Lightning Top 20 prospects

By Phil Laugher

The defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning entered the post-lockout era with depth in prospects at most positions, due in large part to shrewd drafting tactics by General Manager Jay Feaster. Feaster’s astute drafting has seen, in the first part of the 2005-06 regular season, several prospects drafted from the last few rounds in recent years crack the Lightning line-up this season. There is, however, a dearth of impact prospects in the Lightning system at every position, despite the solid number of prospects cracking the big club in recent years.

The Lightning’s prospect strength lies on the blue line, where they possess a solid corp of big, mobile defensemen. This strength was further amplified on draft day this past June, where the Lightning added another massive Slovakian blue-liner with their first selection in Vladimir Mihalik, who joins an equally talented group headed by Mike Egener, Andy Rogers, Paul Ranger, and Matt Smaby. Defensive prospects make up six of the first 11 ranked prospects on the Lightning depth chart.

Top 20 at a Glance

1. Mike Egener, D – 21 – Springfield Falcons (AHL)/Johnstown Chiefs (ECHL)
2. Vladimir Mihalik, D – 18 – Red Deer Rebels (WHL)
3. Radek Smolenak, LW – 19 – Kingston Frontenacs (OHL)
4. Andy Rogers, D – 19 – Prince George Cougars (WHL)
5. Ryan Craig, C – 23 – Springfield Falcons (AHL)
6. Evgeni Artyukhin, LW – 22 – Tampa Bay Lightning (NHL)/Springfield Falcons (AHL)
7. Matt Smaby, D – 21 – University of North Dakota (NCAA)
8. Adam Henrich, LW – 21 – Springfield Falcons (AHL)/Johnstown Chiefs (ECHL)
9. Paul Ranger, D – 21 – Tampa Bay Lightning (NHL)/Springfield Falcons (AHL)
10. Stanislav Lascek, LW – 19 – Chicoutimi Sagueneens (QMJHL)
11. Doug O’Brien, D – 21 – Springfield Falcons (AHL)
12. Marek Kvapil, RW – 20 – Springfield Falcons (AHL)/Saginaw Spirit (OHL)
13. Chris Lawrence, C – 18 – Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (OHL)
14. Gerald Coleman, G – 20 – Springfield Falcons (AHL)
15. Karri Rämö, G – 19 – HPK (Finland)
16. Blair Jones, C – 19 – Moose Jaw Warriors (WHL)
17. Alexander Polushin, RW – 22 – Cherepovets Severstal (Russia)
18. Darren Reid, RW – 22 – Springfield Falcons (AHL)
19. Nick Tarnasky, C – 21 – Tampa Bay Lightning (NHL)/Springfield Falcons (AHL)
20. Mark Tobin, LW – 20 – Rimouski Oceanic (QMJHL)

1. (1) Mike Egener, D – Johnstown Chiefs (ECHL)
Height: 6’04, Weight: 213 lbs., DOB: Sep 26, 1984
Acquired: 2nd round, 34th overall, 2003

Egener remains the No. 1 prospect for the Tampa Bay Lightning, however, his performance thus far this season has not been up to par for someone deemed the top prospect in his organization. Thought at the onset of camp to possibly be in contention for a job on the big club after a respectable first professional season, Egener did not have a very strong training camp at all, and found himself to be an early cut to the AHL affiliate in Springfield. His struggles continued with the Falcons, where Egener failed to register a point, and where he was occasionally caught out of position. His physical game, usually considered one of his primary strengths, was also not up to past levels of intensity. After six games with the Falcons, Egener was again demoted, this time to the Johnstown Chiefs of the ECHL, where he was to work on his consistency before gaining the recall back to the Springfield squad. However, he was sidelined in his first game with the club after suffering a minor injury. In order to gain the inevitable recall, he will have to have shown that he is interested, and that his consistency and physical play is back to past levels first. Quick, big, imposing, and mobile, Egener should be much better than he has shown thus far, and is still Tampa’s top prospect.

