Bolt Prospects 2011-2012 Midterm Rankings

With the graduation of Brett Connolly from prospect status, it's finally time to release Bolt Prospects' 2011-2012 Midterm Rankings. While difficult for the Lightning at the NHL level, this season has proven to be incredibly exciting for the development of the team's prospects. The Lightning have never boasted such incredible depth in the system, and that depth extends to overage prospects like Trevor Smith, Pierre-Cedric Labrie, and J.T. Wyman, who have made positive contributions to the big club during injury recalls. The team should also be excited about the performance of AHL signees like Philip-Michael Devos and Cory Conacher, the latter of whom is a lock to earn an NHL entry-level contract from the Lightning very soon.

Before we proceed, there's the standard ritual of reciting the rules of our ranking system. Prospects age 24 or older on opening night of the Lightning's season are considered overage prospects and are not eligible for the rankings. That is why Wyman, for instance, does not appear in the rankings. The exception to this rule is NCAA-based prospects, who remain eligible for the rankings for the duration of their college careers. Skaters who appear in 41 NHL games in a single season or 82 total NHL games are considered to be graduated from prospect status. Similarly, goaltenders who earn 30 decisions in a single NHL season or 41 total are considered to be graduated from prospect status. Last, we have to explicitly state the Cory Conacher Rule: only prospects who are currently under contract to the Lightning are eligible for ranking, so Conacher, who is only currently under contract to the Norfolk Admirals, is not eligible for the rankings, which is a situation we expect the Lightning to remedy very soon.

With all the legalese out of the way, we begin:

1. RW Carter Ashton, Norfolk (AHL)
The typical scouting opinion on right wing Carter Ashton was that this north-south power forward's game was better suited for professional hockey than it was for the junior ranks. That turned out to be the case as Ashton streaked out to the AHL Rookie of the Month honors in October and looks well on his way to a 20-25 goal rookie campaign. Ashton draws comparisons regularly to current Lightning forward Ryan Malone, but while he may not quite have Malone's puck handling ability around the opposing cage, he has a more powerful skating stride that catches opposing defenders off-balance. Expect him to be one of a handful of prospects challenging for a NHL job in camp in the fall. (Photo by Eric Dubose)

2. LW/C Alex Killorn, Harvard (ECAC)
The secret may finally be out. After roughly four years of being known as Bolt Prospects' "Stealth Prospect," Alex Killorn is finally getting the attention of the hockey world in his senior campaign at Harvard. Two-thirds of the way through the season, Killorn's already bested his career highs, and he looks poised to challenge for an NHL job in camp in the fall, just like Ashton. Killorn's got a bit of everything: decent size and strength, slick puck handling skills, sharp hockey sense, willingness to finish his checks, and leadership intangibles. He drew comparisons to Brian Rolston in his draft year, and he's done nothing to dissuade anybody from that lofty comparison thus far. We think there's still some fine-tuning to be done on his first step acceleration, his shot, and his defensive coverage, but he's really close to being an NHL regular in Tampa Bay.

3. G Dustin Tokarski, Norfolk (AHL)
If you believe the most important category for a goaltender is wins, you should have the utmost confidence in Lightning prospect Dustin Tokarski, who has already matched his win total from a season ago and is currently tied with Yann Danis of Oklahoma and Ben Bishop of Peoria for tops in the AHL. Tokarski's been a workhorse goaltender throughout both his junior and professional careers, and we expect him to continue to thrive down the stretch of the season. Critics will point to Tokarski's save percentage as cause for concern, as it is below .905 for the campaign, but we think it would be wise to wait to see if Tokarski can duplicate his sterling postseason performance from last year in the playoffs before drawing any final conclusions.

4. C Vladislav Namestnikov, London (OHL)
Center Vlad Namestnikov did not make Russia's Silver Medal winning U20 World Junior Championships team due to a nagging injury, but the rest of his junior campaign has been right in line with expectations. He's been London's second-leading scorer and his points-per-game average has been up over the course of the year from last year's campaign, even despite his injuries. Have no delusions, though, Namestnikov's a long way from being NHL-ready. We look forward to him getting another season of development in junior next year, and hopefully he'll be healthy enough to make a big impact for Russia when they host the U20 World Junior Championships next year in Ufa. He's drawn comparisons to Winnipeg's Bryan Little.

