Lightning Minor Pro Preview: Wingers

The Syracuse Crunch will open training camp on September 28 with more talent than they originally expected. The NHL lockout forced the postponement of the Lightning’s training camp and subsequently meant all prospects and young NHLers expected to start the year in Tampa will now start the year in the AHL.

Lost in this situation is the opportunity to have out-of-nowhere stories like Cory Conacher or Brett Connolly last year or perhaps most famously, Dmitri Afanasenkov in 2003.

While that’s bad news for the Tampa Bay media and fans, it’s good news for the Syracuse fan base, who at this point is like a kid with a birthday the day after Christmas. Not only does a championship team show up at their arena’s front door, now they get a significant upgrade in talent to a team that was already expected to compete for a championship.

This is also good news for the Florida Everblades – another team coming off a championship – as they’ll get the players pushed down from Syracuse.

The question is who?

Here’s a look at the latest minor pro organizational roster of the Tampa Bay Lightning and some notes and predictions for each player, broken down by position.

Today: Wingers

IN: J. T. Brown, Brett Connolly

OUT: Alexandre Picard, Brandon Segal, Michel Ouellet

Mike Angelidis, age 27, 6’1” 210 pounds

Acquired: Signed as an unrestricted free agent in August 2010
BP Rank: Graduated prospect

Last season: Angelidis had the honor of raising the Calder Cup trophy as captain of the Norfolk Admirals in his hometown of Toronto. He also scored his first NHL goal on his second shift. It doesn’t get much better than that. For the season, he had 14 goals and 27 points for Norfolk and six points in the playoffs. Angelidis was rewarded with a new contract in the offseason by the Bolts.

This season: Angelidis provides the Lightning with quality depth at wing. He can play physical, is responsible defensively, and is adept offensively. He’s a leader for the Baby Bolts and will be counted on in the locker room and on the ice in Syracuse. Angelidis will have to sign a minor league contract with the Crunch to avoid waivers.

Prediction: Syracuse, with spot duty in Tampa as needed

J. T. Brown, age 22, 5’10” 170 pounds

Acquired: Signed as a free agent out of the University of Minnesota-Duluth in March 2012
BP Rank: 3

Last season: The Lightning won a bidding war for the former Frozen Four MVP, signing him to a 2-year deal in March. Brown finished the year with the Lightning, earning one assist and pocketing a wad of cash. He was then part of Team USA’s entry in the 2012 World Championships with a team full of NHLers. At UMD he had 24 goals and 47 points in 39 games as a senior.

This season: Brown was thought to be a near lock to make the Lightning out of camp. He has the speed and tenacity Lightning coach Guy Boucher loves and GM Steve Yzerman is obviously high on the youngster. If the lockout continues and Brown plays in the AHL, he’ll benefit from playing against men and getting additional ice time. As long as the lockout continues, he’ll be a significant 2-way force for the Crunch.

Prediction: Syracuse until the lockout ends

Cory Conacher, age 22, 5’8” 180 pounds

Acquired: Signed as a free agent in March 2012
BP Rank: 4

Last season: Where to begin? Conacher (pictured) was the story of Lightning camp, then under a minor league contract with the Admirals he won the league’s MVP award. He had 16 points in 18 playoff games helping Norfolk win the Calder Cup. The Lightning signed him in March so his NHL contract wouldn’t begin until this year.

This season: Conacher was expected to be a finalist for one of the few spots available in Tampa. There was a very good chance you would have seen Conacher wearing No.89 in Tampa Bay’s opening night lineup. As it is now, the hard-working former collegian will be an offensive leader for the Crunch until the lockout ends – and maybe longer depending on the Lightning’s roster situation.

Prediction: Syracuse and Tampa Bay

Brett Connolly, age 20, 6’2” 181 pounds

Acquired: 2010 first round pick by the Lightning out of WHL Prince George
BP Rank: Graduated prospect (42+ NHL games played in one season)

Last season: As a 19-year-old last fall, Connolly was in the unique position of being good enough for pro hockey, but not quite ideal for the NHL and too young for the AHL. The Lightning had to choose between keeping him in Tampa or sending him back to a poor Prince George team. They chose to keep the scoring winger with the big club and his growing pains were a little more abundant than most fans would have liked. Perhaps the success of Carolina’s Jeff Skinner, drafted right after Connolly, is to blame for that. Connolly shined at times, but really showed his potential and confidence when he suited up for Canada at the World Junior Championships. There was some debate on if he’d return to juniors after the tournament – and his rights were even traded by Prince George – but the Lightning chose to keep him in Tampa.

This season: Connolly wasn’t a lock to make the Lightning, but he probably had a solid chance of reclaiming his spot. If he doesn’t get the spot when the lockout ends, he’ll get it soon enough. It’s way too soon to give up on the 20-year-old. Thanks to hitting 20 years of age he is eligible to play in the AHL this year, and that’s where it looks like he will start. Expect Connolly to be a high-energy point producer for the Crunch. It may turn out this experience in the AHL is the best thing for his development.

Prediction: Syracuse and Tampa Bay

Alex Hutchings, age 21, 5’10” 178

Acquired: A 2009 fourth round pick of the Lightning out of OHL Barrie
BP Rank: Not ranked

Last season: Hutchings got off to a torrid start for the Everblades before an injury sidelined him for all but 35 total games in the ECHL and AHL. He was used in Norfolk when injuries affected their forward numbers, and was a practice player for the Ads during their Calder Cup run. Hutchings never played in the playoffs for either the Admirals or the Everblades.

