Lightning Top 20 prospects

By Phil Laugher

Once again, it is obvious that the strength within the Tampa Bay Lightning organization lies on their own side of the center ice line, as seven of the top eight ranked prospects in the Lightning system are either goaltenders or defensemen. Restocking the forward depth in the Lightning prospect base is a matter that will have to be addressed by management and scouting staff at this year’s draft, as the junior and college-aged forward depth is definitely lacking, given the number of forwards that jumped to the professional ranks in the offseason — particularly given the struggles many have faced in adjusting.

Five players from last autumn’s ranking are no longer on the list. Only one of these, hard-nosed forward Nick Tarnasky, is removed from the list as a result of graduation. Goaltender Gerald Coleman, winger Darren Reid, and defenseman Doug O’Brien were traded by the Lightning over the course of the season. Recently-acquired rugged defenseman Shane O’Brien graduated shortly after arriving in the Lightning organization.

1. (5) Karri Ramo, G (7.5B)
2. (2) Riku Helenius, G (8.0C)
3. (4) Matt Smaby, D (7.0B)
4. (1) Andy Rogers, D (7.0C)
5. (13) Blair Jones, C (7.0C)
6. (7) Vasily Koshechkin, G (7.0C)
7. (8) Vladimir Mihalik, D (7.0C)
8. (11) Mike Egener, D (7.0C)
9. (10) Marek Kvapil, RW (6.5C)
10. (6) Stanislav Lascek, RW (6.5C)
11. (14) Justin Keller, LW (6.5C)
12. (nr) Jonathan Boutin, G (6.5C)
13. (17) Chris Lawrence, C (6.5C)
14. (18) Kevin Quick, D (7.5D)
15. (3) Radek Smolenak, LW (6.5D)
16. (nr) Karl Stewart, LW (5.5B)
17. (19) Mike Lundin, D (6.0C)
18. (nr) Dane Crowley, D (6.0C)
19. (nr) Dmitri Kazionov, C (6.0C)
20. (nr) Denis Kazionov, C (5.5C)

1. (5) Karri Ramo, G – Springfield Falcons (AHL)/Tampa Bay Lightning (NHL)
Height: 6’2; Weight: 205 lbs., DOB: 07/01/1986
Acquired: 6th round, 191st overall, 2004

One has to wonder where the Springfield Falcons would be if it were not for the play of Karri Rämo. The Finnish netminder is currently in his first professional season on this side of the Atlantic, and it has been quite the test for a rookie. It was expected that Rämo would be eased into the Springfield starting role, particularly when it became apparent that veteran goaltender Sean Burke would start the season with the Falcons. When Burke stumbled early, Rämo was thrust into the starting role. Though he had some minor growing pains in the first month of the season, Rämo quickly adjusted to the different pace of the North American game. He regularly began stealing games, a welcome relief for the occasionally hapless Falcons.

In 45 appearances thus far this season, Rämo has compiled a record of 15-24-1 for the last-place Falcons, with a modest goals against average of 3.13 and a strong save percentage of .906. He has regularly seen long nights, as he has had a relatively green defense in front of him for the bulk of the season. His strong positional play, and keen improvisational skills on the rare occasion that he does get out of position, coupled with his willingness to pay the price to make the stop have kept Springfield in several games that they had no business still having a shot at winning. Rämo’s performance has not gone unnoticed by the AHL, as the rookie was named to the PlanetUSA All-Star team as the Falcons’ representative. He has also been called upon by Tampa Bay for two emergency call-ups to the big club early in the season, when starting goaltender Marc Denis ran into visa problems. Rämo has played 52 minutes, and giving up 2 goals on 18 shots in his limited time.

The Lightning do not want to rush Rämo’s development. However, with recent lapses between the pipes with the big club, he has been called up to Tampa again and could see more playing time immediately.

