Bolt Prospects 2011-2012 Preliminary Rankings

Now that the season has begun, it's time to update our prospect rankings here on Bolt Prospects. Readers of the site know the drill, as we update our rankings three times during the season and add Supplemental Rankings shortly after the draft each year. But, for new readers, or for those who might've forgotten the rules, here's our legal disclaimer regarding prospect eligibility.

Bolt Prospects considers any prospect 24 years of age or older on opening night of the Lightning's season to be an overage prospect and ineligible for inclusion on the list. As a consequence, older prospects like Mattias Ritola, Blair Jones, and Johan Harju are no longer included on our list. The exception to the 24 year old rule is NCAA players, who shall remain eligible for the rankings so long as they remain in college. Bolt Prospects also has rules pertaining to a player's graduation from prospect status that also determines eligibility for the rankings. For skaters, any player who has played 41 or more NHL games in a single season or 82 or more career NHL games is ineligible for the list. As a consequence, players like James Wright and Dana Tyrell are ineligible for the list. For goaltenders, any player who receives 30 or more NHL decisions in a single season or 41 or more NHL decisions in a career is ineligible.

With all that in mind, here are Bolt Prospects 2011-2012 Preliminary Rankings:

1.) RW Brett Connolly, Tampa Bay (NHL)
The surprise of training camp was the retention of 2010 first rounder Brett Connolly (pictured), who justified his top ranking by making the Lightning's opening night roster. Connolly was originally ticketed to return to Prince George of the WHL, and he may yet end up there after a nine game tryout with the big club, but he defied the odds by routinely finding the scoresheet in the exhibition season with his slick playmaking and finishing skills. He still needs to bulk up in order to compete better in traffic and he still is learning the defensive side of the game, but if he does go down to junior later this month he ought to be considered a top-tier contender for the Calder Trophy next season. His instincts in the offensive third are elite and he looks destined to be a big point producer for the Lightning in the future.

2.) RW Carter Ashton, Norfolk (AHL)
After being dispatched to the minors in the first large wave of cuts, Carter Ashton has rebounded by starting his 2011-2012 campaign by winning AHL Player of the Week. Whereas Connolly plays in the offensive zone with the precision of a scalpel, Ashton plays with the blunt force of a hammer. He's a prototypical north-south power forward with a nose for the dirty areas around the opposing cage and surprising speed and acceleration for a big man. He can score dirty, gritty goals and lots of them, and he's fairly responsible in his own end, as well. Every team in the NHL is looking for power forwards like Ashton, but very few get the genuine article. The Lightning look like they have just that in the big Western League product.

3.) G Dustin Tokarski, Norfolk (AHL)
Tokarski retained his spot as Norfolk's opening night goaltender despite missing much of training camp with an injury. His hold on the top spot may be tentative though, thanks to the oncoming charge of tandem-mate Jaroslav Janus. Still, there's much to like with Tokarski, who has shown each of the past two seasons he plays his best hockey when he's a workhorse #1 netminder. Entering the year, the Lightning's plan was to give Tokarski a full season in that role, and see how far he could push the Admirals come playoff time. He still might get that chance, and his junior career suggests he'll excel in big game scenarios.

4.) RW Richard Panik, Norfolk (AHL)
One of the biggest disappointments of both rookie camp and training camp was the play of winger Richard Panik. After entering the summer with a chance to seriously challenge for not less than a considerable role on a scoring line with the Norfolk Admirals, Panik proceeded to shoot his foot off with inconsistent play and poor decision-making, perhaps culminating in his concussing of fellow prospect Charles Landry in a non-contact training camp drill. That drew the ire of Landry's former junior coach and current Lightning bench boss Guy Boucher, and only helped to further seal the big Slovak's fate. A trip to the ECHL might not even be out of the question at this stage, which is a heck of a come down for a player with lottery pick talent in the Marian Hossa mold. We love his skill set and athleticism. We hate his lack of discipline and focus.

5.) C Vladislav Namestnikov, London (OHL)
Those pursuing instant gratification for their draft picks ought not look at Vladislav Namestnikov. The organization loves the long-term upside of the 2011 first rounder, but rookie camp and training camp quickly proved that Namestnikov has a very long way to go before he challenges to make the NHL. The Lightning hope they have a Pavel Datsyuk-type centerman when all is said and done, but right now they have an undersized center who has a good, but not great, skillset, and good, but not great, skating ability. His work ethic, though, is very strong and the team will give him plenty of time to fill out his game. With Namestnikov, we're taking a purely wait and see attitude.

