Brett Connolly remains top prospect in Tampa Bay prospect pool

By John Henry Schroeder
Photo: Tampa Bay General Manager Steve Yzerman took a slight risk in drafting Vladislav Namestnikov in the first round. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

Brett Connolly remains the top prospect for the Lightning for the second consecutive year, while 2011 draftees Vladislav Namestnikov, Nikita Kucherov, Nikita Nesterov, Adam Wilcox, and Ondrej Palat make their debuts. Free agent signings Tyler Johnson, Pat Nagle, and Charles Landry also debut on this list, while physical defenseman Radko Gudas earned a bump in his ranking.

1. (1) Brett Connolly, RW, 8.0C
Drafted 1st Round, 6th overall, 2010

An elite offensive talent, Brett Connolly has been on many people’s top prospects list ever since he became the first 16-year-old since Patrick Marleau to score 30 goals in a WHL season back in 2008-09. In the interim, Connolly has been very good when he’s been on the ice, but has had problems staying healthy. He played only 16 games in his draft year, 2009-10, and suffered a separated shoulder playing in the Prince George Cougars first playoff game.

On the ice, Connolly took a major step forward last season, finishing with 46 goals and 27 assists in just 59 games, cementing his place as perhaps the top goal-scorer in the Western Hockey League. His goal total placed him third in the WHL, finishing behind fellow Lightning prospect Tyler Johnson and Ryan Howse (CGY), despite playing 11 games less than either player. Connolly signed an entry-level contract with Tampa Bay on July 1st, creating speculation he could break camp with the team this year. However, despite the polish to Connolly’s offensive repertoire, injury concerns may persuade Tampa Bay to handle his career more patiently.

2. (3) Richard Panik, RW, 8.0D
Drafted 2nd Round, 52nd overall, 2009

The vexing Richard Panik spent 2010-11 splitting his time between two OHL teams, the Belleville Bulls and the Guelph Storm. He had flashes of brilliance with both teams, including a fabulous start to the season in Belleville where he potted 10 goals and seven assists in his first 10 games. Inconsistency and scoring droughts limited Panik to 27 goals and 29 assists on the season, and he was not much of a factor in the Storm’s brief dip into the OHL playoffs.

High expectations will continue to follow Panik, whose highlight reel goals, and scoring bursts rival those of any prospect. His performance at the 2011 World Juniors, seven goals in six games, shows he has the ability to compete at the highest stage. An entry-level contract, signed in May, puts professional hockey into his immediate future, although it is probable he will start the season with the Admirals in the AHL.

3. (NR) Vladislav Namestnikov, C, 7.5C
Drafted 1st Round, 27th overall, 2011

The Lightning’s top selection in the 2011 Draft, Russian Vladislav Namestnikov is as much North American as he is European. Spending a part of his childhood in Michigan, and playing Junior hockey with London Knights last season, Namestnikov is well adjusted to the North American game. In his first season of OHL hockey, Namestnikov put up a solid 30 goals and 38 assists in 68 games.

Namestnikov possesses elite skating ability, which shows up on the scoresheet and also contributes to his good defensive game. The youngster took part in the Tampa’s Development Camp this July, part of the team that won the inaugural three-on-three tournament. Expect to see the forward back in the OHL this season to fill out his frame and continue to see top minutes with London.

4. (2) Carter Ashton, RW, 7.0B
Drafted 1st Round, 29th overall, 2009

One of the biggest of Tampa’s forward prospects, Carter Ashton also possesses a deft touch around the net, contributing to solid, though not overwhelming production this past season. Splitting his time between the Regina Pats and the Tri-City Americans of the WHL, Ashton totaled 33 goals and 38 assists on the season, while playing 62 games. His production clearly spiked after a mid-season trade to a much stronger Tri-City squad.

Ashton is already signed to an entry-level deal and having turned 20 years old last April, seems destined for the AHL in 2011-12. The Lightning need to find out sooner rather than later what they have in Ashton. He plays a very smart game, which, combined with his good size and hands, make him a solid bet to contribute to the Lightning in some capacity soon.

5. (9) Radko Gudas, D, 7.0B
Drafted 3rd Round, 66th overall, 2010

Somewhat surprisingly, the Lightning only selected one defenseman in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, and they waited until the fifth round to do so. With key mid-season trades shipping out Ty Wishart (NYI) and Brock Beukeboom (STL), the bruising Gudas is probably the best defenseman left in the system. Gudas, the youngest player on the Admirals last season, did not disappoint in his first season of pro hockey. One of the most physical players in the AHL, Gudas has already developed a reputation for being an elite open ice hitter. The defenseman has no fear of dropping the mitts, piling up 165 penalty minutes, tops amongst all Admiral defensemen.

However, Gudas has more to his game than physicality. He contributed four goals and 13 assists to go along with a plus-14 rating that was also tops amongst Admiral defensemen. While Gudas lists Scott Stevens as his role model, he is aware of the parts of his game that need work, and will try to become more useful in the offensive zone this year.