2. (nr) Vladimir Mihalik, D – Red Deer Rebels (WHL)
Height: 6’7, Weight: 222 lbs., DOB: Jan 29, 1987
Acquired: 1st round, 30th overall, 2005

Tampa Bay’s already-large defensive corps seemingly could not get much bigger, however, after their first selection in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, the average size of Tampa Bay’s defensive corp grew still, as Jay Feaster nabbed the massive Slovakian defender Vladimir Mihalik. After playing last season in his native Slovakia, Mihalik made the voyage across the Atlantic to play for the Red Deer Rebels, who selected him in last year’s CHL Import Draft. His size, standing 6’7 is an obvious asset, though one that he has not fully used to his advantage at this point of his career. However, his relative unwillingness to use his body to his advantage has been a definite detriment to his early season play with the Rebels, who have struggled mightily out of the gate this season. A decent skater for his size, with modest stickhandling and two-way ability, it is obvious that Mihalik is very raw still at this age, and is getting adjusted to his large body. When he gets himself adjusted to the different style of the WHL, and begins to use his size as an advantage and not a detriment, Mihalik should do all right. The epitome of a boom-or-bust prospect, the upside for this hulking two-way defender is high, should he begin to approach his potential.

3. (NR) Radek Smolenak, LW – Kingston Frontenacs (OHL)
Height: 6’2, Weight: 180 lbs., DOB: Dec 03, 1986
Acquired: 3rd round, 73rd overall, 2005

The top-ranked forward for the Lightning is also the team’s second selection from last summer’s entry draft, with Kingston Frontenacs winger Radek Smolenak entering the depth chart in the third spot. Smolenak, a product of the Czech Republic, came over to North America in his draft year, joining a Kingston team that was in decline. Playing on a line with highly touted Florida prospect Anthony Stewart helped acclimate the offensively gifted Smolenak to the North American game in a hurry. Though Stewart’s interest declined over the course of the season, Smolenak continued to score, finishing tied with Stewart in goals with 32 (also the most in the league among rookies), and third in team points with 60. Smolenak’s first season in North America must be considered a success and his offensive totals played an integral role in his relatively high draft selection. Possessing good size, if not slight, Smolenak definitely will need to add some more muscle and strength in the coming years. However, physicality is not his primary talent. Smolenak is a natural goal scorer, no more, no less. One of the better finishers in the league, he will be looking for another big season for the rebuilding Frontenacs. Consistency is a bit of an issue with Smolenak, however the good games far outweigh the invisible ones. If he can fix his consistency issues, there is little doubt that he will someday get a crack at the NHL.

4. (3) Andy Rogers, D – Prince George Cougars (WHL)
Height: 6’5, Weight: 206 lbs., DOB: Aug 25, 1986
Acquired: 1st round, 30th overall, 2004

The Lightning’s top selection from the 2004 NHL Entry Draft was one of Tampa Bay’s last cuts in training camp, getting sent back to the WHL after much deliberation. As opposed to his near-mirror image in skill, Mike Egener, Rogers had an excellent camp, and made the decision to be sent back to juniors a difficult one for Lightning management. His relegation came immediately after he agreed to a contract with the Lightning. After an injury-prone 2004-05 season that limited him to 48 games, and saw him get traded to a poor team, Rogers still posted a decent (if inconsistent) campaign, playing his brand of defensively responsible, physical hockey. An agile, smooth skater for his size, the physical defenseman will not score many goals himself, but gives extra effort in ensuring the puck stays out of his own net, punishing the opposition in his own end, and rarely getting beaten one-on-one. Though a top pairing defenseman for Prince George, Rogers has only seen action in seven games this season, as he has once again been hobbled by a minor ankle injury. When healthy, he will look to build on his strong camp with the Lightning, and help the Cougars return to respectability.

