Despite trading away a pair of key defensemen, the Lightning system has grown nicely since last season, with many of their prospects on the verge of making their debuts at the professional level.
GM Steve Yzerman has moved quickly to rebuild a depleted system through aggressive drafting in addition to a willingness to go after talented overage free agents.
The club has shown a lot of patience with draft picks selected in the past five years, with only a handful of elite players being pressed into service with the NHL club. While the club is heavy on players from the Canadian juniors, they have selected a pair of NCAA players in each of the past two drafts. Despite drafting a trio of Russians at the 2011 draft, the Lightning have drafted almost exclusively North American in the past five years, perhaps still gun-shy from their disastrous foray into the Russian talent pool in 2000 and 2001. Beyond the handful of elite forwards at the top of their system, Tampa Bay has depth, but not a depth of talent.
Tampa Bay has not had a legitimate left wing in their system for several years. While they have no top prospects as this position, they have several players that show flashes of offensive promise and others that are well suited for a depth role.
Sweden native, Johan Harju, had an up and down year with the Admirals last year, getting off to a tremendous start only to sputter down the stretch. Harju is a sublimely talented winger with great size, but may lack the mental make-up and drive to succeed in the NHL. He got a brief look in Tampa Bay last season, playing ten games, but with it apparent he would probably be forced to start another year in Norfolk, Harju returned to Sweden this year to play with Lulea. His comments over the course of last season indicated a high level of unhappiness with the Tampa Bay organization, and it seems doubtful he will return to North America.
Since being selected as a third round pick in 2007, Killorn has played three seasons for the Harvard Crimson in the ECAC. His production has increased every season, as has his size. No longer undersized, Killorn is a very creative offensive player. Though not an explosive talent, the Harvard Assistant Captain has excellent awareness, and above average vision in the offensive zone. He is someone the Lightning have developed slowly, and should continue this track, allowing him to grow in the AHL when he completes his senior season this year.
Overaged and playing in the QMJHL, Ondrej Palat seemed overlooked by many teams at this year’s draft table, falling to the Lightning in the seventh round. Signed to an entry-level deal, he has just begun his season playing in the AHL with the Admirals. Palat is a shifty, offensive player not noted for his size, toughness, or defensive game. As an overager in playing in the QMJHL, many people doubted the veracity of his numbers, so continued production playing with Norfolk may go along ways towards raising his stock and silencing his doubters.
Rounding out the left wing position are several players that have fallen off the radar for different reasons. Stefano Giliati is playing with Bolzano in Italy after a depth role last season with Norfolk. Meanwhile, OHL star Alex Hutchings is languishing on the Florida Everblades of the ECHL. Finally, Denis Kazionov is playing for Yekaterinburg Automobilisit of the KHL.
Tampa Bay has drafted several centers in the past five years, both with an eye towards elite scoring centers as well as many players well suited to a checking line role. The players at center should be the fulcrum on which the success of Tampa Bay’s prospects swings.
Top prospect Brett Connolly has overcome a pair of major injuries in his WHL career, but made the Lightning out of training camp this season and has stuck past the nine day period in which he could be returned to junior. Connolly, just 19, has seen time on the wing with stars Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier, a sure sign the organization believes he is ready to become the club’s newest offensive weapon.
Vladislav Namestnikov, the team’s first round pick this season, will be looking to build on a solid first season with the London Knights in the OHL. An elite skater, Namestnikov will be expected to fill out his frame and develop his instincts both offensively and defensively. He has a fantastic transition game, but needs to work on his in-zone play, something that should improve with added strength.
The undersized American, Tyler Johnson, attracted the attention of the Lightning when he dominated the WHL last season, playing for the Spokane Chiefs. Despite his well proven offensive success, Johnson has the tools to be a great defensive player as well. Billed as an elite faceoff man, quick, alert, and feisty in his own zone, Johnson has the right mentality to succeed in professional hockey. Playing for Norfolk, Johnson is expected to continue scoring, and learn the rigors of the professional game.