6. (NR) Nikita Kucherov, RW, 7.5D
Drafted 2nd Round, 58th overall, 2011

A smallish Russian forward, Kucherov draft stock benefited immensely from his record-breaking performance at the U-18 tournament in Germany. In seven games, he amassed 11 goals and 10 assists for a record setting 21 points. Playing for CSKA Moscow’s minor league team, Kucherov was a late-bloomer, his strong second half propelled him to 25 goals and 28 assists on the season.

The somewhat unheralded youngster has the ability to be an elite offensive talent, more a playmaker than a scorer, but still lacks the size or maturity to move to North America. He plans to play in Russia next season, but has noted his contract allows him to leave whenever he determines he is ready for hockey in North America.

7. (NR) Mattias Ritola, LW, 6.5B
Claimed off waivers from the Detroit Red Wings, October 6th, 2010

It was little surprise to see Yzerman pluck Ritola away from the Detroit system this past October. Ritola, 24, is a little older than the other prospects on this list, and has a little bit more maturity and polish to his game. He split his time between the Lightning and the Admirals last year. In a strictly third and fourth line role, Ritola chipped in four goals and four assists in 31 NHL games. In Norfolk, he truly blossomed offensively with a superb 27 points in only 17 games.

Ritola has good playmaking ability, though he’s never been thought to be much of a goal scorer. However, Ritola is better suited to a depth role. A good skater, he saw some time on the penalty kill, and should be back in the Lightning lineup this fall in a similar role.

8. (4) Johan Harju, LW, 6.5B
Drafted 6th Round, 167th overall, 2007

People in the Lightning organization were very excited when Harju made the decision to come to North America after six professional seasons in Europe. Harju showed some glimpses of elite offensive talent, particularly in the beginning of the season with Norfolk. At season’s end, he had cemented himself as a top weapon for the Admirals, ending with 23 goals and 29 assists.

In limited time in the NHL, Harju played a depth role and contributed one goal and two assists in 10 games. Harju will be 25 at the beginning of the season, and if he hasn’t reached his ceiling already, he’s certainly nearing it. However, last year was his first of North American hockey, so there is good chance an increased comfort level could result in more production this season. There is a good chance Harju can crack camp with the Lightning, but likely nothing more than a depth role.

9. (NR) Tyler Johnson, C, 7.0C
Signed as a free agent, March 5th, 2011

For the Lightning, who had one of the league’s thinner organizations last year, signing Tyler Johnson last March was a huge boost to their system. A native of Spokane, Washington, Johnson exploded in his fourth season of play in the WHL. He led the WHL in goals with 53, and was second in points with 115. Perhaps best of all, Johnson is considered by many to be a better defensive forward. Speedy, smart, and good at faceoffs, Johnson was called upon to play a crucial shutdown role for the USA U-20 team.

Despite being undrafted, Johnson has a skillset that rivals almost any prospect in the system. Moving forward, Johnson will likely have to prove himself in the AHL before becoming someone who factors into the Lightning’s plans. However, given his production last season, it would not be a stretch for him to step and in contribute right away with Norfolk.

10. (5) James Wright, C, 6.5B
Drafted 4th Round, 117th overall, 2008

After playing 2009-10 with the Lightning, James Wright spent last season exclusively with Norfolk so that he could get top minutes all season. At this point, Wright projects as a checking forward. With good size, Wright showed some offensive potential playing with Norfolk, but his 16 goals and 31 assists were not dominant by any means.

Like many of the players ahead of him on this list, Wright has the potential to stick with the Lightning in a depth role out of camp. He may be better suited for this too, given he projects better defensively than offensively. If he does spend this year in the AHL, it may be because the organization is still grooming him as a top six option.

11. (8) Alex Killorn, C, 7.0C
Drafted 3rd Round, 77th overall, 2007

One of the Lightning’s few college players, Killorn will be back at Harvard for his senior season. The forward enjoyed an excellent personal season in 2010-11, leading the Crimson with 15 goals, in addition to adding 14 assists. While the Crimson struggled, they are returning much of their core. Killorn has been named assistant captain and should again be a top player for Coach Ted Donato.

Killorn has added over 30 pounds since he was drafted back in 2007, something scouts have been pleased to see. He still needs to improve his quickness and speed to become a more complete offensive player at the next level.

12. (10) Mark Barberio, D, 7.0C
Drafted 6th Round, 152nd overall, 2008

Quebec native Mark Barberio had a fabulous first season as a professional, emerging as one of the top offensive options for Norfolk on the blue line. Barberio totaled nine goals and 22 assists over the course of the season, and really increased his production following the departure of Ty Wishart (NYI).

Despite making greats strides as a professional last year, Barberio thinks work on his skating stride will help get him to the next level. Defensive responsibility will also be key to his progression, as he was one of the few Admirals with a negative plus/minus rating on the season.

13. (6) Dustin Tokarski, G, 6.5C
Drafted 5th Round, 122nd overall, 2008

Going into his third season with Norfolk, Dustin Tokarksi is again expected to be the starter going into the season. Tokarksi was the starter to begin last season, but a poor stretch of play last fall pushed him into a backup role behind Cedrick Desjardins (COL). When an injury forced Desjardins out of the lineup, Tokarski took full advantage, using a strong second half to finish with a respectable 2.65 goal against average and a .901 save percentage.

