The 2012-13 season saw many of the Tampa Bay Lightning's top prospects work their way onto the NHL roster. Radko Gudas and Alex Killorn both saw substantial time and made significant contributions with the big club while Tyler Johnson, Richard Panik, Ondrej Palat, and Mark Barberio also made their NHL debuts at various points throughout the lockout shortened season.
Since his arrival, General Manager Steve Yzerman has reshaped the Lightning prospect pool and added some much need depth. The goaltending position has drastically changed from a point of weakness to one of strength, including their number one prospect, Andrey Vasilevskiy. They have added many skilled forwards and defensemen, while also taking some chances on Russian born prospects. The organization has focused not only in drafting top talent, but also by seeking it out via free agent signings, as was the case with highly regarded prospects J.T. Brown and Andrej Sustr.
1. (1) Andrey Vasilevskiy, G, 8.5C
Drafted 1st round, 19th overall, 2010
Once again claiming Tampa Bay's top prospect spot, Andrey Vasilevskiy continues to impress the Lightning brass with his combination of size, mobility and quickness. As the 19th overall selection, and first goaltender taken in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, Vasilevskiy enjoyed another terrific season in 2012-13. In 27 games with Ufa's junior team in Russia, he had a 1.93 goals-against average while posting a .930 save percentage. In eight games with Ufa's team in the Kontinental Hockey League, he was 4-1-0 with a 2.22 goals-against average and .924 save percentage. Most recently, while competing at the 2013 Under 20 World Junior Championship, Vasilevskiy helped Russia to a bronze medal with a 1.81 goals-against average and .950 save percentage in four games.
While he does have buyout clause in his Russian contract, it appears Vasilevskiy with remain overseas for the 2013-14 season before coming to North America. At that time, depending on further development, one would think he will be in a great position to seize the crease for Tampa's AHL affiliate in Syracuse in the fall of 2014, assuming he does not make the big club out of training camp. The Lightning are confident in their selection of Vasilevskiy as their number one goalie of the future, but would obviously love to get him to North America sooner rather than later.
2. (12) Tyler Johnson, C, 7.5C
Signed as free agent, March 7th, 2011
Johnson takes the top forward prospect spot while enjoying another fantastic season with Syracuse of the AHL. Undrafted and undersized, he exhibits great speed and swift hands that have helped him to amass 133 points over 137 games in his first two professional seasons. More impressively, Johnson managed to capture the Les Cunningham Award as the AHL's most valuable player while leading the league in goals with 37. He was awarded with a 14 game stint in Tampa Bay in 2012-13 and did not look the least bit out of place.
Overlooked by many organizations, the Lightning see Johnson as a solid two-way player with speed to burn and excellent hockey sense. The diminutive forward will have a tough matchup against the league's bigger defenders however, and still needs to increase his strength in order to be successful at the next level. While character and work ethic alone will not be enough to get him there, his combination of speed, tenacity, and soft hands project him as a solid two way center with scoring upside.
3. (15) Radko Gudas, D, 7.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 66th overall, 2010
Perhaps the biggest mover in the Lightning's Top 20 is hard-nosed defenseman Radko Gudas. Splitting time between Syracuse and Tampa Bay, Gudas' play in 2012-13 earned him a new three-year contract extension in May and all but solidifies his spot on the Bolt's roster next season. In 22 games with Tampa Bay, Gudas recorded two goals and five points while logging a plus-three on a defensively weak team. His 87 hits may not sound like much, but it was good for third best on the team despite playing in only 22 games. In 57 games with Syracuse, Gudas racked up four goals and 20 points with 207 penalty minutes and a league best plus-32.
His impact in Tampa was immediately felt and he became an instant fan favorite with his gritty play and crushing hits. He has a hard right-handed shot as well, something the current Lightning defense core had been lacking, and benefitted from after his arrival. Gudas has raised the expectations as the Lightning value him as someone who will compete for a top-four spot in the near future.