5. D Mark Barberio, Norfolk (AHL)
Mark Barberio's long been a favorite at Bolt Prospects, but even we didn't see his explosive development this season coming. Barberio's already eclipsed the 40-point barrier for the season and he's led all AHL defenders in scoring for much of the season. He's also been decent in the defensive third of the rink, posting a plus-minus that has been among the 10 best in the league for most of the year. He richly deserved his AHL All-Star nod, but he's probably still got one more year of development yet to go in the minors before he presses to make the Lightning. We look at him as a heady third pair defenseman capable of making contributions on the power play unit.
6. RW Richard Panik, Norfolk (AHL)
There's never been a question about the athletic gifts or talents of Marian Hossa clone Richard Panik. The question has always been whether or not, and when, Panik would start to get with the program and learn how to be a pro. After struggling mightily through rookie camp and training camp and stumbling to just six points in his first 21 AHL games, he's managed 14 points in the 18 games since. We expect the talented forward to finish strong, and he could well be poised to join Ashton and Killorn as a legitimate threat to make the Lightning out of camp if he continues to play well.

7. RW Nikita Kucherov, CSKA (RUS)
Nikita Kucherov has followed his breakout 2011 U18 World Junior Championships performance with a solid 2011-2012 campaign that underlines what an exceptional offensive talent he is. After struggling at the KHL level for CSKA to start the season, Kucherov re-established himself with dazzling performances in the MHL and in the Subway Super Series tour against the CHL's All-Stars. Kucherov followed that up with a solid, albeit not spectacular, Silver Medal run at the U20 World Junior Championships which has helped catapult him to solid ice time for CSKA now that he's back at the KHL level again. He's drawn comparisons to Nashville forward Sergei Kostitysyn and we're eager to see how he'll perform at the U20 World Junior Championships in Ufa next season, where he'll surely be expected to be one of the leaders of Team Russia.

8. D Radko Gudas, Norfolk (AHL)
Unfortunately for Radko Gudas, he's had a tough act to follow trying to keep up with the explosive development of Mark Barberio. The undersized bulldog is already closing in on his point totals from a season ago, and he eclipsed the 100 PIM threshold a long time ago, but he's not nearly the offensive contributor that Barberio is. That said, Gudas is well respected for his tenacity and physical game and has drawn comparisons to former Islanders and Penguins d-man Darius Kasparaitis. We also happen to like his mobility and stickhandling skills, which are very underrated. Like Barberio, we expect him to get another year of seasoning in Norfolk before he's a serious threat to make it to Tampa Bay as a third pairing contributor.

9. C Tyler Johnson, Norfolk (AHL) 
On just about any other team in the AHL, we suppose center Tyler Johnson would be receiving a lot more attention for his solid rookie campaign. The former WHL scoring title runner-up is closing in on a very good 20 goal inaugural season in pro hockey, but has been overshadowed by the superb opening month of Carter Ashton and the unexpected breakout of Cory Conacher. Johnson's had a good rookie camp and good preseason for Norfolk that has led to him being a steady contributor for the Admirals this year. We think he needs at least one more year of seasoning, but we definitely feel he's justified the Lightning's decision to sign him as a free agent. He's a legitimate NHL prospect.

10. C James Mullin, Miami-OH (CCHA)
The heir-apparent to Alex Killorn's mantle of "Stealth Prospect" in the Lightning organization may well be slick scorer Jimmy Mullin out of Miami of Ohio in the CCHA. Mullin put up 60 points in 52 games last season for Fargo of the USHL, which is a scoring pace typically reserved only for NHL-caliber offensive prospects in the defensive-oriented league. He's gone ahead and followed that up with a very strong freshman campaign where he's been around a half a point a game for the RedHawks, cementing our opinion of him as a precocious scoring talent worthy of a top-10 spot in our rankings. He's got speed to burn, good hands, and unlike Killorn, we don't expect him to stay in college the full four years. Our suspicion is he'll continue to gain physical maturity and experience for another couple of years, and then look for the Lightning to make a play to sign him and get him on the road to Tampa Bay.
11. D Adam Janosik, Gatineau (QMJHL)
In his draft season Adam Janosik was labeled by scouts as just another European power play specialist out of the QMJHL. They called him quick and talented, but too skinny and too soft to contribute beyond being a specialist. In the two years since, no one's thumbed their nose at their pre-draft scouting report more than Janosik. Mind you, Janosik's continued to be a solid offensive contributor for les Olympiques, but he's also become a leader – wearing the "C" for the club – and a physical presence, as well, even showing some proficiency from time to time in dropping the gloves. Refusing to be typecast, he's been a stalwart in his own third for each of the past two U20 World Junior Championships for Team Slovakia, as well. We think he's earned a contract by working to become a more well rounded player and we're hoping to see him with Norfolk of the AHL next season.