2. (2) Riku Helenius, G – Ilves Tampere (Finland)
Height: 6’3; Weight: 202 lbs., DOB: 03/01/1988
Acquired: 1st round, 15th overall, 2006

It has been a lost year for Helenius, the Lightning’s first-round selection from last year’s NHL entry draft. The large butterfly netminder hoped to be able to make the permanent jump to the top Ilves club, playing behind top goaltending prospect, teammate, and fellow countryman Tuukka Rask. Helenius, instead, started the season with the Ilves junior club. His season lasted two games, before it came to a crashing halt, after he suffered a dislocated shoulder. The initial prognosis had Helenius returning to the line-up after about a month, yet as time progressed, the severity of the injury became more apparent. Helenius has not played a game since, and has been shut down for the season. Not only did the shoulder injury keep Helenius from competing in the SM-Liiga, but also prevented him from participating in the World Junior Hockey Championships, where it was anticipated Helenius would earn a roster spot.

Helenius, when healthy, is a very quick, athletic goaltender with excellent lateral movement and strong reflexes. He plays calm and cool under pressure, rarely getting rattled. His athleticism and composure will be counted on greatly as he gets deeper into his rehabilitation sessions, and prepares for next season.

3. (4) Matt Smaby, D – Springfield Falcons (AHL)
Height: 6’5; Weight: 228 lbs., DOB: 10/14/1984
Acquired: 2nd round, 41st overall, 2003

Smaby had made a name for himself as the captain of the powerhouse North Dakota Fighting Sioux, bringing a bone-crushing, suffocating, physical game to the table, and serving as a defensive foil on a run-and-gun offensive squad. The hulking blueliner made the jump to the professional ranks after his junior season this year, cracking the Springfield Falcons squad.

It was already assured that with an influx of junior and collegiate talent in the minor league system there would be plenty of youngsters with Springfield. It was hoped that even though Smaby was also one of those rookies, his maturity and leadership would help hold the Falcons defense together. He has played well when coach Steve Stirling has looked to him, but there have also been some growing pains. The present situation in Springfield is a complete 180 turn from the winning tradition he had experienced with North Dakota, and as a result he has run into occasional bouts of inconsistency. Still, seeing top-pairing ice time, as well as playing in all situations have helped the young blueliner make the quick transition to the professional game.

Among the most physical blueliners to come along in the past few years, Smaby gives no space to those who come across the middle of the ice not paying attention, nor those who try to set up shop in front of the net. Smaby has also posted two goals and 14 assists along with a deceiving -24 rating through 66 games this season. A shutdown defenseman in the mold of Adam Foote, Smaby is on a quick road to the NHL, one that may see him get time full-time duty with the Lightning as soon as next season. He has already warranted a late-season call-up by the Lightning.

4. (1) Andy Rogers, D – Springfield Falcons (AHL)
Height: 6’5; Weight: 206 lbs., DOB: 08/25/1986
Acquired: 1st round, 30th overall, 2004

It was hoped that Rogers had put his perpetual injury woes behind him after sitting out the bulk of the 2005-06 campaign recuperating from a series of ankle surgeries. However, that optimistic outlook was not to be, as the injury bug bit Rogers yet again early in his jump to the professional ranks. He suffered a minor hip pointer in the Traverse City prospect tournament during the summer, and returned to the line-up in time for training camp. A quick demotion from the Tampa Bay camp saw him land with Springfield, where he hoped to serve as a solid top-two pairing defender. Rogers played through seven humdrum games before once again suffering a leg injury, which kept him out of the line-up for nearly two months, before returning near the end of 2006.

After returning to the line-up at the end of December, the 6’5 blueliner from Calgary has had a clean bill of health. Once again, the Lightning management and coaching staff are holding their breath, hoping that finally, his injury problems are a thing of the past. When healthy, Rogers can be a very serviceable stay-at-home defenseman, a position in which the Lightning have a wealth of prospects. Rogers will never be counted on for offense — he only scored three goals in his four-year junior career, and has been limited to six assists in 40 games with Springfield — but brings strong positional play and a poised demeanor to the back end.

