Lightning Top 20 prospects, Spring 2009

By John Jaeckel

Top 20 at a glance

1. Steven Stamkos, C – 8.0B
2. Matt Smaby, D — 6.5B
3. Steve Downie, C — 7C
4. Karri Ramo, G – 7.0C
5. Dana Tyrell, C – 7.0C
6. Ty Wishart, D – 7C
7. Dustin Tokarski, G – 7.0C
8. Paul Szczechura, C – 6.5B
9. Vladimir Mihalik, D – 7.0C
10. Mitch Fadden, C – 7.0C
11. Radek Smolenak, LW – 6.5B
12. Johan Harju, LW – 6.5C
13. Luca Cunti, LW – 7D
14. Alex Killorn, C – 7.0D
15. Blair Jones, C – 6.5C
16. Riku Helenius, G — 7.0D
17. Kevin Quick, D – 7.0D
18. Justin Keller, LW – 6.5C
19.  Mark Barberio, D – 6.5C
20.  Scott Jackson, D – 6.5D

1. Steven Stamkos, C – 8.0B

6’1, 196 lbs.
Born:  02/07/1990
Acquired: 1st round, 2008

The silver lining to the Lightning’s low finishes in the standings were the opportunity to both draft and immediately utilize Steve Stamkos. While he has yet to make a significant impact at the NHL level, he clearly belongs with the big boys already. In a recent home loss to Chicago (Feb. 17), Stamkos registered a natural hat trick, scoring all of the Lightning’s goals against a recently red-hot Cristobal Huet. Stamkos is well-schooled and disciplined in all three zones, but perhaps his greatest gifts are a natural knack for finding open space and one of the best shots to come along in a very long time. His all-around skills, leadership qualities and scoring touch should make him a top player for years to come.  He will only meet the prospect criteria for a short while longer.

2. Matt Smaby, D – 6.5B

6’5, 222 lbs.
Born: 10/14/1984
Acquired: 2nd round, 2003

Smaby has been pressed into extended NHL ice time this season. Though he presently seems somewhat overmatched playing against top-six NHL forwards, Smaby shows flashes of outstanding potential. He has an ideal frame for defesne and good hockey sense, but is not an offensive weapon. He projects as a stay-at-home, physical defenseman. Due to his size and coordination issues, he struggles at times with handling faster forwards on the rush. Clearly, his experience this year indicates Smaby would benefit from spending more time in the weight room, and asserting himself more physically in front of the net. Recalled from Norfolk on December 27, he spent much of January battling a lower-body injury. He has four assists in 25 games and is -5. In 25 games with the Ads, he has two goals and four assists and is -2.

3. Steve Downie, RW — 7C
5’11, 200 lbs.
Born: 04/03/1987
Acquired: Trade, 2008 (Philadelphia)

Acquired in a November 7 trade with Philadelphia, Downie is an old-school Canadian hockey player. Solidly built, with above-average skills and all the heart one could want, Downie needs to mature a great deal on and off the ice. The second-year pro has a tendency to take dumb penalties at bad times. Downie must learn that there is a proper time and method for sending a message. Further, he has a long-standing reputation for off-ice issues with teammates. He has been productive at Norfolk this year, with eight goals and 17 assists in just 20 games. He is also +9. In 29 games with the Lightning, he has three goals and three assists and is -2. Downie is close to graduating from HF prospect status at 61 NHL games, but since he’s with Norfolk right now, there’s no telling when that will happen.

4. Karri Ramo, G – 7 C
6’2, 201 lbs.
Born: 07/01/1986
Acquired: 6th round, 2004

Ramo is one of a long line of recent Finnish goaltending prospects with tremendously high upside, who nonetheless needs to refine his game to make a lasting impact in the NHL. He can make the highlight reel save, and string a number of them together to carry his team through a period or two. He also has very good size and athleticism. Still, he can be inconsistent and his concentration will break down once he gives up a goal. In seven games (five starts) with the parent club this season, Ramo is 1-3, with a high 4.22 GAA and a .889 save percentage. However, he has seen a lot of rubber (over 30 shots per appearance). In 26 games with Norfolk (AHL) this season, Ramo is 7-14-4-0 with a 3.78 GAA and .884 save percentage.

