Brett Connolly headlines offensively top-heavy group for Tampa Bay Lightning

By John Henry Schroeder
Photo: Richard Panik is among several players in the Lightning’s system who possesses explosive offensive potential. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

Tampa Bay boasts few forwards with credible top-six potential, despite several players having nice seasons for the Admirals in the AHL, including James Wright, Johan Harju and Blair Jones. Defense remains a weakness for the system, with a lack of any players with true two-way ability to their game.

1. (1) Brett Connolly, C, 8.0C
Acquired: 1st round, 6th overall, 2010

Connolly, the default top prospect since his selection sixth overall in 2010, has answered many questions this season, posting an impressive 35 goals and 21 assists through 44 games. Connolly’s goal total is good for eighth in the WHL despite missing a month to play in the World Junior Championships. Perhaps billed more as a playmaker than a goal scorer, Connolly’s scoring ability has really been on exhibit since his return to Prince George. In 2011, the young center has 13 goals in 13 games, including a current five game goal scoring streak.

While playing for team Canada, Connolly registered three assists in tournament, playing more of a depth role on a very talented silver medal squad. He did not see any time on the powerplay, making it difficult to rack up too many points. Looking forward, expect the 18-year-old to continue to raise his level of play as he attempts to carry Prince George back towards the top half of the WHL‘s Western Conference.

2. (2) Carter Ashton, RW, 7.5C
Acquired: 1st round, 29th overall, 2009

The imposing right-wing, Ashton has now moved onto his third WHL in the last two seasons. The move has proved fortuitous, as since his trade, Ashton has compiled six goals and 15 assists in just 15 games with the Tri-City Americans. The combination of an appearance in the World Juniors for Team Canada in concert with his new team has the young power forward scoring at clip as good as he ever has in his junior career. Playing on a line with scoring dynamos Adam Hughesman and Brendan Shinnimin, Ashton has really taken another step in his scoring.

It was also rewarding to see Ashton’s performance for Team Canada in the World Juniors. Despite being relegated to a depth role, similar to Brett Connolly, Ashton managed to tally a goal and two assists during his time with Team Canada. Ashton was not someone expected to make the talented Canadian squad, so it was a nice reward for his hard work through the beginning of this season.

3. (5) Richard Panik, RW, 7.5C
Acquired: 2nd round, 52nd overall, 2009

Like Carter Ashton, Panik is now on his third junior team of the past two seasons. Unlike Ashton, Panik’s moves may be for the wrong reasons. The tantalizingly talented Slovak is commonly pegged for his inconsistency, but when he is playing, he is as good as anyone in the Lightning system. Just note the start of this season when Panik registered 17 points in a nine game stretch. To this point he has totaled 26 goals, and 29 assists for the season, productive by almost all measures, however it is the glimpses he gives of truly elite production that make his current total seem inadequate.

Panik has very much settled into his role with the Guelph Storm, not yet going off on any remarkable scoring tears, but not really suffering through any droughts either. The Storm are in eight place in the OHL‘s Western Conference, so Panik and his team have some work to do if he wants to show his wares in the playoffs this season. Regardless, after two full seasons of North American juniors, the Lightning brass may finally be ready to see if Panik will take his game to the next level and give him a tryout with the Admirals.

4. (4) Dana Tyrell, C, 7.0B
Acquired: 2nd round, 47th overall, 2007

The 21-year-old, energetic Tyrell stuck with the Lightning right out of camp this season and has been quite effective in his energy role on either the third or fourth line. Tyrell has notched five goals and seven assists on the season while dressing for 54 games. His consistency and work ethic have been the most impressive aspects of his game, but he has not yet found the scoring touch. He seems uniquely adapted to playing a third-line center role on a good team. As a great skater, he will always be responsible on the back-check and has the potential to chip in offensively.

It has been nice to see Tyrell get the chance to stick in the NHL this season, but there are certainly questions on how much higher the ceiling goes. Tyrell probably will never be a good enough scorer to maintain a role in the top six forwards, but he is certainly capable of maintaining a role on the third line. As the Lightning currently deal with a rash of injuries, it will be interesting to see if Tyrell can parlay his increased ice time into more production on the score sheet.

