Defense, goaltending main strengths for Tampa Bay Lightning

By Chris Roberts

Richard Panik - Tampa Bay Lightning

Photo: Richard Panik (14) is one of several talented forwards the Tampa Bay Lightning have in their minor league system. (Minas Panagiotakis/Icon SMI)

It seems that, as a general manager, Steve Yzerman can do no wrong. In his first year as the Tampa Bay Lightning's GM, Yzerman made a number of shrewd moves that helped put the team into the playoffs, and while they finished outside of the playoffs this past season, Yzerman has continued to build a winning system.

Not only did the Lightning's AHL affiliate, then the Norfolk Admirals, win the 2012 Calder Cup, but several prospects took steps forward in their development, and Yzerman also added promising goaltender Andrey Vasilevskiy and sturdy defender Slater Koekkoek in the first round of last June's draft. Perhaps the organization is devoid of top-flight, sure-thing forward prospects, but Tampa Bay now has good depth every position.

Left Wing

The left side of the ice is perhaps the organization's strongest, with both rookie Alex Killorn and Ondrej Palat making strides with Syracuse, the Lightning's new affiliate. Killorn, a Harvard grad and former third round pick, has 12 points through his first 20 games and has added to the team's already impressive depth.

Palat meanwhile is building on a decent rookie season last year in which he posted 30 points in 61 games. This year, he has earned a top-six role and currently has two goals and team-leading 15 assists in 20 games.

Cory Conacher had a breakthrough season with the Norfolk Admirals last year. He led the team in scoring with 80 points (39 goals, 41 assists). This year, he has continued to prove that his size, 5'8, 170lbs, is not a factor, at least at the AHL level, as he is currently has nine goals and 10 assists through 20 games.

The organization has so much left wing depth at the pro level that Alex Hutchings, despite looking comfortable in 12 games with Norfolk last year, has been relegated to the Florida Everblades of the ECHL. It is his third season with the team.

They also have a pair of talented, yet raw and unproven prospects on the left side in Russian Nikita Gusev and playmaking winger Tanner Richard. Gusev has yet to cement a roster spot in the KHL, has been scoring at near a point-per-game Russia's second tier league, the VHL. Last year Gusev was a star for the Russian junior team, posting nine points in seven games at the World Juniors.

With just three goals this season, Richard has not been scoring much, but his 31 assists are fourth most in the OHL

Center

Down the middle of the ice, Tyler Johnson has continued to be a productive AHL player for the Crunch, and along with Conacher, has been given the team a solid one-two punch since the beginning of last season. Through 20 games this season, Johnson has a team-leading 15 goals. He will always be a productive AHL pivot, but with his size, 5'10 and 180lbs, there will always be doubts as to whether he will stick in the NHL.

In addition to Johnson, the Crunch were planning on getting solid contributions from first-year Russian forward Vladislav Namestnikov, but the shifty center has been sidelined with a shoulder injury. He has played just five games, picking up two assists, and is expected to be back near the beginning of December. With Namestnikov's absence, Killorn has played some center and has looked more than comfortable. It shall be interesting to see where Killorn is placed once Namestnikov returns.

The Lightning have a trio of notable center prospects playing NCAA hockey. Jimmy Mullin posted 26 points as a freshman for Miami University (Ohio), but has struggled to improve upon those numbers in his sophomore season, having scored just twice through 10 games. Instead of Mullin emerging to become one of the team's top offensive threats, sophomore Austin Czarnik, who had 37 points last year, has meshed well with freshman Riley Barber (WAS), taking ice away from Mullin.

Over at Quinnipiac, like Mullin, Matthew Peca has not been able to capture last year's freshman success. After 39 points in 39 games last year, Peca has just five points through 12 games this season. Even with most of their core players returning, Quinnipiac's offense has been rather stagnant this year, and Peca has been a part of those struggles.

If there is one bright spot from the collegiate level, it would be Brendan O'Donnell. O'Donnell has seen his ice time increase thanks to the departure of the University of North Dakota's top scorer from last season, Brock Nelson (NYI), and he should be an important part of the team's offense going forward – he has the offensive skill, as evidenced by his 72 points in 2010-11 with the Penticton Vees of the BCHL.

Last year's fourth round pick Cedric Paquette has been performing about as expected for the Armada of the QMJHL, exceeding a point per game through 28 games with 13 goals and 23 assists.

Right Wing

Slovakian Richard Panik has shown steady growth since going pro. After a respectable rookie year in Norfolk, the big-bodied winger has emerged as the organization's most NHL-ready right winger. He has 20 points through 20 games this year.

After a short stint in the NHL to end last season, J.T. Brown has settled in nicely with the Crunch and currently has 11 points through 16 games. Free agent signing Danick Gauthier, after a successful four year junior career spent mostly with the Saint John Sea Dogs, has two goals in eight games for the Crunch.