5. Dana Tyrell, C – 7.0C
5’10, 185 lbs
Acquired: 2nd round, 2007

Tyrell was a late riser at the 2007 NHL draft, and a number of teams were intrigued by his competitiveness and commitment to the game. He is a fireplug in every sense of the word. He is small, but extremely dedicated to off-ice conditioning. He also plays the game with the great passion and is a true leader. At just 18, he made his first pro appearance, playing 11 games last spring for Norfolk, were he had a goal and five assists. Now in his fourth season at Prince George (WHL), the Airdrie, Alberta native has 19 goals and 21 assists in 30 games. He’s -22, but there are six players on his team with even worse plus/minus. The weak Prince George team is currently buried near the bottom of the standings in the WHL’s Western Conference.

6. Ty Wishart, D – 7C

6’3, 205 lbs.
Age: 20
Acquired: trade with San Jose, July 2008

Wishart has all the qualities one would look for in a two-way NHL defenseman. He has a big frame, outstanding hockey instincts and played his junior hockey in the WHL, which many consider the cradle of quality North American defenders. He was signed by San Jose (who drafted him 15th overall in 2006) in March 2007 and had a five-game appearance at Worcester (AHL). In 2007-08, he averaged nearly a point a game, splitting the season between Prince George and Moose Jaw in the WHL. Wishart has spent the bulk of this, his rookie pro season at Norfolk, with just a goal and three assists in 47 games. He is, however, a +1, which is good on the team. The Lightning recalled him on February 17. In the five games since then, has an assist and is even.

7. Dustin Tokarski, G – 7C

5’11, 185 lbs.
Born:  09/16/1989
Acquired: 5th round, 2008

Perhaps the fastest-rising star in the Bolts system is Spokane Chiefs netminder Dustin Tokarski. His diminutive stature is perhaps the most likely reason he was taken in the fifth round in last summer’s NHL entry draft, because with netminders, production typically doesn’t lie. Through 44 games, Tokarski leads the WHL in GAA (1.87), shutouts (six), and save percentage (.939). He is 29-13-0-2. The Saskatchewan native was chosen to represent Canada (along with Predators’ first-round draft choice, Chet Pickard) at the most recent IIHF World Junior Championships. His WJC performance was inconsistent, with solid exhibition play, but struggles in higher pressure games against the U.S. and Russia. He takes away everything at the bottom of the net, but he has been criticized for going down a bit too early.

8. Paul Szczechura, C – 6.5B

5’11, 190 lbs.
Born: 11/30/1985
Acquired: free agent, April 2008

Szczechura is a player who will give his all in all three zones of play every night, but is limited by marginal size and skating ability. Still, his effort and production earned him a December 2 recall to the Lightning, where he stayed until a January 13 lower-body injury landed him on the IR. Through 18 games with Tampa Bay, he had two goals, two assists and was even.

Prior to his recall, he was averaging nearly a point per game with the Admirals, with 11 goals and 17 assists in 28 games. He was also a very strong +9. The road to the NHL is littered with more highly-touted players who choose not to work as hard as this undrafted product of Western Michigan University, while players like Szczechura often find a way to build solid pro careers.

9. Vladimir Mihalik, D – 7.0C

6’7, 222 lbs.
Born: 01/29/1987
Acquired: 1st round, 2005

Due mostly to extensive injuries on the Lightning blueline, Mihalik has been given minutes at the NHL level this season. At 6’7, he’s aggressive and can be tough to play against. Though with a somewhat limited offensive game, Mihalik will never be confused with fellow Slovak Zdeno Chara. Mihalik made an early commitment to developing his game in North America, joining Red Deer (WHL) in his draft year. Recalled from Norfolk twice in January, he has appeared in seven games with the Lightning this year, with two assists and a -2 rating. In 43 games at Norfolk, he has two goals, nine assists and is -2 with 51 penalty minutes. In Norfolk last year, Mihalik had a goal and 15 assists, was +9 in 68 games.

10. Mitch Fadden, C – 7.0C

6’0, 175 pounds
Born: 04/03/1988
Acquired: 4th round, 2007

With outstanding hands and above-average skating ability, Fadden has been an offensive machine in the WHL. As an overage junior this year, he started the season with Lethbridge, but was dealt to high-powered Tri-City on November 5. He has appeared in a total of 54 games this season with both clubs, netting 32 goals and 36 assists, including scoring four goals in a 7-1 victory over Seattle on February 8. Fadden has the requisite talent, despite being overlooked in the 2006 draft, however, he has developed a reputation for inconsistent effort and commitment to physical play. This makes it imperative that Fadden fill out his 175-pound frame, mature and a commit to giving complete effort in all situations.

