Traditionally struggling to develop their own players, recent star prospects and new management has brought a renewed energy to the Tampa Bay Lightning system. The current collection of youngsters brings with them a lot of promise but also many question marks. The organization has continued to stockpile talent at center but lacks depth on the wings. There was a concerted effort in the 2010 draft to add depth to the blue line as the Lightning used four consecutive picks in the third and fourth round on defenseman.
Left wing traditionally has been, and continues to be the weakest position in the Lightning’s organization. Their highest rated prospect, Alex Hutchings, has recently been sent down to the ECHL to play with the Everblades. Much like Mitch Fadden, Hutchings is a smaller, speedy player that was a prolific scorer in juniors. It remains to be seen if he can make an impression in Norfolk when he gets his next chance.
The best hope for the position is in a couple of Europeans, Johan Harju and Juraj Simek. Some expected the Harju might stick with the Lightning out of camp, but he has begun the season with Norfolk where he has four points through three games. Harju is gifted offensively and possesses a big frame (6’3 205 pounds). He had some success in the Swedish elite league, and is definitely a player to watch as he adapts to the North American style. Simek, a Slovakian, tied for second on the Admirals last season with 21 goals, despite being the second youngest forward on the roster. Both of these players are intriguing for their offensive upside. However, it remains to be seen whether they will develop more complete games this year.
Harvard Junior Alex Killorn, KHL player Denis Kazionov, and current Admiral Stefano Giliati figure to add nothing more than depth at this point. Killorn is tiny, weighing in at only 152 pounds. He has been fairly productive with Harvard, but will have to bulk up more if he wishes to enjoy any success in the professional ranks. Kazionov has not been productive at any of his stops in Europe and is not expected to come to North America any time soon. Giliati, a scrappy, gritty type player, may bounce back and forth between the ECHL and the AHL, but does not project to be anything other than a minor league role player.
The Lightning corps of centers has a lot of potential, but also a lot of uncertainty. No player better exemplifies this than current top prospect Brett Connolly. Connolly was somewhat of a mystery heading into last year’s draft as he lost most of the 2009-10 season to injury. However, if Connolly remains healthy and continues to progress he will certainly fit into the Lightning’s top six forward group in the future. Connolly is best known for his advanced hockey sense which has given him the reputation as both a dangerous goal-scorer and playmaker. Connolly has been sent back to his junior team, the Prince George Cougars, to continue his development this year.
James Wright, the 20-year-old who surprised everyone last year by making the Lightning out of training camp, will be in Norfolk this year. This could be a big opportunity for Wright to grow offensively and become more than the third-liner he was last year at the NHL level. Joining Wright in Norfolk is Blair Jones, who regressed somewhat last season. At age 23, time is running out for Jones, as younger players pass by him in the system. At this point, Jones may never become more than an injury fill-in one of the Lightning’s checking lines.
The Lightning’s two centers from the 2007 draft have gone in different directions. Dana Tyrell, a second round pick, made some big strides last year in his first full season of AHL hockey and made the Lightning out of camp this year. Tyrell, 21, has been a healthy scratch twice, but has spent some time on the fourth line, playing wing for veteran Adam Hall. Mitch Fadden, a dynamic scorer in junior, was expected by many to take a big jump this year with Norfolk. However, Fadden failed to make the team and has begun the season with the Florida Everblades of the ECHL. Fadden possesses the kind of offensive skills that make him interesting to the organization, even if he has failed to put everything together at the professional level.
Brendan O’Donnell, a 2010 sixth round draft pick, will be playing for Penticton in the BCHL this year. This should be a telling season for a player who had great success in a younger, less competitive MJHL last season.
This is a position with a lot of uncertainty beyond stud prospect Carter Ashton. Ashton is the wing with the best chance to become a top six forward with the Lightning down the line. Ashton impressed Lightning brass during this year’s training camp but was again returned to junior for his final year of eligibility. He is expected to continue his development as a big body forward with great all around abilities.
Richard Panik, a center in last year’s rankings, has been moved to the right wing, which should allow him a little more freedom offensively. Panik has been traditionally good but not great in juniors, although things appear to have finally clicked in North America for this Slovakian export. Through 10 games with the Belleville Bulls of the OHL, Panik has 10 goals and seven assists, good for fourth in the league in points.
Much was expected of Martin Karsums after he came over from the Boston Bruins in the Mark Recchi trade, but after an up and down first half of the season with the Admirals, Karsums returned to Europe to finish the season in the KHL. He has gotten off to a good start this season with the Riga Dynamo, but it remains to be seen if this talented scorer will return to North America at some point. He definitely has the potential to become a useful depth scorer for the Lightning.
Alex Berry, Matt Marshall and James Mullin provide the Lightning some depth at this position. Berry provides a physical edge to his game, but he has not shown any consistent success in the minors. Matt Marshall has been a huge disappointment to this point with the Vermont Catamounts. It is important that he be allowed to take on a greater role offensively this year, his junior season. Mullin was impressive playing for the legendary Shattuck St. Mary’s high school program. He has committed to play at up and coming college powerhouse Miami, but will take a year to develop his game in the USHL.