12. D Nikita Nesterov, Chelyabinsk Jr. (RUS Jr.)
It's been an interesting year for Nikita Nesterov of Chelyabinsk. The defender was originally slated to cross the pond to play for Tri-City of the WHL, but the move was blocked by his KHL club, leaving Nesterov to start his season in the MHL. Undeterred, Nesterov got off to a very hot start offensively in the Russian junior league ranks before joining the KHL side just before the Subway Super Series. Nesterov put up a gaudy plus-rating in the KHL before crossing the pond for a very successful tour against the CHL All-Stars. Nesterov then was among the tournament leaders for defensemen scoring at the U20 World Junior Championships where he won Silver with Team Russia. He's since returned to the MHL and continues to contribute steadily for Chelyabinsk Jr. On paper, he looks like a really excellent prospect, but he hasn't quite passed the eyeball test with us, yet. His acceleration seems, dare we say, Pavel Kubina-esque at times and he doesn't have anywhere near the upper body strength of Kubina. We're very intrigued to see if he can make the KHL next season and if he can anchor Russia's U20 World Junior Championships blueline in Ufa next year. In other words, the Nesterov bandwagon is gassed up, but we're not rushing to jump behind the wheel just yet.

13. G Riku Helenius, JYP (FIN)
Surging back into our rankings, and even earning a top-10 rank on one of the judge's scorecards, is former first rounder Riku Helenius of JYP. For those who don't recall, Helenius suffered through five painfully inconsistent seasons of hockey after being drafted 15th overall by the Lightning in 2006. The slide started with Helenius ripping up his shoulder for Ilves of the SM-liiga early in the season following his Entry Draft selection and ended with his being banished to the role of backup to an inexperienced Pontus Sjogren for bottom-tier Elitserien club Sodertalje last year. We were mildly surprised the Lightning even bothered to give Helenius a qualifying offer this summer, but they're surely glad they did now. Helenius spent much of the first quarter of this season posting a ridiculous six shutouts in his first 15 or so starts to get back on our radar, but it's been his play since that white hot start that's really intrigued us. He's wrestled the starting job away from Joni Myllkoski and helped march JYP from the bottom tier of the SM-liiga standings to firmly in the top-6 clubs in the league with a save percentage that has been around .935 all season. For a Lightning club starving for goaltending, we're not sure they can ignore the size and athleticism of a first round talent who is finally starting to meet expectations. Will he want to come back to North America, though? We don't know. But, were he to make it back to Tampa Bay, we're fairly certain it would be The Greatest Lightning Prospect Story Ever Told and we would like the movie rights.

14. C Matthew Peca, Quinnipiac (ECAC)
Our other candidate for the soon-to-be-vacated title of "Stealth Prospect" is Matthew Peca of Quinnipiac. The tiny firecracker who led Pembroke of the CCHL to a title last year started a small scale war for his services before the season that ended in a failed attempt by Quebec of the QMJHL to put him in a Remparts jersey. Patrick Roy's loss was the Bobcats' gain as Peca has found the scoresheet most nights for Quinnipiac with his deft playmaking skills and tireless work ethic. If he were two inches taller, he'd have been a top-60 draft pick. As it is, he still plays like one. We love that he was trained-up by former Lightning workaholic Sheldon Keefe (Steve Downie before there was Steve Downie, for those who don't recall the old school) when he was at Pembroke and we love that in the college ranks he'll get the time and weight training to bulk himself up for the pro ranks. We'd like to see him get at least another couple of seasons with Quinnipiac to bulk up and prepare for the pros, and then watch out. This young man could be a cult hero in Norfolk really quickly.