5. (13) Blair Jones, C – Springfield Falcons (AHL) / Tampa Bay Lightning (NHL)
Height: 6’2; Weight: 193 lbs., DOB: 09/27/1986
Acquired: 4th round, 102nd overall, 2005

Jones has skyrocketed up the prospect list, much as he has shot up the Lightning’s depth chart. Jones was one of several rookie forwards to make the jump to the professional ranks, jumping to Springfield at the end of last season. He got off to a quick start for Springfield, picking up a couple of goals in his first handful of games, before running into a long cold streak with the Falcons. Jones went pointless in 10 consecutive games, and saw himself fall deeper into the Springfield line-up. Oddly enough, Jones’s cold snap received a respite, when he was promoted to Tampa Bay in mid-November for a short stint. Since then, Jones has been shuttled between Springfield and Tampa Bay several times. With Springfield, the talented centerman has compiled five goals and 16 assists in 45 games.

Jones has now played a very modest 18 games with the Lightning, rotating in and out of the line-up. When he is in the line-up, he has seen time centering the third and fourth lines, bringing plenty of hard-working, energetic, and two-way play to the table. The centerman picked up his first NHL goal on Feb. 6 against the Los Angeles Kings, notching his marker against former Springfield teammate Sean Burke. Jones is a quick skater with plenty of offensive creativity, coupled with defensive responsibility. His stint with Tampa Bay has proved invaluable for his confidence, be it in helping Tampa’s playoff push, or helping rejuvenate a sputtering Springfield offense.

6. (7) Vasily Koshechkin, G – Lada Togliatti (Russia)
Height: 6’6; Weight: 210 lbs., DOB: 03/27/1983
Acquired: 8th round, 233rd overall, 2002

The largest of the Lightning’s big stable of quality netminders, the 6’6 Russian was the starting goaltender for Togliatti in the Russian SuperLeague for the second straight season. Koshechkin posted a solid 17-13-6 record in 40 appearances, coupled with an impressive goals against average of 2.08, though a step back from his miniscule numbers of the previous season. However, Koshechkin stumbled in the playoffs, as Lada was bounced in three straight games.

Koshechkin uses his large frame as a strength between the pipes, playing a butterfly style that not only protects the bottom of the net, but also, with his size, keeps the top of the net covered. He also moves well laterally, and displays excellent awareness of the opposition’s offensive instincts. Whether the Lightning once again try to lure the large Russian across the Atlantic to play in Springfield, or allow him another year of development in Russia is unclear at present. Though, the longer Tampa Bay waits, the less likely Koshechkin is to bite.

7. (8) Vladimir Mihalik, D – Prince George Cougars (WHL)
Height: 6’8; Weight: 241 lbs., 01/29/1987
Acquired: 1st round, 30th overall, 2005

Mihalik has shown some development in all areas of his game after an up-and-down first season in North America. The hulking 6’8 blueliner was moved from Red Deer to the friendlier confines of Prince George, and it seems as if Mihalik’s game responded favorably to the change in scenery. He had already begun to use his massive size to his advantage towards the end of the last season, throwing the body rather than relying on stick checks. This change helped him play a much more intimidating game in his own end, and also limited unnecessary penalties.

This season, he was given greater opportunity to work on his offensive game with the Cougars. While his offensive skills still need some help, he does have a cannon of a shot, and was able to post a very respectable output of seven goals and 19 assists in 53 games. Mihalik also gained more international experience, playing for Slovakia‘s entry at this past winter’s WJCs, picking up a goal and a +1 rating in six games. Facing contract negotiations in the offseason, Mihalik will likely make the jump to the professional ranks, wherever Tampa Bay’s open AHL affiliation lands.

8. (11) Mike Egener, D – Springfield Falcons (AHL)
Height: 6’4; Weight: 213 lbs., 09/26/1984
Acquired: 2nd round, 34th overall, 2003

Egener has begun to right the ship in his own end after a couple of seasons of mediocrity since turning pro. At one time considered the top ranked prospect in the Lightning organization by Hockey’s Future, Egener suffered from serious bouts of inconsistency and occasional time out of the lineup injured in his first two seasons. His disappointing play of a year ago also resulted in a less-than-spirited stint with the Lightning ECHL affiliate in Johnstown.