5. (13) Ryan Craig, C – Springfield Falcons (AHL)
Height: 6’2, Weight: 220 lbs., DOB: Jan 06, 1982
Acquired: 8th round, 255th overall, 2002

Craig’s time for a promotion to the NHL is drawing near. The hard-working Springfield centerman was named the Falcons’ captain at the start of the season, after leading his team in scoring last year, only his second in the AHL. Boasting good size and bringing high levels of leadership, grit and determination to the table, as well as a respectable skill set, Craig brings the demeanor of a consummate professional on the ice, and this dedication to the game will not be overlooked. Though he was bypassed in early season call-ups despite his point-per-game pace and hard-working play for the Falcons squad that is returning to respectability after a year in the AHL doldrums, Craig is still persevering. The one thing holding Craig back at this stage may be his skating, especially given the emphasis put on skating in the post-lockout NHL, however his determination will not keep him down in the minors for long. It is not a matter of if he gets the promotion, but when. This is one late-round gamble that has, thus far, paid off for the Lightning.

6. (9) Evgeni Artyukhin, RW – Springfield Falcons (AHL) / Tampa Bay Lightning (NHL)
Height: 6’4, Weight: 254 lbs., DOB: Apr 04, 1983
Acquired: 3rd round, 94th overall, 2001

The massive Russian winger moves up in the prospect depth chart after a promising training camp and early portion of the season, which resulted in his first call-up to the Lightning from Springfield. The rugged Artyukhin hits regularly and with power, and has blazing speed for someone his size; bringing the strength of a Clydesdale and the quickness of a thoroughbred. He has improved in each of his professional seasons, which culminated in his promotion to Tampa Bay, as a result of some inconsistent play by a few Lightning regulars. He has now played eight games with the big club, and has already notched a goal and an assist in sporadic ice time. He has improved most facets of the game that needed work – his shot and his in-game awareness — but still has some work to do before he can be a regular for Tampa. Artyukhin is definitely on the right track, though.

7. (6) Matt Smaby, D – University of North Dakota (WCHA)
Height: 6’5, Weight: 220 lbs., DOB: Oct 14, 1984
Acquired: 2nd round, 41st overall, 2003

Another of Tampa Bay’s core of physical defensemen, Smaby decided to return to the University of North Dakota for his junior year after failing to come to terms with the Lightning in the offseason. Upon his return, Smaby was named the team captain of the Fighting Sioux, as one of the key returnees to the squad. He added plenty of muscle in the offseason, and has not lost any of his quickness or desire to utilize his physicality. Rough, gritty, and loaded with leadership, the Minnesota product is more of a stay-at-home defender than an offensive threat, though he has picked up three points thus far this season for the Fighting Sioux. He has made great progress from his freshman season, and another year in college, playing increased minutes in all situations, should do nothing but help his all-around development. Any semblance of an offensive presence to compliment his simple, safe play in his own end, and heavy hitting along the boards would do wonders for further increasing his stock.

8. (2) Adam Henrich, LW/C – Springfield Falcons (AHL)
Height: 6’4, Weight: 220 lbs., DOB: Jan 19, 1984
Acquired: 2nd round, 60th overall, 2002

Henrich, a power-forward who has been plagued by inconsistency since turning pro, has struggled with consistency again thus far this season, which resulted in his temporary demotion to the Johnstown in the ECHL for a three-game wake-up call stint in the hopes that he could regain his focus. He has been held goalless thus far in eight games between Springfield and Johnstown, picking up only two assists in the process — numbers that are not acceptable for someone who was hoped to be an offensive threat. Henrich has been playing more and more at center in the early part of the season, in the hopes that the Lightning can add another aspect to his game, though he has struggled mightily in the face-off circle in this new role. It is hoped that over time he will improve, though he will have to show some progression soon, lest the Lightning have to go back to the drawing board. Loaded with talent, boasting soft hands and great size, Henrich has plenty of ability. If only he can gain some steadiness and get a few goals under his belt to right himself, his prospects for the future will be brighter.