5. (11) Johan Harju, RW, 7.0B
Acquired: 6th round, 167th overall, 2007

Harju, recently recalled to the Lightning because of injuries, has recorded two points in his nine games with the NHL club. In his first season of North American hockey, the big, toolsy, Swedish export has been impressive, including a selection as an AHL All-Star for the Admirals. The leading goal scorer on the AHL‘s most prolific offense, Harju has totaled 18 goals, and 17 assists in his 40 games with the Admirals. At 24 years of age, Harju was expected to show some polish coming to America after several years of professional hockey in Europe, and he has not disappointed. Not the most explosive of skaters, Harju has not been afraid to use his big frame and deft hands to become one of the better goal-scoring talents within the Lightning system.

6. (9) James Wright, C, 6.5B
Acquired: 4th round, 117th overall, 2008

For someone that made Lightning out of camp in 2009-10, you would think a season in the AHL would be somewhat of a regression, but it has been anything but for youngster James Wright. The lanky centerman has added significant bulk and offense to his game this year playing top line minutes, as well as playing on the powerplay for the Admirals. Wright was relegated essentially to a depth role when he played for the Lightning, and management sent him for a year of seasoning in hopes that he might more fully develop.

Wright was productive this year in the early going, and is still fourth on the team in points with 11 goals and 25 assists in 54 games played. It has been somewhat al
arming the wall Wright has hit as of late however, with only three assists in his last eleven games played. Also, for someone touted as a two-way player, Wright is a team worst minus-seven on the season. Wright is someone whose game ultimately will compare quite favorably with Dana Tyrell. They will look quite different stylistically, but provide reliable, dedicated two-way play, with limited offensive upside at the NHL level.

7. (3) Dustin Tokarski, G, 7.0C
Acquired: 5th round, 122nd overall, 2008

Tokarski, the default number one goaltender in the system coming into this year, struggled mightily in the early going and lost his starting job with the Admirals to newcomer Cedrick Desjardins. Tokarski’s goals-against-average had regressed significantly until strong months in both January and to this point in February moved Tokarksi’s average back to a 2.62. His save percentage has also lagged behind the sterling .915 he posted in 2009-10, but again, he has played better as of late and seemingly regained the Admirals starting job.

Optimistically, it could be said it took Tokarski a long time to adjust to the Admirals new system, which by all accounts is much more wide open than in years past. As a smaller, aggressive goaltender, being unable to anticipate the play is hard to recover from. Look for Tokarski’s numbers to continue to improve as he settles down this spring.

8. (7) Brock Beukeboom, D, 7.0C
Acquired: 3rd round, 63rd overall, 2010

The Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds have been mired in last place all season, which has been especially trying on young captain Brock Beukeboom. As one of the few defensemen in the Lightning system that offer promise of two-way potential, it has been quite disappointing to see Beukeboom register only a single goal and just seven assists on the year. But, as a defenseman, Beukeboom’s point totals are more dependent on the team around him than any other position.

More than any other defenseman in the system, Beukeboom possesses NHL tools, including a very solid 6’2 frame. He also may have the hardest shot of any Lightning defensive prospect. Due to the struggles this season, look for the Lightning to leave Beukeboom in juniors next year, hopefully for a successful season before he makes the jump to the minor-league level.

9. (NR) Cedrick Desjardins, G, 7.0C
Acquired: trade with Montreal Canadiens

Desjardins has been superb in two games with the Lightning posting a 1.00 goals-against-average and .968 save percentage. All the more impressive considering he has worked hus way from backup to starter for the Admirals this season. While not spectacular this season, and regressing somewhat from his elite .919 save percentage in 2009-10, Desjardins has been a nice pickup for the Admirals. Very consistent from game to game, Desjardins may not be the more dazzling of the two AHL goaltenders, but when all is said and done, he may be the more productive.

It is unfortunate that Desjardins recently suffered a right shoulder injury on January 16th that has kept him out for the past month, but he is expected to return soon and be back at full strength.

10. (10) Alex Killorn, C, 7.0C
Acquired: 3rd round, 77th overall, 2007

The slick-handling Killorn has become the go-to guy for a struggling Harvard Crimson this season. Killorn is one of the lone bright spots for the 5-18-1 Crimson. With 10 goals and 11 assists, the junior from Nova Scotia leads the team in goals, assists and points. Killorn plays a crafty game, and likes to try and take the puck from end to end as much as possible, particularly on the powerplay. He is particularly effective in wide rinks because he prefers to move laterally as opposed to vertically.