This season: Hutchings has to pick up where he left off. He displayed the offensive abilities and work ethic that helped him be a mid-round pick and a scoring star in Barrie. He’s entering the final year of his entry-level contract, and he has to show the organization he’s a legitimate prospect if he’s to earn a fourth year. With so many talented wingers ahead of him, nothing will be given to the Ontario native.

Prediction: Syracuse with a miniscule possibility of being demoted to Florida

Alex Killorn, age 23, 6’2” 205

Acquired: A 2007 third round pick of the Lightning out of Deerfield High School
BP Rank: 5

Last season: Alex Killorn is no longer Bolt Prospects’ stealth prospect; the secret is out. Killorn had a wonderful season for Harvard last year – his last with the Crimson – posting 23 goals and 46 points on his way to being named an ECAC First Team All-Star and NCAA East First Team All-American. After Harvard’s season was finished, Killorn joined the Admirals and potted two goals and six assists in 10 regular season games and at times looked like the top prospect on the ice. He slowed down in the playoffs, whether due to an unannounced injury or hitting the proverbial wall that a lot of collegians hit, but still managed 12 points in 17 playoff games.

This season: Killorn was a darkhorse for a spot in Tampa, but with his lack of professional experience, it’s possible he would have ended up in Syracuse. With that decision taken away from the Lightning, Killorn will provide a power forward presence for the Crunch. He played center at Harvard and was a winger with Norfolk, so where exactly he ends up has yet to be revealed. With his size and determination, he could make an excellent No.3 2-way center for the Lightning in the near future. With Harvard he would dive to block a shot and score off a wicked wrister on the same shift.

Prediction: Syracuse with some time spent in Tampa

Pierre-Cedric Labrie, age 25, 6’2” 218 pounds

Acquired: Signed as a free agent in December 2011
BP Rank: Graduated prospect

Last season: A longtime favorite of Bolt Prospects, Labrie played his way into an NHL deal with the Lightning last year. He had two assists in 14 games with the Lightning, including 15 minutes in penalties. While with Norfolk, “Nacho” Labrie provided veteran leadership on and off the ice. His physicality, character, and work ethic were major reasons why Norfolk was able to accomplish what they did. He’s an excellent example for young prospects. Labrie had five goals and nine points in the playoffs for the Ads.

This season: Labrie may have earned a spot on the Lightning’s fourth line as an energy player, but as it is he will likely sign a minor league contract in order to be assigned to Syracuse to start the season. If he ends up in New York he will be a big and entertaining part of Syracuse’s attack.

Prediction: Syracuse and Tampa Bay

Eric Neilson, age 28, 6’1” 201 pounds

Acquired: Minor league contract

Last season: Neilson missed a lot of last year with various injuries, but when he was in the lineup his presence was certainly felt – usually in the form of his fist hitting someone’s face. He was a fan and player favorite for Norfolk, even when he wasn’t able to play. His playoff beard rivaled only Gudas’ and Scott Jackson’s in awesomeness.

This season: Neilson will be with Syracuse as a lower line energy player and frequent healthy scratch. He’s the type of “glue guy” teams need in their locker room.

Prediction: Syracuse

Ondrej Palat, age 21, 6’0” 174 pounds

Acquired: A 2011 seventh round pick by the Lightning out of QMJHL Drummondville
BP Rank: 16

Last season: Watching Palat in the playoffs, it was hard to believe that right out of camp the organization debated on sending him back to juniors. Perhaps no draftee made as big of a jump within the organization as this Czech two-way winger. Thought to be just an offensive wiz, Palat proved to be adept at both ends of the ice and was one of the Admirals’ most responsible players through the late season and playoffs. His nine points in the Calder Cup run don’t reflect his complete value to the club.

This season: Lightning management was likely looking forward to watching prospects like Palat compete against NHLers in training camp, but that’s obviously not going to happen now. Palat may end up on the third line in Syracuse, but he’ll be a big part of their special teams as the season progresses. Palat has gone from a late round gamble to legitimate NHL prospect. He has to keep trending up.

Prediction: Syracuse

Richard Panik, age 21, 6’2” 215 pounds

Acquired: A 2009 second round pick by the Lightning out of the Czech Republic
BP Rank: 9

Last season: Panik had a slow start to the year with Norfolk, but finished as one of its most dangerous offensive players. While he scored 19 regular season goals, he scored “just” five in the post-season. One of those was a highlight reel overtime and series winner against Connecticut.

This season: Panik was probably slotted to return to Syracuse, though he had as good a chance as any to be this year’s Lightning camp surprise. He has filthy hands and when he wants to be physical, he’s a bull in a china shop. The key with Panik is getting consistent effort every shift and improving his defensive zone play. He should flirt with 30 goals for the Crunch and then be a legitimate threat to make the Lightning a year from now.

Prediction: Syracuse

J. T. Wyman, age 26, 6’2” 200 pounds

Acquired: Signed as an unrestricted free agent in July 2011
BP Rank: Graduated prospect

Last season: Wyman was a pleasant surprise, providing both the Admirals and Lightning with gritty two-way play. He spent most of the year in Tampa, scoring twice and adding nine assists in 40 games. In Norfolk he had six goals and 12 points in 29 games. He was not a part of Norfolk’s championship run.

This season: Wyman was likely going to be on the Lightning’s bottom line – a spot he earned with his play last year. He’s a favorite of Boucher’s because he is responsible and will do whatever the team needs. He may be asked to play some center for the wing-heavy Crunch. Wyman cleared waivers in order to be assigned to Syracuse.

Prediction: Syracuse and Tampa Bay

Next up: Centers
Previous: Defensemen, Goaltenders.