At the junior level there is Nikita Kucherov, who is perhaps the Lightning's most dynamic offensive prospect. He has always had the offensive talent, but it was more of a question as to whether he would make the move to North America and this past off-season he did just that. He came over to play for the Quebec Remparts, alongside fellow Russian Mikhail Grigorenko (BUF), and he looked good doing so, posting 10 points in just six games before a trade to Rouyn-Noranda Huskies. He has looked comfortable through six games with the Huskies, posting three goals and four assists. If he chooses to stay in North America next year, he will likely have an outside shot at cracking the Lightning's line-up. If not, he could fill a top-six role with Syracuse.

Brian Hart, last year's second round pick, has looked comfortable in his freshman season with Harvard University, picking up three points through his first five games. He is still a few seasons away from turning pro, and is largely unproven at this point, but is off to a decent start.

Defense

The Lightning's group of defense prospects is no different from other positions, meaning outside of recent first round pick Slater Koekkoek, the club lacks any highly-touted prospects. That said there are a number of players at each level who have NHL potential.

Most notably at the pro level, is Mark Barberio, who has rounded into one of the top defensemen in the AHL since graduating from the Moncton Wildcats in 2010. In his best junior season, Barberio racked up 60 points in 65 games. Most players stat totals take a dip when they turn pro, specifically defensemen, but in his second season in the AHL, Barberio scored 13 goals and added 48 assists to lead all AHL defensemen with 61 points, while finishing with a plus-28. This year he has continued on a similar pace, posting 14 points in 20 games. Had the NHL began its season by now, Barberio would likely be wearing a Lightning uniform.

Hard-hitting Radko Gudas is another defender that may have recieved NHL consideration, if not for his physical play alone. Last year the Czech defender accumulated 195 penalty minutes, while also notching 20 points in the process. He has been a valuable part of the Crunch blue line this season, and already has 62 penalty minutes through 17 games.

Evan Oberg is the only other defender of note playing for Syracuse. Through 13 games, the former Vancouver Canuck product has just one assist. His window is likely coming to a close.

Rounding out the professional depth chart are Charles Landry and Daniel Milan. Landry, who saw just 23 games with Norfolk last season, has begun the 2012-13 campaign with the Florida Everblades of the ECHL. He has six points through 17 games. Same with Milan, who is also currently playing in the ECHL.

Fortunately for the Lightning, Slater Koekkoek has shown no signs of a setback following a season-ending injury last year. The first round selection has been the anchor on the point for a miserable Peterborough Petes team, who have just six wins through 30 games. His team worst minus-24 is merely a reflection of how much ice time he receives, rather than an indication of his defensive play. Adding to that, he is also second on the team in scoring with four goals and 18 assists.

Dylan Blujus is the other notable defense prospect playing in the CHL. Through 30 games with the Brampton Battalion, Blujus is on pace with last year's offensive numbers (34 points in 66 games), with 12 points. He has not quite progressed as the organization would have liked so far this year, but it is still early for the second round pick.

The Lightning also recently added to their Russian contingent, signing Val d'Or defender Artem Sergeev, who has been having a breakout year with the Foreurs. In his third season with the club, he is just seven points off the career mark he set in his first season. He leads the team's defense in scoring.

Finally, 2010 fourth round pick Geoff Schemitsch has been a vital part of the Oshawa Generals, having scored three goals and adding 15 assists. It is however his overage year.

At the NCAA level, it does not appear that the Lightning have much in either Luke Witkowski or Kirill Gotovets. Witkowski is in his senior year with Western Michigan University and has three assists in 12 game. Gotovets meanwhile has been held pointless in the first nine games of his junior year with Cornell University. It is unlikely that either player signs an NHL contract.

Goaltending

The Lightning's biggest area of strength is far and away between the pipes. Not only do they have depth, they also have at least two NHL caliber prospects in Dustin Tokarski and Andrey Vasilevskiy.

Tokarski led last year's Norfolk Admirals to a Calder Cup win, posting a remarkable 2.23 goals against average and a .913 save percentage. Through 13 starts in 2012-13, he has a 2.31 goals against average and an 8-4-1 record. There is no doubt that the former fifth round pick is ready for an extended taste of NHL hockey.

The second of two first round picks in 2012, Vasilevskiy's stock continues to soar. The big, athletic goaltender has been playing for Tolpar Ufa of the MHL, which is essentially the minor league to the KHL.

Former sixth round pick Jaroslav Janus was loaned to Bratislava Slovan of the KHL, and judging by the numbers he has posted this season, he is still very much included in discussion involving the Lightning's future between the pipes. Through 28 games, Janus has led the team to an 11-10-7 record, with a respectable 2.32 goals against average and a .924 save percentage.

Further down the depth chart is Pat Nagle, a free agent signing from 2011. Nagle is currently in his second season with the Florida Everblades of the ECHL.

And if that was not enough, another sixth round pick seems to have improved his stock immensely so far this season. In 14 games as a freshman for the University of Minnesota, Adam Wilcox has been arguably one of the top goaltenders in collegiate hockey, his 1.61 goals against average ranks fifth in the NCAA. It is obviously early in his career, but he is certainly someone to watch going forward.

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