9. (12) Paul Ranger, D – Tampa Bay Lightning (NHL)/Springfield Falcons (AHL)
Height: 6’2, Weight: 200 lbs., DOB: Sep 12, 1984
Acquired: 6th round, 183rd overall, 2002

The product of another of Tampa Bay’s shrewd late-round selections that appears to have panned out, Ranger made the jump to the NHL in just his second professional season. After only one game with Springfield this year, Ranger got the call-up, and when he has played, he has seen plenty of ice time. He has seen action in nine games thus far, picking up his first career point in only his third professional game. A quick and a smart defensive player, he will not be expected to regularly light the lamp, but is more apt at cutting down the angles in his own end, preventing chances. He could certainly stand to improve his physical play, which is somewhat lacking despite his decent size, but his defensive play is strong enough as is to compensate for that lack of physicality. Ranger was sidelined with a minor concussion for a couple of games after being on the receiving end of a nasty elbow from Eric Boulton in a game against the Atlanta Thrashers on October 21st, which resulted in Boulton being suspended. Ranger is showing no ill effects after the hit, and is still playing regularly for the Lightning. Whether or not he remains with the Lightning for the duration is unclear at present, however he is performing well and is well ahead of schedule at this point in his career.

10.(nr) Stanislav Lascek, RW – Chicoutimi Sagueneens (QMJHL)
Height: 6’0, Weight: 195 lbs., DOB: Jan 17, 1986
Acquired: 5th round, 133rd overall, 2005

Lascek may be one of the better picks for the Lightning from last year’s draft. Currently on pace for nearly 160 points while playing on the best top line in the entire QMJHL for Chicoutimi alongside Buffalo prospect Marek Zagrapan and overage winger Maxime Boisclair (who played for Tampa Bay at the Traverse City prospect tournament over the summer), Lascek is tearing up the score-sheets. Of the line, Lascek is the primary playmaker, with amazing stick handling ability, and utilizing lightning-quick passes. Along with his high skill set is a willingness to get involved in the trenches (something that has changed since he made his arrival in North America two years ago). The biggest fault in his game is his skating, which was probably a big reason why he was passed over in the 2004 Entry Draft, though his excellent offensive awareness goes a long way towards making up for this problem. He could also stand to shoot at the net more, having not topped 20 goals in either of his two previous seasons, but with his linemates willing to finish the job, why bother? He does have a very quick release with an accurate shot when he uses it. If his skating improves, he could eventually make it.

11. (7) Doug O’Brien, D – Springfield Falcons (AHL)
Height: 6’1, Weight: 200 lbs., DOB: Feb 16, 1984
Acquired: 6th round, 192nd overall, 2003

O’Brien had an excellent training camp for Tampa Bay after a promising first professional season with an abysmal Springfield squad last season. Unfortunately for him, he ended up being the last defenseman cut (in favor of the recently demoted Timo Helbling), and was subsequently returned to Springfield. O’Brien was a talented offensive defenseman in junior, but his offensive role was decreased a bit in his first season, as he spent more time honing his defensive game, which needed a bit of work if he was to be an effective defender in the AHL. He has been quietly effective in an increased role for Springfield this season. He picked up his first goal, a game-winner, recently against Wilkes-Barre.

12. (NR) Marek Kvapil, RW – Springfield Falcons (AHL)
Height: 5’10, Weight: 172 lbs., DOB: Jan 05, 1985
Acquired: 6th round, 163rd overall, 2005

Kvapil, drafted in this past summer’s Entry Draft as a 20-year-old, made Springfield this season after spending only one season in the CHL, for Saginaw. With Saginaw, Kvapil was an excellent offensive talent, posting more than a point a game. He has a definite nose for the net, is quick, and is highly skilled with the puck. He notched 25 goals for the Spirit last season, excelling on the power play. He was also a valuable member of the Czech Republic’s World Junior Championships squad, for whom he picked up five points. Though he was a relatively early cut from Tampa Bay’s camp, he played well enough for Springfield to earn a spot. He started the season rather slowly, but has picked up five points, including his first professional goal, in the last couple of games. Immensely talented, but still adapting to the professional game, Kvapil’s upside is big. He just needs time to get used to the increased pace of the professional game, before his offense comes around.