4. (9) Alex Killorn, LW, 7.0B
Drafted 3rd round, 77th overall, 2007
Another Lightning top prospect to see time in the NHL this season is left winger Alex Killorn. The 6'1 205 pound forward out of Harvard played in 38 games for Tampa Bay in 2012-13, while recording seven goals and 19 points. He is a dependable two-way forward with offensive skill that can play in any situation. Killorn's strong play and nose for the net found him playing in the top-six with the likes of Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier at times. Before his promotion, Killorn played in 44 games with Syracuse and amassed 38 points in 44 games. He was an integral part of the Crunch's impressive run to a Calder Cup championship in 2011-12, and was another key component in the team's success earlier this season.
With former Syracuse Coach Jon Cooper now at the helm in Tampa Bay, it is easy to predict Killorn, one of Cooper's favorites, will land somewhere in the Lightning's top-nine forward group to start the 2013-14 season.
5. (3) Richard Panik, RW, 7.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 52nd overall, 2009
Slovakian winger Richard Panik is another one of Tampa Bay's forward prospects on the cusp of full time NHL duty. Standing at just over six feet and 210 pounds, Panik plays a tough, physical game. He can skate, hit, shoot, and displays good creativity and puck control. Panik completed his second professional season in 2012-13 and split time between Syracuse and Tampa Bay. During the 2011-12 season, his first professional, Panik recorded 41 points in 64 games. This season he achieved that same point total in only 51 games while also playing in 25 contests with the Lightning.
Panik projects as a top-six winger, and depending on the training camp he has, could start the 2013-14 season with the Lightning.
6. (10) Nikita Kucherov, RW, 7.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 58th overall, 2011
Kucherov is another highly skilled Russian prospect drafted by Steve Yzerman. A second round pick in 2011, Kucherov displays terrific creativity and stickhandling to go along with a great shot. In 2012-13, Kucherov was traded from his junior team in Quebec to the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies after receiving little playing time with the Remparts. The move paid dividends as Kucherov went on to post 53 points in 27 games for the Huskies and eventually eliminated his former team in the second round of the QMJHL playoffs.
While Kucherov projects as a scoring line winger, he will need to add size and get stronger to make it full time in the NHL. After signing a three-year entry-level contract this past fall, all signs point to him playing with Tampa Bay's AHL affiliate in Syracuse during the 2013-14 season, where he can continue to develop.
7. (5) Slater Koekkoek, D, 7.5C
Drafted 1st round, 10th overall, 2012
The 10th overall pick in the 2012 NHL draft, Slater Koekkoek, probably has the highest ceiling of any Tampa Bay defensive prospect. Unfortunately, for Koekkoek and the Lightning, injuries have continued to hamper his development. Following a mid-season trade from Peterborough to Windsor, Koekkoek only played in two games before injuring the same shoulder that shortened his 2011-12 season. In 40 games with the Petes, he registered six goals and 28 points while serving as the team's captain.
Projected as a mobile, second pairing puck mover, Koekkoek has missed significant development time over the past two seasons and one has to question how far along he would be had he stayed healthy. Another valuable aspect of Koekkoek's game the Lightning covets is his character and leadership qualities. The Lightning would love to see Koekkoek get a full season under his belt prior to joining AHL Syracuse so he can challenge for a spot on Tampa's blue line in the not too distant future.
8. (4) Mark Barberio, D, 7.0B
Drafted 6th round, 152nd overall, 2008
The Lightning has taken a very patient approach when it comes to Barberio. The sixth round pick from 2008 completed his third season in the AHL and recorded 42 points in 73 games played. These numbers dropped a bit from his 2011-12 totals that earned him AHL Defenseman of the Year honors en route to a Calder Cup championship, but he appears to have improved his defensive game significantly. Barberio's puck moving skills are something the Lightning have lacked since the departure of Dan Boyle. He finally made his long awaited NHL debut this season playing in two games for the Lightning down the stretch, averaging just over 15 minutes per game.
Barberio is another Lightning prospect to watch in training camp. If he does not make the team in the fall, look for him to earn one of the first call-ups and to have a positive impact on one of the Lightning's powerplay units.