15. D Evan Oberg, Norfolk (AHL)
Evan Oberg's been listed on four rosters this season: the San Antonio Rampage, the Norfolk Admirals, the Tampa Bay Lightning, and the Delta Airlines Sky Club. After being acquired from the Panthers organization in the James Wright deal, the mobile stay-at-home defender has logged more miles than a traveling salesman in serving as roaming insurance policy for the Lightning's oft-injured defensive corps. It hasn't been good for Oberg's development, but we're fairly certain the game checks have been nothing to sneeze at, so we don't feel too badly. We look at Oberg as a poor-man's Mike Lundin, and we're very interested to see which exotic island he visits with all of those frequent flyer miles he's racked up this year.
16. G Jaroslav Janus, Norfolk (AHL)
There was a time early this year when Jaroslav Janus was a serious threat to Dustin Tokarski's starting job in Norfolk, but the Slovakian netminder has struggled mightily to re-find the type of performance and consistency he enjoyed before a knee injury cut short his rookie campaign with the Admirals. Janus has hovered around the .500 mark as Tokarski's backup and his save percentage has been the bad side of .900 for most of the year. He's as athletic as they come, but his positional play hasn't been the same since the knee injury. He needs a good stretch run to stay in the club's plans. 

17. LW Ondrej Palat, Norfolk (AHL)
Former Drummondville Voltigeurs star Ondrej Palat entered the year on the bubble to earn an NHL contract, and it was only after a successful ATO with the Admirals that he finally earned his entry-level deal. Palat's a smart player with good offensive skill, but he's an average skater who is very much a perimeter player. He's had some decent rookie production and should add depth to the organization, but we're dubious about his NHL upside.

18. C Brendan O'Donnell, North Dakota (WCHA)
One of the pleasant surprises of the season was the freshman play of center Brendan O'Donnell of North Dakota before his season was cut short by a serious shoulder injury which required surgery. After starring in the MJHL and BCHL, O'Donnell wasn't expected to be much more than a fill-in for the lower lines as a freshman for the Fighting Sioux, but his role expanded with injuries to other players and he posted a respectable five goals and six points before the bug got to him, too. O'Donnell's rehab is going to be key, but we like the program he's in and we suspect that in three more years of college hockey he's going to be a very good candidate to be signed and add depth to the organization.

19. D Charles Landry, Florida (ECHL)
Failing to move the needle for Norfolk was rookie defenseman Charles Landry, who has since been dispatched to the Coast with the Everblades. Seemingly a hand-picked signing by Guy Boucher, we had high hopes for Landry after his 40 point campaign with Montreal of the QMJHL last season. But, he's fizzled in the pro ranks thus far, struggling with both the speed and strength of both the AHL and ECHL. A concussion sustained in training camp because of a Richard Panik hit in drills didn’t help. There's time for him to turn it around, but we're not overly pleased by his development thus far, or that of fellow bonus pick defenseman Daniel Milan of Victoriaville.

20. D Luke Witkowski, Western Michigan (CCHA)
The final spot in our rankings belongs to rugged blueliner Luke Witkowski of Western Michigan. The righty defenseman plays a simple, defensive-minded game and brings leadership intangibles to the rink. He almost certainly will play out his senior season next year before the Lightning make a signing decision. One thing we know for certain, he does possess the best beard of any Lightning prospect, and really, how could we keep him out of the top-20 with that?

Others receiving mention:
D Geoffrey Schemitsch, Ottawa (OHL)

There was a day the Lightning were really high on this mobile rearguard, but injuries have wiped out a large chunk of his past two seasons, and he may not receive a contract this summer as a consequence.

G Adam Wilcox, Tri-City (USHL)
Wilcox has hit his stride with the Storm after a struggling a bit following his acquisition from Green Bay. It's been a tough year for Wilcox after Randy McKay's surprise return to Green Bay cost him the starter's spot there and Tri-City's one of the USHL's weaker teams, but his .913 save percentage since the deal gives us reason to hope.

LW/C Alex Hutchings, Florida (ECHL)
Perhaps no Lightning prospect has been more snake bitten by inuries over the past two years than talented pest Alex Hutchings. What began with a nagging hernia that required surgery has led to a string of injuries over his first two pro seasons that have conspired to keep him off the ice. It's a pity, too, because his numbers have been decent with the Everblades and we suspect he might be up in Norfolk in Philip-Michael Devos' roster spot had he stayed off the shelf.