6.) C Alex Killorn, Harvard (ECAC)
This summer was the renewal of an annual Lightning ritual. Every summer the team holds a rookie camp and every summer the Lightning, seemingly suffering from amnesia from the year before, come away supremely impressed with young Alex Killorn. That tradition ends next summer, though, as Killorn is entering his senior season this year at Harvard and will soon be in the fold after a 4+ year wait since he was drafted in 2007. Killorn's shown statistical improvement every season despite playing on some awful Crimson teams, and he should be around a point a game this year. He's a well-rounded package of speed, skill, grit, and leadership ability, and we can't wait to finally get him in the organization next season.

7.) RW Nikita Kucherov, CSKA Jr. (RUS Jr.)
For those wondering why Bolt Prospects is apprehensive about selecting prospects in Russia, we give you Nikita Kucherov. The supremely skilled winger was promoted to the KHL this season, but struggled to get more than 5-8 minutes a night before being demoted to the junior ranks, where there's not much of a challenge for a player of his abilities. The double whammy is that Russia also isn't a hot bed of weight training for hockey players, meaning Kucherov's likely not bulking up too much from his draft weight of 165 pounds either. The best place for Kucherov to be developing right now would be in the AHL, but good luck luring an 18 year old prospect away from the glitz of potentially playing for one of the most storied teams in Russia, in Moscow, at the nation's top level. Difficult.

8.) D Mark Barberio, Norfolk (AHL)
Anyone who thought Mark Barberio's 31 point rookie season in the AHL might have been a fluke was quickly corrected by Barberio's four point weekend in the opening two games of the AHL season. The former Moncton Wildcat drips offensive awareness in the attacking third, and his skating seems to become less and less of a question mark as time goes on. The Lightning still believe Barberio's a long way from ready for the NHL, and that he's got some sharpening up to do in the defensive zone, but it's hard to ignore that he's continually one of the organization's best producers in Norfolk game in and game out.

9.) D Radko Gudas, Norfolk (AHL)
Part defenseman, part folk hero, Radko Gudas also has a long way to go before becoming an NHLer, but he's already won over huge followings in Everett in the junior ranks and now in Norfolk in the AHL. He's barely taller than a fire hydrant, but he's built as solidly as one, and he's brushed with hero status for his open ice hits. More importantly, for us, he's shown outstanding skating ability and better-than-advertised puck skills, as well. He's not just a lumberjack or a pest, and we suspect he will improve on his 17 point rookie campaign last year with Norfolk.

10.) C Tyler Johnson, Norfolk (AHL)
The most consistent performer for Norfolk in their exhibition season and in the early games of the regular season has been Tyler Johnson, who has had points in each contest thus far. Perhaps that shouldn't be such a surprise, considering he finished second in the WHL in scoring last year with 115 points in 71 games for Spokane. The Washington native was an undrafted free agent pickup, and he looks like a bonus pick with a supreme amount of value despite his small size. He's currently centering a kid line in Norfolk with Cory Conacher and Carter Ashton and he's one of the big catalysts for the success of that group so far.

11.) C James Mullin, Miami-OH (CCHA)
Last season we kept emphasizing that only players with elite level skill tend to rack up point-a-game numbers in the defensively-oriented USHL, as Jimmy Mullin posted 60 points in 52 games for Fargo. This season, we might be emphasizing that only players with elite level skill tend to rack up points as freshmen in the NCAA. Mullin scored a goal in his fist collegiate match against Bemidji State, and we're starting to wonder if there's any bar too high for the 2010 4th rounder to clear. The smallish speedster has a great work ethic and tremendous skill and looks like the heir to Alex Killorn's throne as the Lightning's "stealth prospect." Bolt Prospects seems to be the only organization giving Mullin much attention now, but we suspect within a few years that will change. This young man can play hockey.

12.) G Jaroslav Janus, Norfolk (AHL)
After a season wandering in the wilderness, athletic netminder Jaroslav Janus looks to be back to the form of his rookie season. Benefiting from a training camp injury to Dustin Tokarski, Janus assumed the role of de facto number three goaltender in the organization for a while and didn't embarrass himself. Now he's squarely in Tokarski's rear view mirror and the Lightning are starting to look like they really do have the depth in goaltending prospects we thought they had a couple years ago. Janus is the most athletically gifted netminder the Lightning have under contract, and if he keeps improving his poise and positioning the sky could be the limit.