13. (NR) Chris Lawrence, C – Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (OHL)
Height: 6’4, Weight: 205 lbs., DOB: Feb 05, 1987
Acquired: 3rd round, 89th overall, 2005

Lawrence was the Lightning’s third selection in the 2005 draft. Boasting good size, but a seeming unwillingness to effectively use it, coupled with a raw skill set, Lawrence is the type of player that, with improvement, could be a contributor a few years down the road. But at this point in his career, he is a long-term project. Though he is offensively talented, putting up just 11 goals last season, he managing to finish third in team points for the Greyhounds. Through 18 games this season, he has only found the net once (though he has added ten helpers). Consistency is a bit of a concern in Lawrence, he was able to compile a six-game point streak earlier in the season, but he has run into a long cold streak as of late. There is also a bit of concern about his effort. Lawrence was called out early in the season for lack of effort by his coach, Craig Hartsburg, and he responded with a series of productive games. He needs motivation, but he also has to keep his head in the game.

14. (14) Gerald Coleman, G – Springfield Falcons (AHL)
Height: 6’4, Weight: 190 lbs., DOB: Apr 03, 1985
Acquired: 7th round, 224th overall, 2003

Coleman picked up a Memorial Cup ring for the London Knights last season, playing behind one of the most potent offensives ever assembled in the CHL, though he lost his job to Adam Dennis for the tournament itself. Coleman made the jump to the professional ranks this season, serving as the backup for Brian Eklund in Springfield. Eklund was called up to the Lightning under an emergency basis last week, giving Coleman the No. 1 job temporarily. He has appeared in five games for the Falcons thus far, winning three, and posting a goals against average just over three. He is still haunted by the occasional fluke goal, just as he was in junior, but his consistency is improving. Playing for Springfield, he will have to get used to seeing far more shots, and will have to improve his focus and composure under the increased offensive pressure, as well as the pressure of playing in the pros.

15. (NR) Karri Rämö, G – HPK (SM-Liiga, Finland)
Height: 6’2, Weight: 192 lbs., DOB: Jul 01, 1986
Acquired: 6th round, 191st overall, 2004

The Lightning took a bit of a flyer on the then little-known Rämö, risking a sixth-round pick on the Finnish netminder. A butterfly goaltender with good lateral movement and some quickness, Rämö was thrown to the fire in the first season after he was drafted, playing for the low-end Pelicans squad, which saw Rämö face loads of quality chances. Some nights he was on fire, and some nights he was hung out to dry, however he matured as the season went on, and the increased playing time at a high level was nothing but beneficial for him. Luckily for him, he changed teams in the offseason, jumping to the high-powered HPK squad. He suffered a knee injury in mid-October which has kept him out for a couple of weeks, which halted what had been an amazing start to the season, with Rämö posting a sub-1.00 goals against average for a time. Rämö has impressed so much that he will likely be given ample opportunity to garner the backup spot for Finland’s World Junior squad. Right now, Rämö might be the best of a deep, if underwhelming, collection of goaltending prospects for the Lightning.

16.(nr) Blair Jones, C – Moose Jaw Warriors (WHL)
Height: 6’0, Weight: 175 lbs., DOB: Sep 27, 1986
Acquired: 4th round, 102nd overall, 2005

Jones was drafted in the fourth round by the Lightning after an impressive finish to his third season in the Western Hockey League. Traded midway through the season by Red Deer to Moose Jaw, the talented forward emerged as a key contributor on the Warriors offense, and in particular on the power play, picking up nearly a point a game after the trade. He also led his team in playoff scoring, though it did not help them advance to the second round. He was expected to be an important facet of the offense this season, and he has gone beyond the expectations placed on him. Though he has never picked up more than 50 points in a season, the very talented centerman has notched 23 points in only 17 games (8 of which are goals), placing him near the top of the WHL’s scoring race. Not the best of skaters, but a smart player with great offensive talent, Jones could be looking at a big season.