11. Radek Smolenak, LW – 6.5B
6’3, 210 lbs.
Born 12/03/1986
Acquired: 3rd round, 2005

Big Czech winger Smolenak has elevated his profile within the Lightning prospect pool through consistently solid production and an aggressive, physical edge to his game.  Coming off a respectable 2007-08 season with the Admirals, Smolenak has improved this season with 16 goals and 21 assists in 49 games. His plus/minus has improved to +8 from -4 last season. And he has 130 penalty minutes this season, due in part to a willingness to drop the gloves when necessary. Evidence of Smolenak’s well-rounded game are two Gordie Howe hat tricks this season. The 22-year-old appeared in six games with the Bolts during a 12-day call-up in December, registering one assist and 10 penalty minutes. The talent has always been there, but now the effort is matching it.

12. Johan Harju, LW – 6.5C

6’3, 210 lbs.
Born: 05/15/1986
Acquired: 6th round, 2007

Harju is perhaps the true sleeper of the Lightning talent pipeline, drawing comparisons to fellow Swedes Fredrik Modin and Johan Franzen for his size, skill and physical style of play. Harju is more a scorer than a passer. He is strong on the puck and excels at creating chances down low. Through 53 games with Lulea in the Swedish Elite League, he has 26 goals and 21 assists. His statistics with Lulea have improved measurably over each of the last four seasons. His skating is only average, but has improved, and must continue to do so in order for Harju to effectively adapt to the higher-paced transitional game of the NHL.

13. Luca Cunti, LW – 7 D
6’0, 209 pounds
Born: 07/04/1989
Acquired: 3rd round, 2007

Many observers felt this smooth-skating Swiss winger would take to the wide-open QMJHL like a fish to water, after scoring 34 points in 32 games last season with the USHL Chicago Steel. Cunti has had an up and down first season at Rimouski with 36 points (13 goals and 23 assists) in 50 games. He has been maddeningly inconsistent for the second-place Oceanic, scoring a hat trick in a November 30 win over St. John, then going through long stretches without scoring. Some of his scoring trouble might be attributed to playing on the club’s third line with younger players (Patrick DesLisle-Houde and Felix Lefrancois). However, a player with elite skill and scoring credential should be able to pick up his linemates. Cunti has added significant weight to his frame since his draft year and appears to have matured physically. However, he needs to work harder and more consistently to achieve his potential.

14. Alex Killorn, C – 7.0D

6’1, 195 lbs.
Born: 09/14/1989
Acquired: 3rd round, 2007

After concluding an outstanding prep career at Deerfield, Montreal native Killorn is in his freshman season at Harvard (ECAC), where he is currently fifth on the team in scoring with six goals and seven assists in 26 games. An all-around athlete, Killorn has good hockey sense and a solid skill package. And Killorn does not shy from the physical aspect of the game, though he could add some more weight to his frame. He played in a variety of Quebec amateur leagues and international competition before attending Deerfield. He is highly regarded by the Lightning and should optimize his development through continued play at Harvard.

15. Blair Jones, C – 6.5C

6’3, 210 lbs.
Born: 09/27/1986
Acquired: 4th round, 2005

After a four-game stint with the Lightning last season, and 20 games the year before that, Jones has spent the entirety of the current season with the Admirals. That’s not progress for the third-year pro, in the last year of his contract. A solid scorer his last year of junior hockey, Jones has been only adequate in the pros. He is big and instinctive with solid physical tools. The Saskatchewan native has picked up his game slightly since last season, though, now with 11 goals and 27 assists in 57 games. He is -10, however, and must continue to work hard to achieve his potential.

16. Riku Helenius, G – 7D
6’3, 202 lbs.
Born: 03/01/1988
Acquired: 1st round, 2006

Helenius has enjoyed a virtual tour of the southeast United States this season, seeing playing time in Augusta and Mississippi (ECHL), Norfolk (AHL) and a brief appearance with the Lightning. He also had some very big ups and downs, with some serious confidence issues during his time in Augusta, according to both player and coach.  And all of it might not even have occurred if the Lightning had sent him back to junior this year, as was discussed, according to Augusta coach John Marks.