9. (2) Vladislav Namestnikov, C, 7.0C
Drafted 1st round, 27th overall, 2011
Namestnikov, the nephew of former Detroit Red Wing Slava Kozlov, finished his first professional season with Syracuse in 2012-13. He has had some problems staying healthy and missed some time due to a shoulder injury and was limited to just 44 games this season while recording seven goals and 21 points. The 27th overall pick in 2011 could be a dark horse to make the Lightning in 2013-14, although he is probably better off staying in Syracuse another year to mature and bulk up. Namestnikov is a hard working, gritty player who plays with an edge to his game. He will drive to the net and also loves to chirp and instigate the opposition.
Namestnikov projects as a very effective two way center capable of putting up decent numbers as a second or third line center, but he will need to work adding more muscle and strength in order to play his style in the NHL full time.
10. (6) J.T. Brown, RW, 6.5C
Signed as free agent, March 28th, 2012
The Lightning signed winger J.T. Brown out of the University of Minnesota-Duluth in the spring of 2012, and even got him into their lineup for a five-game stint at the end of the 2011-12 season. With the lockout shortened NHL season, Brown played the entirety of the 2012-13 with Syracuse posting 10 goals and 28 points in 51 games played, however he suffered a nasty broken collarbone in December and missed about a month's worth of games. Although he is considered primarily an offensive player, Brown spent a good amount of the 2012-13 Calder Cup playoffs in a checking line role while shutting down the opponent's top line.
Brown possesses good hockey sense and is an excellent skater with a quick shot. If he can round his two way game into form, it would certainly increase his chances of landing a spot amongst Tampa Bay's top nine forwards in 2013-14. However, like several of his fellow Lightning prospects, Brown will need to focus on adding size and strength in the offseason.
11. (20) Ondrej Palat, LW, 6.5C
Drafted 7th round, 208th overall, 2011
Palat was seen mainly as a perimeter player when he was selected in the seventh round of the 2011 NHL Draft. In his two years at the professional level however, Palat has shed that tag and shown a willingness to go to the dirty areas of the ice. After recording 30 points in his rookie campaign, Palat amassed 52 points in 56 games for the Crunch in 2012-13 while playing mostly on the top line with Johnson and Panik. He is a terrific playmaker who has a way of finding the scoresheet, much the way current Lightning winger Teddy Purcell does. He also appeared in 14 games with the Lightning this season and potted two goals and four points.
The jury is still out on whether or not he will have a successful NHL career. However, with his game developing the way it has over the past two seasons, Palat has thrown his name into the hat of several Lightning prospects that will be vying for a roster spot in Tampa once camp opens in 2013-14.
12. (NR) Andrej Sustr, D, 7.0D
Signed as free agent, March 21st, 2013
For the second time in as many years, the Lightning struck a deal with one of college hockey's most sought after free agents. Sustr, who stands at a towering 6'8, had as many as 20 teams bidding for his services this past spring but viewed Tampa Bay as the best fit. He appeared in two NHL games and averaged about 10 minutes of ice time for the Lightning prior to being assigned to Syracuse. Earlier this season, he recorded nine goals and 25 points while playing in 39 games for the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Despite his imposing size, Sustr skates quite well for a big man and adds a much needed right-handed shot to the Lightning's crop of young blueliners.
Sustr would benefit from a full year of development down on the farm, and is most likely ticketed for Syracuse in 2013-14.
13. (13) Jaroslav Janus, G, 6.5C
Drafted 6th round, 162nd overall, 2009
Janus put up solid numbers with Norfolk in 2011-12 as he split time with Dustin Tokarski, posting a record of 23-8-2 with a 2.36 goals against average and .914 save percentage. But with Riku Helenius back in the fold in 2012-13 for Syracuse, Lightning management and Janus both felt it would best to give the Slovakian goaltender increased playing time overseas while they keep tabs on him. Janus signed a two-year deal in 2012 with Slovan Bratislava of the KHL and appeared in 47 games this past season, posting a 2.17 goals against average and .928 save percentage while earning 18 wins.
Tampa Bay still owns the rights to Janus and has indicated their interest in bringing him back to North America. While he does have an out clause with his current KHL team, his situation will be something to monitor in the coming months.
14. (18) Tanner Richard, C, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 71st overall, 2012
After notching 62 points in 52 games with Guelph Storm of the OHL, Richard made the jump to AHL Syracuse at the conclusion of his 2012-13 junior season. While playing in eight games for the Crunch down the stretch, Richard tallied three helpers and showed the kind of playmaking abilities the Lightning hope will translate to the NHL someday.
