league can be construed as playing against lesser talent, but even against the world's best junior talent at the WJC, Gusev was an offensive leader for the Russians, posting nine points in seven games. There is always the Russian factor, and it is likely that Gusev never comes across the pond, but with a seventh round pick there's little risk.

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