Clearly, Helenius’ best stretch of play this season has been at the AHL level. In nine games with the Admirals, he is 4-4-0-1 with a 2.18 GAA and an outstanding .938 save percentage. He has great size and extensive experience in the pressure cooker of IIHF World Junior competition, backstopping strong Finland squads in recent years. He has a positive attitude and is a good team player, but has serious issues with technique, most notably his glove hand. Coach Marks complained that Helenius bats at the puck with his glove instead of catching it. It’s something the netminder admitted working with Lightning goalie coach Cap Raeder on this year, but joked, "I don’t want to give too much information to other teams."

Helenius needs to keep his glove more like catching a baseball, or pesapallo, as they call a similar game in Finland that he played as a child.  He needs to avoid stricking the pick like a tennis ball, a game he said he’s brutal at.

Helenius will have to work hard to maintain a place in the Lightning’s goalie depth chart with Tokarski coming on.

17. Kevin Quick, D – 7.0D

6’0, 190 lbs.
Acquired: 3rd round, 2006

Serious error in judgment or ongoing, destructive character flaw? It remains to be seen which was the cause of a criminal incident that resulted in Kevin Quick’s dismissal from the University of Michigan hockey team last season.  What remains without question is the basic skill Quick possesses. He is mobile, instinctive and, at age 20, did not look out of place during a December call-up with the Lightning. Though he did not score in four games, he saw time on the power play and was +1.

Quick began the year in Augusta, with the ill-fated ECHL franchise. Through 29 games at Norfolk, he has just five assists, but is +7.  Last year, Quick was placed in a diversion program that will expunge his criminal record if he stays out of legal issues for 12 months. However, in order to resurrect his career and keep it on track, he must continually demonstrate that he has learned from his mistake. He must also deal with consistency issues (noted by Marks in Augusta) and maintain a high level of play all the time.

18. Justin Keller, LW – 6.5C

5’11, 185 lbs.
Born: 03/04/1986
Acquired: 8th round, 2004

Though his stature and offensive skill has drawn a broad comparison to current Lightning star Martin St. Louis, perhaps a more accurate role model for Keller is former Lightning center Eric Perrin. Keller has the skill to dominate at lower levels, but he has yet to fully adapt to the grind of the pro game. As he lacks elite skill in terms of pro hockey, he has to continue to work hard, both on and off the ice, to make an impact.  He is having a solid season with Norfolk, with 11 goals and 11 assists and a +3 rating.

19. Mark Barberio, D – 6.5C

6’1, 200 lbs.
Born: 03/23/1990
Acquired: 6th round 2008

Perhaps another late-round steal for the Lightning, Barberio is an outstanding two-way defender for Moncton (QMJHL). Thus far this season, he has 13 goals and 25 assists in 58 games and is +11. Barberio’s offensive game is quite polished. He has excellent instincts, a hard point shot and rarely fails to make a good first pass out of the defensive zone. Yet he was also named the Outstanding Defensive Defenseman of the Wildcats last season. Barberio has good leadership qualities, serving as an alternate captain for the Wildcats. He also has good international experience, playing on Canada’s entry in the 2007 ADT Canada-Russia Challenge.

20. Scott Jackson, D – 6.5D

6’4, 215 lbs.
Born: 02/05/1987
Acquired: free agent, July 2008

Jackson is essentially a stay-at-home defender who keeps the game simple. As such, he will rarely jump out of highlight reels. A former second-round selection of St. Louis (unsigned), he inked an entry-level contract with the Bolts as a free agent in the summer of 2008. Coming off a solid career with Seattle in the WHL, Jackson has split time this season between three games at Mississippi (ECHL) and 34 games with Norfolk, where he has four assists and is -1. 

Missing the cut

Chris Lawrence, F

Lawrence has a lot of talent, it’s his drive that must be constantly examined.  The second-year pro was sent down to Augusta early in the year, and Marks sat him down for a heart to heart and posed the question of whether he really wanted to be a hockey player.  Lawrence had heard the sentiment before and seemed to respond to it at the time, telling Hockey’s Future shortly afterward, "You just got to look in the mirror and figure out who you are and how you want to respond.  It’s just up to me to put forth the effort and get back to being the player I can be."

But Lawrence has scored just five points in 29 games for Norfolk this season. He has also seen time with the ECHL Mississippi Sea Wolves.

Holly Gunning contributed to this article.