This year, Egener came into camp focused, motivated, and in shape, earning a spot with Springfield straight out of training camp. He has played a lights-out defensive game on a team that has had some trouble on the blue line this season, bringing a mean game to the table. Stifling, physical defensive play is going to be the way that Egener makes his way up the ranks, as he does not have much of an offensive game to speak of (he has gone pointless thus far in 2007, and only has three assists over the course of the season). So long as Egener stays on this course, and continues to make the safe play, Springfield’s coaching staff will continue to show confidence in him, icing him big minutes. Another year of continued development at the minor-league level will likely be in store for Egener in 2007-08.

9. (10) Marek Kvapil, RW – Springfield Falcons (AHL)
Height: 5’11; Weight: 193 lbs., 01/05/1985
Acquired: 6th round, 153rd overall, 2005

Kvapil has worked very hard on rounding out his game this season with the Falcons. He had already laid a modest foundation in the Lightning system, posting a solid rookie campaign with 45 points. While the numbers have not been there this season, his two-way play has been improved, as he has been leaned upon in all situations with the inexperienced Falcons squad. Kvapil has posted 27 points in 67 games, which (testament to Springfield’s offensive struggles this season) is good enough for fourth on the team, but still behind last year’s pace.

The Slovakian winger still has plenty of work to do to become a bona fide two-way player in the professional ranks. Kvapil does not have a very large frame, but has added some muscle since this time last season. With a great skill set and good drive to the net already in his repertoire, putting forth a consistent, complete effort is next. He has made steps in the right direction in his sophomore campaign, and another year in the minor pro ranks to hone his skills will likely be in order.

10. (6) Stanislav Lascek, RW – Springfield Falcons (AHL) / Johnstown Chiefs (ECHL)
Height: 6’0; Weight: 195 lbs., DOB: 01/17/1986
Acquired: 5th round, 133rd overall, 2005

Lascek made the jump to the professional ranks after three prolific seasons in the QMJHL. Therefore, it was not much of a surprise when Lascek burst onto the professional scene with Johnstown, putting up almost a point-and-a-half per game in the first month of the season, playing alongside former junior linemate Maxime Boisclair. Lascek’s stay with Johnstown was short-lived, as he got the promotion to Springfield. Unfortunately for Lascek, his stellar offensive production was also short-lived and fell off on arrival in Springfield. After a short stay in the AHL, Lascek was quickly returned for a second quick stint with the Chiefs. He has scored at over a point a game (27) in 25 games with Johnstown, however, he has only managed four points in 29 games with Springfield.

Lascek has excellent offensive awareness and uncanny stickhandling ability, coupled with a solid work ethic. His foot speed, however, is below average in the professional ranks, and that is one aspect of his game that he will have to work on if he is to get any sustained success in the AHL and beyond. A full 2007-08 season in the AHL with modest offensive numbers would be a definite step forward for the skilled Slovakian import.

11. (14) Justin Keller, LW – Springfield Falcons (AHL)
Height: 5’11; Weight: 185 lbs., DOB: 03/04/1986
Acquired: 8th round, 245th overall, 2004

Keller has made the most offensive noise in the professional ranks from the crop of rookies the Lightning promoted at the start of the season. Keller has posted modest numbers thus far this season, with 11 goals and 11 assists in 48 games, coupled with a respectable -8 rating, tops among forwards who have seen regular ice this season for the hapless Falcons. He made most of his noise in the first half of the season, picking up the bulk of his scoring before the end of 2006. Keller was hobbled by an ankle injury early in 2007 that he has been slow to recover from. A strong finish to the season would do well for his confidence as both he and the team move forward.

The undersized Keller is a decent skater who has great drive to the net, and among the forwards in the Lightning system, has the best finishing ability. He has shown a willingness to go into high-traffic areas in order to make a play, and will have to continue to do so as a means of making up for his lack of size. He could also stand to work on his foot speed, which is a prerequisite of smaller forwards in today’s professional game. If his skating gets even a slight bit better, with his skill set, he will continue to rise up the ranks.