13.) D Charles Landry, Norfolk (AHL)
It'll be tough for Charles Landry to duplicate the rookie success of Mark Barberio and Radko Gudas last season, but Landry still should be a contributor this year for AHL Norfolk. The former Guy Boucher protege with Drummondville had 40 points last season with Montreal in the QMJHL and is a mobile rearguard with a solid two-way game. He's also a coveted righty shot who should get plenty of ice time to develop over the coming years.

14.) D Adam Janosik, Gatineau (QMJHL)
Here's another player who doesn't quite seem to get talked up as much as we think he deserves. Adam Janosik has been a solid point producer over the past couple of years and has shown well on the top pairing for Slovakia in recent junior tournaments. This season, he's started off by consistently registering a point a game with regularity not seen since Paul Ranger was playing for Oshawa. There's nothing slow about Janosik's skating ability, but his methodical, incremental accumulation of points surely has to win the race and raise his stock with the Lightning some time soon.

15.) D Nikita Nesterov, Chelyabinsk Jr. (RUS Jr.)
Our second exhibit for why we are leery of drafting prospects out of Russia is Nikita Nesterov. The 2011 5th rounder was slated to join Traverse City of the WHL, which would've been a boon for his development, but Chelyabinsk did not grant him permission to leave Russia, instead trapping him in the MHL junior league. To his credit, Nesterov's played very well in the MHL with solid point totals and a gaudy plus-minus, and he doesn't need to bulk up as much as fellow Russian draftees Namestnikov and Kucherov, but we still would've much preferred to have seen him rising to a bigger challenge in the WHL.

16.) D Daniel Milan, Moncton (QMJHL)
Like Johnson and Landry before him, Milan is an undrafted "bonus pick" who ended up getting a tryout partially because Nesterov wasn't released to come to North America. Milan made the most of the opportunity by earning an entry level deal. He's got a good sized frame and good mobility and played a calm, poised game in camp to earn his deal. That seems to be par for the course in Moncton, which is quietly churning out quality defensemen at a clip of one or two a season. Milan's off to a slow start offensively now that he's returned to junior, but the Lightning can afford to be patient and he may get another year in the junior ranks before he breaks into the AHL.

17.) D Geoffrey Schemitsch, Owen Sound (OHL)
Mobile two-way blueliner Geoffrey Schemitsch sets sail on the 2011-2012 campaign after an injury-filled season last year that saw his stock drop a little within the organization. Schemitsch's production has fallen off considerably from his 40 point draft year campaign, but that may not be a deal-breaker for us, as we see him as more of a Mike Lundin type minute-eating blueliner in the pro ranks.

18.) C Matthew Peca, Quinnipiac (ECAC)
We love us some Matthew Peca at Bolt Prospects. He has the pedigree, having played for former Lightning draft pick and human buzz saw Sheldon Keefe for Pembrooke of the CCHL. He has the grit and courage, despite his diminutive 5'9" frame. And, he has the skill, having posted 72 points in 50 games last year for Pembrooke and finding the scoresheet in two of his first three games with the Bobcats. There's a reason why multiple junior teams were fighting for Peca's rights prior to his final decision to go to the NCAA. Like Mullin, this guy can play hockey. If he was three inches taller he'd have been a top-60 pick. As it is, he'll have four years to develop and get stronger with Quinnipiac, after which we expect him to become a player to watch in the Lightning organization.

19.) LW Ondrej Palat, Norfolk (AHL)
Ondrej Palat has already crossed his first big hurdle this year, converting an ATO contract with Norfolk into an entry level deal with the Lightning. Now the skinny-but-skilled Czech winger will be looking to gain ice time and experience for the Admirals. Palat posted huge numbers on a line with first rounder Sean Couturier in Drummondville last season, and he'll be looking for a new running buddy in the Lightning this season. Does he have an NHL body? We're not so sure between his spare frame and average skating. But, with 96 points in 61 games last year, it's hard to argue he doesn't know what to do when the puck is on his stick.

20.) C Brendan O'Donnell, North Dakota (WCHA)
Rounding out our top-20 is Winnipeg native Brendan O'Donnell out of the top-notch North Dakota program in the WCHA. O'Donnell's getting ice time, having appeared in all of North Dakota's games thus far, but we suspect the offensive numbers won't come until a couple of years down the line. That's okay, though, because O'Donnell's a well-rounded two-way center who should be able to contribute to the Fighting Sioux in whatever role they put him in.