While not particularly prone to being found in high traffic areas, Killorn will go there to make a play, as evidenced by his productivity. It has been a difficult year for his team, but the Lightning’s top NCAA prospect has really come into his own as a scorer this season, putting himself in a position to be a valuable player on a rebuilt Crimson next season.

11. (16) Radko Gudas, D, 7.0C
Acquired: 3rd round, 66th overall, 2010

Like Beukeboom, Gudas is a tough, stocky defenseman with professional bloodlines. He really burst onto the scene this year with a strong training camp and has continued his strong play in his first season of AHL hockey. This season has seen the young Czech chip in more offense than expected with four goals and ten assists through 50 games this season. Even more impressive, the 20-year-old defenseman leads all members of the Admirals blue line at plus-17 for season, good for third on the team.

Gudas has also lived up to his reputation as a pugilist, recording ten major penalties to this point in the year. Despite his smaller stature, Gudas has consistently demonstrated his willingness to play a mean, nasty style. He has emerged as one of the more complete defensemen in the Lightning system. His offense, while encouraging, remains the area he needs most improvement to continue to raise his stock within the system.

12. (14) Mark Barberio, D, 7.0C
Acquired: 6th round, 152nd overall, 2008

The second youngest defenseman on the Admirals behind Gudas, Barberio has lived up to his billing as a slick offensive defenseman. As is typical of young, aggressive defensemen, there have been some ups and downs to Barberio’s season. However, the returns have been more positive than negative as Barberio has managed to record five goals and 13 assists through 42 games this season. Playing in his first season of professional hockey, Barberio had a fantastic month of December, tallying eight points in ten games, but struggled to only two points in ten January games.

The youngster is plus-three on the season, a positive sign for a young, offensive-minded player. It has been somewhat settling for Barberio to receive the bulk of his minutes on the ice with towering, reliable Vladimir Mihalik. The two have combined to provide a nice offense-defense pairing for the Admirals this season.

13. (12) Blair Jones, C, 6.5C
Acquired: 4th round, 102nd overall, 2005

After having a year to forget in 2009-10, Blair Jones came roaring out of the gate this season and has settled into a nice scoring groove for the Admirals this season. Through 41 games, Jones has 16 goals and 24 assists, and is second on the team in total points. Jones, known for his consistent, if somewhat unspectacular play has played his best hockey this year since his junior days with the Moose Jaw Warriors. At 24 years of age, it is getting to a now or never point for Jones.

While his breakout is encouraging, it is unlikely Jones figures in the organization’s plans as anything more than a depth center at this point. He played nine games in late October and November, mostly with the fourth line, but did register a goal and an assist in nine games. While Jones has a
dded some bulk since his early professional days, this probably is better suited to a checking role than it is to him ever becoming a top six forward. Nonetheless, Jones has been a nice bright spot for a rejuvenated Admirals team this year. His upside is that of a third-line center with positive offensive contributions.

14. (NR) Kevin Quick, D, 7.0C
Acquired: 3rd round, 78th overall, 2006

Perhaps the most inconsistent player in Norfolk, Kevin Quick has shown more bad than good as of late and has been dressed for only one game thus far in February. He has recorded only two assists since December 18th. Despite this, he is still having his most productive season with the Admirals thanks to a strong start to the year. Still just 22 years of age, Quick is touted by some as the best fit for Lightning head coach Guy Boucher’s system.

The Admirals have showed faith in Quick when dressed, letting him see his share of time on the powerplay, yet given his recent struggles the constant criticisms of his work ethic and focus that have dogged his career seem more relevant than ever. Quick may have as a high an upside as any defenseman in the system, but has also been one of the most frustrating prospects to this point in his career.

15. (8) Vladimir Mihalik, D, 6.5C
Acquired: 1st round, 30th overall, 2005

The largest prospect in the Lightning system, defenseman Vladimir Mihalik remains a project and is trending towards becoming a first-round bust should he fail to show any significant improvement over the next year or two. Mihalik has appeared to regress somewhat this year offensively, recording only five assists to this point in the season.