17.(4) Alexander Polushin, RW – Cherepovets Severstal (Russian SuperLeague)
Height: 6’4, Weight: 212 lbs., DOB: May 08, 1983
Acquired: 2nd round, 47th overall, 2001

Rare is the case that the most talented member of a team’s prospect pool is ranked so low, but hope is running thin that Alexander Polushin will ever play in an NHL game for Tampa Bay, as the slick Russian forward seems quite happy to be playing back in his homeland for Cherepovets Severstal, getting the amounts of ice time and attention that he covets. After three years with modest ice for CSKA Moscow, Polushin changed teams, not to the one Lightning fans were hoping for, and has dazzled with his skill, already posting a career high goal total through only 23 games. Unless Polushin and Lightning management can come to an acceptable deal for both sides — Polushin seeks a guaranteed roster spot, while Tampa Bay is unwilling to grant it — chances are that barring a trade, Polushin will remain in Russia for the foreseeable future, much to the chagrin of Tampa.

18. (5) Darren Reid, RW – Springfield Falcons (AHL)
Height: 6’2, Weight: 205 lbs., DOB: May 07, 1983
Acquired: 8th round, 256th overall, 2002

Reid’s stock has fallen as a result of there having been very little improvement in his game from last season. He was plagued by bouts of inconsistency last season which hampered his offensive production, and that has carried over to this season as well. He was among the first cuts from the Tampa Bay camp, and has not been very impressive offensively for a vastly improved Springfield squad, picking up only one goal through his first 10 games, though he has picked up a few points (including his only goal) in the last couple of games. There is no questioning his strong work ethic, however with his skill set and inconsistent offensive play, this may be a matter of what you see is what you get. He added some bulk in the offseason, so if he can use his modest size for an increased physical game, he may be able to find other means of contributing, for offense does not appear to be his strength.

19. (20) Nick Tarnasky, C – Tampa Bay Lightning (NHL)/Springfield Falcons (AHL)
Height: 6’2, Weight 233 lbs., DOB: Nov 25, 1984
Acquired: 9th round, 288th overall, 2003

Another late-round Tampa Bay draft success story, Tarnasky made his NHL debut for the Lightning in mid-October. One of the hardest workers for Springfield last season, with a great work ethic and a lead-by-example style of play, the aggressive forward brings solid defensive awareness, if not much of an offensive game. Physicality and mucking in the trenches is Tarnasky’s strength, which makes him a valuable contributor on any checking line. He does not have much more upside than what he presents now, but the talent he does have is a perfect fit for Tampa Bay’s style of play. He picked up his first point, an assist, against Toronto. Whether or not his stay with the big club is permanent is doubtful, but he will certainly make the most of the opportunity presented him.

20.(18) Mark Tobin, LW – Rimouski Oceanic (QMJHL)
Height: 6’3, Weight: 206 lbs., DOB: Nov 26, 1985
Acquired: 2nd round, 65th overall, 2004

Tobin is one of the few holdovers from last season’s offensive juggernaut with Rimouski. The team is in full-blown rebuilding mode at present, and Tobin is being looked upon as one of the key offensive contributors and dressing room leaders. He brings great physical play, and an excellent work ethic, though his offensive skill is not up to par with what is expected of first line forwards throughout the league. A two-time 20-goal scorer in the run-and-gun years, and a good two-way player, this season will be indicative as to whether or not Tobin has the offensive ability, or whether he was benefiting from playing with world class talents. His hard work, though, will not be questioned.

Pekka Lampinen and Courtney Wagner contributed to this article. Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.