Originally drafted in the fourth round of the 2008 draft, James Wright physically matured at an early age. He has the size and reach to be an effective penalty killer, and can easily fill an NHL checking role as soon as this year. He is back in Norfolk for a second season, where he saw some time and success playing on the powerplay last season. Opinions vary regarding his offensive upside, but Wright certainly has a high floor given his defensive abilities.
Acquired off waivers from Detroit, Mattias Ritola, like several of the other center prospects in the system, projects nicely to be a depth player in the NHL, sooner rather than later. Another Swedish import, Ritola split his time last season between Tampa Bay and Norfolk. While scoring well over a point a game in Norfolk, he was a useful third-liner and penalty killer playing for the big club. Ritola started the season with Tampa Bay, but has struggled to stay in the lineup given the depth Tampa Bay has in its bottom six this season.
Brendan O’Donnell, a sixth round pick in 2010, has begun his freshman season with North Dakota in the WCHA. A bit of an under-the-radar prospect, O’Donnell has struggled to gain consistent minutes with the perennially powerhouse Fighting Sioux.
Behind a trio of high potential prospects, the Lightning have little depth at right wing.
Former Canadian U-20 member Carter Ashton is a big, left-shooting right winger that has continued to progress since his selection late in the first round of the 2009 draft. Given his selection, Ashton somewhat underwhelmed in the WHL prior to a trade mid-last season, after which point he flourished for the Tri-City Americans. Ashton has scored almost a goal a game this year, making his professional debut with in Norfolk. So far this year, Ashton has shown great work along the boards and in front of the net. Already a well-rounded player, Ashton probably needs the most work on his skating as his offensive game has already blossomed.
Richard Panik, known for his highlight reel goals, will have to develop some maturity to his game to be successful in his first season of AHL hockey. Drafted in the second round of the 2009 draft, Panik has all the physical tools to be a very good NHL player, but his production has not yet matched his skill level. Admiral’s Head Coach Jon Cooper favors an up-tempo attacking game that should benefit the offensively minded Panik. Before he can truly thrive, he needs to earn Cooper’s trust and become a responsible, professional player, on and off the ice.
The Lightning currently have two right-wingers playing in the KHL, Martins Karsums and Nikita Kucherov. Karsums had a taste of the NHL with Boston and Tampa Bay in 2008-09, but after being sent to Norfolk to start the 2009-10 season, he returned to Europe where he is in his third season with the Riga Dynamo. Playing in the KHL, Karsums has regained some of the promising scoring touch that made him a second round draft pick back in 2004. Kucherov, selected in the second of the 2011 draft, has elite offensive upside. Playing primarily in the Russian Junior League last season, Kucherov is hoping to stick for an entire season with CSKA Moscow.
One of a handful of collegiate players, James Mullin is currently in his freshman year playing for the Miami Redhawks of the CCHA. Mullin should enjoy the benefit of a longer development period, similar to that of Alex Killorn. Mullin needs to mature physically, but, as he showed last season in the USHL, his game is replete with offensive promise.
Matt Marshall has been a major disappointment in his time with the University of Vermont, playing in the Hockey East. On a college team desperately in need of player to step up and become and dominating scorer, Marshall has spent the bulk of his college career trying to stay in the lineup. He is someone that has a long way to go to be considered part of the Lightning’s long term plans.
A couple of maturing youngsters playing in the AHL lead the way for thin group of defensive prospects. Tampa Bay lost a couple of key pieces in return for late season acquisitions to bolster their playoff run, trading away the system’s top two defenseman, Ty Wishart (NYI) and Brock Beukeboom (STL).
Radko Gudas and Mark Barberio play contrasting styles, but both have cemented themselves as professional players under Coach Jon Cooper’s tutelage in Norfolk. Gudas, one of the AHL’s most physical players, needs to work on his offensive awareness to become a more complete player. While the young Czech will never be confused for a powerplay quarterback, improving his offensive awareness and instincts will help him round into a reliable second-pairing defenseman in the NHL. Unlike Gudas, Barberio is a powerplay quarterback, starting out 2011-12 averaging a point-per-game from the blue line for the Admirals. A slick passer, Barberio has responded well to the heightened competition of the professional game and raised his stock within the organization.