On a somewhat positive note, Mihalik has amassed 76 penalty minutes to this point in the season, his most since recording 91 for the Prince George Cougars all the way back in 2006-07. Seeing as he has not shown the requisite improvement in other areas of his game, it has allowed him to remain useful becoming a more intimidating player. He has been effective in his own zone, but still lacks the mobility to be anything more than an enforcer at the next level at this point.

16. (13) Jaroslav Janus, G, 6.5C
Acquired: 6th round, 162nd overall, 2009

The acquisition of Cedrick Desjardins made Janus the loser in the minor league goalie shuffle, leaving Janus with the Everblades of the ECHL to start the season. Janus has played adequately in ECHL, posting a .910 save percentage to go with a 3.08 goals-against-average. He has been outplayed in Florida by fellow goaltender Bobby Goepfert. Janus recently returned to Norfolk to take the place of the injured Desjardins. He did not play well enough to maintain a spot with the Admirals and has been returned to the Everbaldes, where he promptly recorded a 38-save, 4-2 win over the Cincinnati Cyclones. The goaltenders ahead of Janus in the system are of roughly equivalent ages, so it will take some superior play or injuries if Janus is to make any headway in the system in the next couple of seasons.

17. (NR) Geoff Schemitsch, D, 6.5C
Acquired: 4th round, 96th overall, 2010

Schemitsch has developed a reputation as being somewhat of a slick passer, registering one goal and 19 assists through 45 games this season with the Owen Sound Attack. Possessing somewhat of a wiry, slim frame, especially for a defenseman, Schemitsch has been getting by on good skating, good positioning, and great hands for a blue-liner.

While it has been somewhat disappointing to see his offensive numbers regress from where they were last season, Schemitsch has struggled through a few minor injuries this season, which may prove to be his weakness down the line. This past week Schemitsch broke his arm and is listed as out for six-to-eight weeks. Hopefully Schemistch will rebound to full health and be poised for a bounce-back year next season with the Attack.

18. (15) Mitch Fadden, C, 7.0D
Acquired: 4th round, 107th overall, 2007

One of the more interesting stories this season amongst the Lightning prospects, Fadden surprisingly failed to make the Admirals out of camp and was sent down to the ECHL where he responded by absolutely tearing through the league with 15 goals and 36 assists through 37 games. Fadden was leading the league in scoring when doctors discovered a blood clot in his thigh that has threatened to end his season.

Recent reports from Lightning GM Steve Yzerman have indicated that Fadden may not be out for the season, and may rejoin the Everblades or the Admirals for a post-season run. Given his limited success in 2009-10 with the Admirals, Fadden is a difficult prospect to place. It is quite clear he has intriguing offensive upside, but it will remain to be seen whether he can put everything together once he gets a clean bill of health.

19. (NR) Brendan O’Donnell, C, 6.5D
Acquired: 6th round, 156th overall, 2010

O’Donnell has transitioned smoothing from the Manitoba League to the British Columbia Junior Hockey League. Through 55 games, the North Dakota commitment has registered 25 goals and 42 assists for the Penticton Vees, good for 14th in scoring in the BCHL. At 6’1 and 195 pounds, O’Donnell looks to be a good two-way center for the Sioux, and the type of underrated player that could develop into a useful piece for the Lightning down the road.

O’Donnell represented Canada West at the 2010 World Junior A Challenge for the second season in a row and registered two assists in five games played.

20 (NR) James Mullin, C, 6.5D
Acquired: 4th round, 118th overall, 2010

The Miami Redhawks commitment has had a solid season as the leading scorer for the Fargo Force of the USHL. In just 35 games, Mullin has 15 goals and 26 assists for 41 points. His point total is good for 9th in the USHL. Mullin also represented the Gold Medal winning USA team at the 2010 World Junior A Challenge and was quite impressive in the process. The young center recorded six goals during the tournament, to lead all players, and scored the go-ahead goal to lead USA over Canada East in the gold-medal game. Mullin is significantly smaller than fellow Junior A prospect Brendan O’Donnell and may be better suited for the wing at the college level. He will be expected to have a quick learning curve in the veteran, talented CCHA next season.