12. (nr) Jonathan Boutin, G – Springfield Falcons (AHL)
Height: 6’2; Weight; 206 lbs., DOB: 03/28/1985
Acquired: 3rd round, 96th overall, 2003

Boutin has continued on the course of remaking his career. An occasional problem child in junior, with regular lapses of concentration, last year worked wonders in getting the athletic netminder focused. Boutin posted strong numbers on a wholly average Johnstown squad last season playing alongside Morgan Cey, also seeing time in a supporting role with Springfield. The arrival of Rämo and the demotion of veteran Burke saw Boutin start the season with Johnstown again. It was a short stay in Johnstown, as Boutin quickly gained a promotion when Burke faltered. Since his recall, Boutin has played stellar hockey between the pipes, on some nights outshining even the highly-touted Rämo. In 26 games, Boutin has a goals against average nearly half-a-goal per game lower than his Finnish counterpart, while also posting a better save percentage. His strong play has not gone unnoticed by league offices, as the Granby, Quebec product was named the AHL’s Goaltender of the Month for December.

Boutin’s greatest asset is his athleticism, which he has begun to utilize to its full extent. His positioning has also improved since the start of last season, and though the offensive support has not been there, Boutin and Rämo both put for the effort that at least gives Springfield a chance to stay in games. With Rämo’s likely graduation to Tampa Bay next season, Boutin will get the chance to prove that he can be a solid No. 1goaltender in the AHL.

13. (17) Chris Lawrence, C – Mississauga IceDogs (OHL)
Height: 6’4; Weight: 199 lbs., DOB: 02/05/1987
Acquired: 3rd round, 89th overall, 2005

What a difference a year makes. At this time last season, Lawrence was a middling prospect with little direction and not very much motivation, having just been traded to Mississauga after a wildly inconsistent stint with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. Now, the hard-nosed forward has smashed his previous career highs in goals (47) and points (88) through only 64 games. Lawrence has been playing with drive and determination with Mississauga, and has provided plenty of leadership for the young IceDogs squad.

One of Lawrence’s biggest issues in past seasons has been his occasionally lackadaisical work ethic. That has not been an issue for him this season, as he has come to the rink to compete night in, night out. Lawrence will likely make the jump to the professional ranks after this season with Mississauga. If the 19-year-old can display the same kind of energy of two-way awareness that he has shown this season in the OHL, the versatile forward should be a solid contributor at the next level (so long as he does not revert back to his wayward play of seasons gone by).

14. (18) Kevin Quick, D – Salisbury Prep (USHS)
Height: 6’0; Weight: 175 lbs., DOB: 03/29/1988
Acquired: 3rd round, 78th overall, 2006

Quick was a surprise draft selection in the third round of this past season’s NHL Entry Draft. His game is very difficult to gauge at present, as he has still not played a game beyond high school hockey. What is for certain is that Quick displays great skating ability and excellent offensive awareness. Though he is still relatively unproven, it appears as if Quick is the best offensive blueliner at present amongst the Lightning prospect stable, which is admittedly made up largely of defensive-minded defensemen. A power-play quarterback in the making, Quick has already shown an uncanny vision with the puck on the breakout and in the offensive end.

Quick will make the jump to the NCAA next season, suiting up for the Michigan Wolverines. His freshman campaign will give a more accurate impression of what to expect from this long-term project.

15. (3) Radek Smolenak, LW – Johnstown Chiefs (ECHL)/Springfield Falcons (AHL)
Height: 6’3; Weight: 204 lbs., DOB: 12/03/1986
Acquired: 3rd round, 73rd overall, 2005

Unlike many of his fellow rookie pros, Smolenak’s transition to the professional game has been less than smooth. He started the season with the Johnstown Chiefs of the ECHL, posting strong offensive numbers, but occasionally looking lost on the ice. He has warranted a few call-ups to Springfield, to very little success. The 6’3 forward has picked up only one assist in 20 games with the Falcons.

Another year in Johnstown working on improving his skating ability and his all-around game mightwork wonders for Czech product’s game. With the Chiefs, Smolenak has posted 13 goals, 12 assists for Johnstown in 32 games.