Of the two players competing in college hockey, Kirill Gotovets has a higher upside than Luke Witkowski. A Belarusian import, Gotovets had a nice freshman season for the Cornell Big Red, playing in the ECAC. The youngster is an exuberant player, fun to watch. A long college career under the notoriously disciplined Coach Mike Shaffer could work wonders on making Gotovets a more complete player. Witkowski, a major leader in Western Michigan’s resurgence last year, has limited offensive upside, but has a good body, and plays a mean, grinding game in his own zone.
Nikita Nesterov, selected in the fifth round of the 2011 draft, is hoping to stick with Chelyabinsk Traktor in the KHL. He previously spent two seasons in their youth program, before playing last season for Belie Medvedi Chelyabinsk, in the Russian MHL. The Russian is more physical than most Europeans, but his best trait is probably his strong shot for the point. Well-round, but still developing, Nesterov could use work in a number of areas of his game, but has no glaring weaknesses at this point in his career.
Adam Janosik, a Slovakian playing for the Gatineau Olympiques in the QMJHL, has the best offensive upside of any player outside of Barberio. A slick passer, and smooth skater, Janosik needs to fill out, and improve defensively before making the jump to the AHL. His offensive game is already well polished, but his strides in other areas will determine how far he makes it.
Given the paucity of depth in the Lightning system, GM Steve Yzerman has not been shy about adding young free agents. In the last year, the Lightning have added a pair of defensemen from the QMJHL. Charles Landry has moved on to play in Norfolk this season, where he should see some time on the powerplay. He has recovered from a training camp injury, and will fit in nicely to the quick-paced up and down game the Admirals prefer to play. Daniel Milan, signed this September, has a good frame, but is still quite raw. The indicators are there pointing to a player with a very nice upside, but he will need to become more reliable in his second season with the Moncton Wildcats.
Despite playing for one of the CHL’s best Junior teams, Geoffrey Schemitsch regressed last year, and has become a long-shot to be a viable part of Tampa Bay’s future. Similarly, Luke Jackson, though a great leader for the Admirals, and of a good size, has fallen down the depth charts. Something would have to change drastically for Jackson to be considered part of the NHL plan in Tampa Bay.
While there is not a true blue-chip NHL netminder amongst their prospects, the Lightning boast good depth with five goaltenders in their system.
Goaltenders Dustin Tokarski and Jaroslav Janus are expected to split duties with Norfolk this season. Tokarski, comes in as the presumptive starter, but after losing his job last season to Cedrick Desjardins, he must get off to a good start again to prove he is the top netminder. Tokarski is prone to bouts of inconsistency due to his aggressive style, but can also be great in stretches.
Janus, who played predominantly in the ECHL last year, is smaller goalie, like Tokarski. Because of his smaller stature, he is forced to rely on reflexes and above-average positioning. With Dwayne Roloson aging in Tampa Bay, there is a chance one of these goalies gets a shot to compete for a job next season, if only as a backup.
Ferris State standout Pat Nagle was another Steve Yzerman’s free agent acquisitions. Expected to compete for a role in Norfolk, Nagle has been sent to the Florida Everblades in the ECHL to start the year. Nagle has the requisite size to play goalie at the professional level, but must adjust to the faster game, positionally and otherwise.
Adam Wilcox, selected in sixth round of the 2011 draft, shows promise, though he is still playing for the Green Bay Gamblers in the USHL. Committed to play next season for the University of Minnesota, the Lightning can give this young netminder all the time he needs to develop into a valuable commodity down the road.
Former first round pick, Riku Helenius, has shown flashes of his former talent since returning to Europe to play in the SEL. He was mostly used as a backup last season, playing for Sodertalje SK, but has seen more action, and more consistent results, this year with JYP HT Jyvaskyla, also in the SEL. Tampa Bay tendered Helenius a qualifying offer in the June, so while he is in his third season back in Europe, he still remains in the Lightning’s plans.