The Lightning system is deep with large imposing defensemen, but does not have many good, puck-moving options at the back end. The focus upon the backend in this year’s draft could pay dividends in the near future. Some of the youngsters from this year’s class have the ability to provide solid minutes for the club down the road.
Ty Wishart, the top prospect on the blue line, is one of the few Lightning prospects who offers the potential of a complete two-way game. Wishart made huge strides offensively in his second year with the Admirals. Combining a strong shot and good vision, the 22-year-old has seen his junior success in the WHL finally translate to the professional ranks. Wishart has a big frame and skates well for his size. He is probably NHL ready this season, but the organization would prefer to see him get more minutes in the AHL given the logjam on Tampa Bay’s current depth chart.
Brock Beukeboom, Radko Gudas and Adam Janosik were all taken within nine picks of each other during the third round of the 2010 entry draft. Geoffrey Schemitsch was taken with the Lightning’s first pick in the fourth round. Beukeboom, son of former NHLer Jeff Beukeboom, is best of the group. He is one of the few prospects that have shown the promise of a two-way game. With good offensive instincts and solid size, he still needs some experience to develop better defensive instincts in his own zone. Gudas plays a gritty style, whether it is delivering a big hit, battling in the corners, or taking on a combatant. At this point in his career Janosik is purely an offensive defenseman. He lacks the strength to be effective in his own zone, something that has been somewhat covered up playing in the smaller, quicker QMJHL. Schemitsch, known for his slick passing and his smarts, will also need to work on his strength before making the jump to professional hockey.
Scott Jackson and Vladimir Mihalik, both playing for the Admirals this season, bring height and weight to the system. They are very similar players, long reach and physical in their own zone, but poor skaters and not great at moving the puck. Mihalik has always been considered project and it is too soon to write him off as a bust at this point. Jackson has less upside than Mihalik, and will likely be not much more than a career minor leaguer.
Mark Barberio and Kirill Gotovets are both offensive-type defensemen, smaller in stature. Barberio will be joining the Admirals this season coming off a 60 point season in the QMJHL. Expect Barberio to see a significant amount of time on the powerplay. He is someone that could figure into the Lightning’s plans in this capacity down the road. Gotovets, a native of Minsk, Belarus, came to North America to play high school hockey for Shattuck St. Mary’s. This year Gotovets will be playing college hockey for the Cornell Big Red in the ECAC. The tight checking, defensively stout Cornell system should be a good learning experience for the occasionally reckless Belarusian defenseman.
Kevin Quick, Teigan Zahn, Luke Witkowski and Jan Zapletal fill out the depth chart for the Lightning. Quick, billed as an offensive defenseman, has yet to truly assert himself at the AHL level. Considering the number of other players with specific roles in the system, Quick will have to increase his production if he wishes to maintain his standing within the system. He has three assists through three games this season. Zahn is an enforcer-type defenseman, known for a simple, physical style. This may translate to a position with the Admirals down the road, but he likely doesn’t factor into the Lightning’s long term plans. Zapletal has not done much since returning to Europe, unable to stick with any of the Czech elite league teams. Witkowski will return to Western Michigan this season. Drafted for his physical play, he has the potential to play a depth-enforcer type role somewhere down the line.
Goaltending is a position of depth and strength for the Lightning. They have a glut of netminders in the minors all proven more than capable. The free agent signing of Dan Ellis took away a spot from the NHL club, so all the netminders will again battle for minutes in the minors.
Dustin Tokarski handles the primary responsibilities for the Admirals. A fifth round pick in 2008, Tokarski finished last season with a strong 2.51 goals against average and a .915 save percentage. Despite his small frame, Tokarski is a true competitor in net, evidenced by his success at every level.
Cedrick Desjardins, who came over from the Hamilton Bulldogs, and Jaroslav Janus will compete for the backup duties. Desjardins, as of right now is handling the backup duties for the Admirals and recorded a shutout in his first start. Janus has been reassigned to the Everblades in the ECHL. This is not as damaging for a goalie as it is for a position player considering there are still only two players between him and the NHL club. Janus is neither big, nor quick, but succeeds by being extremely aggressive with shooters, sometimes putting him out of position.
Riku Helenius, a 2006 first round draft pick, possesses a lot of potential with his combination of speed and size. He will spend this season back in the Swedish Elite League. This is not bad for the Lightning, because it allows all their goalies to continue to receive substantial minutes. Michael Zador rounds out the system. The 6’2 Canadian has struggled with injuries but showed a flash of brilliance playing for the Canada U-18 team. Zador will return to the Oshawa Generals this season, but he has considerable work to do to leapfrog the other talent in the Lightning system.
Article was written by John-Henry Schroeder.