Being less than six feet tall, Tokarski is forced to play an athletic, aggressive style. However, the netminder has been labeled a winner and competitive, two things that can endear a goaltender to teammates and fans alike. He will have to play well out of the gates this year, as heavy competition is expected from newcomer Pat Nagle.

14. (18) Jimmy Mullin, RW, 7.0D
Drafted 4th Round, 118th overall, 2010

Miami of Ohio freshman Jimmy Mullin spent last year getting adjusted to bigger, stronger players while playing for the Fargo Force of the USHL. A creative offensive player, Mullin led the Force with 23 goals and 37 assists on the season.

As a somewhat smaller player, Mullin will get the opportunity to progress slowly with the powerhouse Redhawks program. He should still have an important role next season, even as a freshman, as Miami lost top guns Carter Camper (BOS) and Anthony Miele (PHX) to graduation.

15. (17) Brendan O’Donnell, C, 6.5C
Drafted 6th Round, 156th overall, 2010

Playing for the Penticton Vees of the BCHL, Brendan O’Donnell did not disappoint, racking up 29 goals and 43 assists, leading the Vees forwards in both categories. O’Donnell has drawn some comparisons to Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, both being from Winnipeg, and opting for the college route at North Dakota.

While O’Donnell is a little smaller than Toews, he plays a similar game. A two-way centerman, O’Donnell has a good enough frame to be a plus contributor down low, and should see plenty of ice for the always talented Fighting Sioux. North Dakota has a good track record of developing players, and O’Donnell should continue to progress nicely.

16. (NR) Adam Wilcox, G, 7.0D
Drafted 6th Round, 178th overall, 2011

In his first year of USHL hockey, Adam Wilcox was excellent for the Green Bay Gamblers. He finished third in the league in both goals against average and save percentage. He posted sterling ratios of 2.20 and .922 respectively.

Despite being committed to the University of Minnesota, Wilcox will return to Green Bay this season as the departure of Ryan McKay, to Miami of Ohio, will allow him to receive the heavy workload he needs to get ready for college hockey. The agile and quick Wilcox is expected to compete for the starting job at Minnesota in 2012-13.

17. (NR) Ondrej Palat, LW, 6.5D
Drafted 7th Round, 208th overall, 2011

The Lightning continued their trend of acquiring productive, older players when they selected the Czech-born Palat out of the QMJHL. Playing last year with the Drummondville Voltigeurs, Palat had an outstanding season playing on the wing for highly-touted Sean Couturier (PHI). Palat tied for the team league in points, ending the year with 39 goals and 57 assists.

Palat, who turned 20 during the last season, has the option of returning to Drummondville next year as an over-age player, but the Lightning feel he has a strong chance of being a valuable piece at Norfolk as well. Billed as a high-skill player, it remains to be seen if Palat, can translate his offensive game to the professional level.

18. (NR) Pat Nagle, G, 6.5C
Signed as a free agent, March 22nd, 2011

Playing for the Ferris State Bulldogs, Pat Nagle was a key factor in the Bulldogs finishing the season with a winning record. Nagle finished fifth in Division I Hockey with a 2.02 goal against average, supplementing that with an impressive .923 save percentage.

The soon to be 24-year-old was signed to a professional contract in March with the anticipation he would compete for playing time in Norfolk. With the departure of Cedrick Desjardings (COL), Nagle slots in ahead of fellow prospect Jaroslav Janus on the depth-chart, with a strong possibility of seizing control of the starting job in Norfolk.

19. (NR) Charles Landry, D, 6.5C
Signed as a free agent, September 15th, 2010

While the importance of the Charles Landry signing may have been understated last September, it allowed General Manager Steve Yzerman the flexibility to move out some of the Lightning’s other blue line prospects. More of an offensive player, Landry had success at the junior level last season playing for the Montreal Juniors of the QMJHL. He set career highs with 11 goals and 29 assists, and finished a strong plus 26 on the year.

Landry made one appearance for Norfolk in the playoffs when the team was riddled with injuries. He does have the option of returning for an over-age season in the QMJHL, but given the openings on the blue line in the system, may jump right in with Norfolk to begin the season.

20. (NR) Nikita Nesterov, D, 6.5C
Drafted 5th Round, 148th overall, 2011

Described as a smooth-skating defenseman with a mean streak, Nesterov, like Kucherov, caught scouts eyes playing for Russia‘s U-18 team this past season. He had a productive year playing for Chelyabinsk Juniors in Russia last year, totaling five goals and 14 assists on the season.

There was some optimism that Nesterov would play for the Tri-City Americans of the WHL this season, but for the second year in a row, miscommunication and paperwork issues have kept Nesterov in Russia. Considering the historical difficult in getting Russian players to come to the United States, this is a setback. However, Nesterov’s willingness to play Canadian Juniors should be a good sign, and fans could see him in North America sooner rather than later.