16. (nr) Karl Stewart, LW – Tampa Bay Lightning (NHL)
Height: 5’11; Weight: 185 lbs., DOB: 06/30/1983
Acquired: trade with Chicago, 02/27/2007

Stewart was acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks on NHL trade deadline day, making the Lightning his third stop of the season, and fourth in his short career. A wrecking ball of energy on the ice, Stewart will not be counted on much for his offense. The stocky forward gets by on his tireless work ethic and usually responsible defensive play, as well as his deceptively strong skating ability.

Likely a perpetual fourth line or energy player, Stewart brings plenty of enthusiasm to the table. His style of play will always have a place in the NHL, provided he can draw more penalties than he takes. He has posted two goals and three assists between Tampa Bay, Chicago and Pittsburgh through 43 games this season.

17. (19) Mike Lundin, D – University of Maine Black Bears (HE)
Height: 6’2; Weight: 180 lbs., DOB: 09/24/1984
Acquired: 4th round, 102nd overall, 2004

Lundin is the only Lightning prospect from the NCAA to crack the spring rankings. The product of Apple Valley, Minnesota had a solid senior year with the Maine Black Bears, bringing great leadership from the blue line, and serving as the only senior (and one of only two defensemen beyond the sophomore level) on the squad. Lundin notched six goals and 13 assists in 37 games in his final season with Maine, equaling his career-high point total from his freshman season. His responsible, disciplined game also came to the forefront, as Lundin was named Hockey East’s most sportsmanlike player this past season.

A strong all-around defenseman who does have some offensive upside, Lundin will make the jump to the professional ranks next season. Should he warrant a contract from the Lightning, he will likely start out his professional career with Johnstown.

18. (nr) Dane Crowley, D – Everett Silvertips (WHL)
Height: 6’3; Weight: 208 lbs., DOB: 01/22/1987
Acquired: 6th round, 168th overall, 2006

The rugged Winnipeg-born blueliner was having a strong third season in the WHL with the mid-pack Swift Current Broncos, before being sent to the penthouse at the trade deadline, moving from the Broncos to the best junior team in the country, the Everett Silvertips. In spite of the great depth in Everett, and testament to Crowley’s game, his minutes have not been reduced a bit as a result of his move from Swift Current.

He has continued to play a mean game in his own zone, while showcasing good mobility and offensive awareness in the opposition’s end. Between Swift Current and Everett, Crowley has posted a very solid eight goals, 28 assists through 62 games, along with 124 penalty minutes.

19. (nr) Dmitri Kazionov, C – Ak Bars Kazan (Russia)
Height: 6’2; Weight: 194 lbs., DOB: 05/13/1984
Acquired: 4th round, 100th overall, 2002

The elder of the Kazionov brothers in the Lightning system has had a very modest season with Russian SuperLeague powerhouse Ak Bars Kazan. The quick-skating pivot posted a solid 10 goals and 11 assists in 48 games for Kazan, which was helped by a short stint centering the top line in the absence of former Boston Bruins prospect Sergei Zinovjev, due to injury.

Showcasing excellent skating ability, along with a good skill set and a willingness to play physical at times, Kazionov could be a solid professional player in North America, should he be lured across the Atlantic.

20. (nr) Denis Kazionov, LW – Tver (Russia)
Height: 6’2; Weight: 191 lbs., DOB: 12/08/1987
Acquired: 7th round, 198th overall, 2006

The Lightning’s final selection in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft grabs the final spot on this spring’s list. Unlike his elder brother, Denis Kazionov will get by more on his defensive game rather than through scoring goals. The younger Kazionov gained a bit of recognition in North America late last season, when he was one of the more productive players for the Russian entry in the Canada/Russia Challenge.

At only 19, Kazionov has already played in 50 games in Russia‘s top league, seeing fourth-line duty with MVD Tver. This past season, he picked up two goals and one assist in 24 games. A developing shutdown forward with a great work ethic, Kazionov still has plenty of time to add an offensive dimension to his repertoire while in the Lightning system.

Off the list:

(9)  Nick Tarnasky, C – graduated
(12)  Doug O’Brien, D – traded to Anaheim
(15) Darren Reid, RW – traded to Philadelphia
(16) Gerald Coleman, G – traded to Anaheim
(20) Adam Henrich, LW – still can’t bridge the gap to the AHL

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