He projects as a versatile top nine forward with soft hands and the ability to chip in offensively. He will need to work on his strength and add more bulk to his 6' frame if he wants to play that style in the NHL. He is most likely a couple years away from NHL playing time and is slated to start the 2013-14 in Syracuse.
15. (14) Brian Hart, RW, 6.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 53rd overall, 2012
As a freshman at Harvard, Hart tallied five goals and 18 points in 30 games for the Crimson in 2012-13. An offensive standout at Phillips Exeter Academy, Hart is a power forward with good size (6'2, 215 lbs) and a heavy shot. He is a gifted natural athlete, however he will need to work on his skating and acceleration to make an impact at the next level. He will have ample time to do so at Harvard over the next few seasons as he focuses solely on hockey, and could end up following a similar trajectory of Crimson Alum and fellow Lightning prospect Alex Killorn.
16. (NR) Matthew Peca, C, 6.5C
Drafted 7th round, 201st overall, 2011
After an impressive freshman season at Quinnipiac where he was a point-per-game player, Peca got off to a slow start in 2012-13 with just five points in his first 14 games. He rebounded after Christmas by recording 25 points in his next 23 games and finished the season with 15 goals and 15 assists through 39 games. Peca, listed at 5'9 and 170 pounds, is the type of player every coach wants on the team. He can play in a variety of situations and his desire and work ethic are off the page. Despite his lack of size, Peca does not shy away from the high traffic areas and is relentless on the forecheck. If he can continue to add muscle and strength over the next two years, he will be a solid addition to the Lightning's AHL affiliate and eventually work his way into the NHL as an effective energy forward.
17. (16) Nikita Nesterov, D, 6.0C
Drafted 5th round, 148th overall, 2011
Nesterov completed his second season with Traktor Chelyabinsk of the KHL in 2012-13, playing in 35 games. The two way defenseman also appeared in 19 playoff games and recorded four assists and six penalty minutes. Armed with a good point shot and a nice first pass out of the zone, Nesterov is a hard working defenseman that exhibits leadership qualities. At 6' and 180 lbs he is a little undersized for a defenseman, so he will need to work on adding more size in order to handle bigger opponents. Nesterov is a good candidate to join AHL Syracuse for the 2013-14 season where he can become more familiar with the organizational structure.
18. (8) Dylan Blujus, D, 7.0D
Drafted 2nd round, 40th overall, 2012
Blujus led all Batallion defensemen in scoring with 29 points in his third year of OHL play. The 6'3 defenseman has good size and likes join the attack to create odd man rushes. He also however produces a lot of turnovers, which is a part of his game the Lightning organization would like to see him clean up once he turns pro. Clearly the Bolts brass has high expectations for the young blueliner as they used a second round pick in last year's draft to acquire him. He will spend one more season in the OHL before turning pro in 2014-15.
19. (NR) Adam Wilcox, G, 6.0C
Drafted 6th round, 178th overall, 2011
Wilcox earns a spot in the organization's top 20 after an impressive freshman campaign at the University of Minnesota. Playing in 37 games, his 25 wins were good for second in the WCHA while his 2,331 minutes played ranked him third. An athletic goaltender with good reflexes, Wilcox likes to come out of his net and challenge shooters, and is no slouch when it comes to handling the puck.
He is in a good position to develop nicely over the next three years as long as he continues to receive to lion's share of the starts for the Gophers. He projects as a depth goaltender but he could very well shake that tag by the completion of his collegiate career.
20. (NR) Cedric Paquette, C, 6.0C
Drafted 4th round, 101st overall, 2012
Paquette had a breakout season in 2012-13, posting 83 points through 63 games in the QMJHL, well above the 48 points he posted in 2011-12. Upon completion of his 2012-13 season, the Lightning awarded Paquette with a three-year entry-level deal and an opportunity to join the Syracuse Crunch during their playoff run. A late bloomer, Paquette is a tenacious forechecker capable of centering a checking line. His gritty play and offensive skill should fit right in with Syracuse and he will be a player to watch over the next couple of seasons.
Jeff Terry wrote this article.