The top ten of my rankings has finally arrived. A former ECAC goaltender, the Springfield Falcons' leading scorer and three oustanding young blueliners make the cut. More after the break:
10.) G Brian Eklund, Springfield Falcons (AHL)
Ht/Wt: 6'5" 205 lbs. Drafted: 7th Round 2000
43GP 14-23-0-0, 3.01GAA, .911sv%
After struggling for nearly a decade and a half to develop a legitimate NHL goaltending prospect of their own, the Lightning may have finally found the right formula with Brian Eklund. Drafted in the 7th round in 2000, the Lightning have taken a patient approach to Eklund which began to pay huge dividends over the past two seasons. Eklund in a big goaltender at 6' 5" who plays an efficient butterfly style with a surprising amount of athleticism for a big man. Following goaltender coach Jeff Reese's teaching, Eklund plays a patient, reserved style staying square to opposing shooters to cut down angles and shut down scoring opportunities. It's been a long hard road for the man nicknamed "Eks", one which saw him lose his starting job as a senior to phenom Yann Danis, now a Canadiens prospect, and toil for two seasons with Pensacola in the ECHL. However, in the ECHL, Eklund was free to develop in a low pressure environment sitting his rookie campaign behind veteran mentor Maxime Gingras. Eklund learned his lessons well taking over the starting job by his second year of pro and setting ECHL records for wins and saves. This season, his first full year in the AHL, Eklund again was the apprentice behind veteran Jamie Storr and by midseason had become a force in his own right at the AHL level. Looking towards next season, Eklund may again start the season in a tandem with a veteran netminder but expect him to claim the starting job outright by the second half of the season. In fact, as it stands now, Eklund is a legitimate contender to the #3 goaltender position in the organization as first call up should anything happen to Nikolai Khabibulin or John Grahame, proof positive that patience pays off when developing young goaltenders.
9.) D Gerard Dicaire, Springfield Falcons (AHL)
Ht/Wt: 6'2" 230 lbs. Drafted: 5th Round 2002
47GP 3-4-7 20PIMs (-16)
To this point in Gerard Dicaire's pro career, getting on the ice to develop has been as steep a challenge as any he has faced on the rink. Caught in the shuffle of a joint affiliation, Dicaire saw little ice time last season as the lone Lightning representative with the Utah Grizzlies. This season Dicaire again struggled to find ice time through no fault of his own, first having to deal with surgery to remove a boil in his back and then having to deal with an untimely death in the family. The net result for Dicaire's first two years in the pros has been a limited opportunity to grow as a player, which is a shame for a player who nearly made the team coming out of the Lightning's training camp in the Fall of 2003. Dicaire plays a quiet, cerebral game. He is a strong skater who makes an excellent first outlet pass but where he can really shine is on the power play where he efffortlessly and instinctually jumps into shooting holes from the point position and makes opposing teams' penalty kills pay. Unfortunately though, with the lack of scoring up front in Springfield last season, it was hard for Dicaire to cash in on his abilities as a puck rusher and playmaker and his reluctance to take the body and compete physically makes him far less if a threatening proposition at even strength. Dicaire has a powerful patron lobbying for him in Associate Coach Craig Ramsey, who loves Dicaire's game and sees it fitting the Lightning's aggressive style to a tee. But that will only get Gerard so far and while he could seriously challenge for the team's #7 defenseman spot out of camp, this next season will be probably be spent in the AHL in a year which will be crucial in Dicaire's development. Gerard must stay healthy and on the ice and prove his natural ability translates to production at the pro level with Springfield. Expect the Lightning organization and Coach Graham to give him the opportunity, the rest will be up to Dicaire.
8.) D Doug O'Brien, Springfield Falcons (AHL)
Ht/Wt: 6'1" 200 lbs. Drafted: 6th Round 2003
74GP 4-13-17 76PIMs (-22) (AHL)
3GP 0-0-0 2PIMs (+2) (ECHL)
The closest thing Head Coach Dirk Graham had to a go-to guy on the blueline last season was without a doubt rookie defenseman Doug O'Brien. Signing out of the very successful Olympiques organization in the QMJHL after earning plaudits as the league's top defenseman, much was expected out of the 2003 6th round selection in his innagural campaign and by the end of the year the Newfoundland native began to live up to his billing. O'Brien is a heady two-way player who likes to tend to business in his own third of the rink before looking for the offensive side of his game. However, when he does look to contribute, O'Brien can definitely chip in as evidenced by his 17 points which led all Falcons defenders. The adjustment period was not painless as a rookie for O'Brien and at mid-season he was given a short stint with Johnstown of the ECHL to regain his confidence. Still, O'Brien soon began to show his excellent range and his ability to make a good first pass out of the zone which quickly earned him big minutes from the Falcons coaching staff as the season wore on. O'Brien is not overly zealous, but he won't shy away from contact and is very willing to compete physically to win loose pucks in his own end. That tenacity is a positive intangible, but O'Brien still needs to put on 10-15 pounds of muscle in his upper body if he is to gain the strength to compete against bigger forwards who occassionally manhandled him at the AHL level. Expect O'Brien to compete for the Lightning's #7 defenseman spot next training camp and, should he not make the team, to play big minutes again for the Falcons as he tries to establish himself as first call up on the depth chart.
7.) C/LW Ryan Craig, Springfield Falcons (AHL)
Ht/Wt: 6'2" 220 lbs. Drafted: 8th Round 2002
80GP 27-14-41 50PIMs (-21)
For those discontented Falcons fans quick to dismiss this last season's Lightning rookies as inferior talent, Ryan Craig is a shining example of how much a player can improve from their first to second year in the AHL. After posting a meager 12 points the previous season with Hershey, Craig made a stunning 29 point improvement in his sophomore season leading the Falcons in scoring and even flirting with the 30 goal mark down the stretch of the season. Renowned for his leadership and character as a junior player coming out of Brandon in the WHL, Craig won the team's Player's Player Award and Best Defensive Player Award for the 2004-2005 season. Craig possesses quick hands which he uses to his advantage both in the faceoff circles and in confounding opposing netminders with his pinpoint accurate snap shot. Craig is not overzealous physically on the forecheck, but shows great courage in driving the net and in high traffic areas looking to create scoring chances. What holds Craig back is his skating, which is, to put it diplomatically, substandard even at the AHL level. Craig's hustle has done a lot for him at the AHL level, but without serious improvement on his speed and burst he could be a seriously liability defensively if he makes the jump to the NHL. Still, there's something about Craig's character intangibles that harkens back to another former Lightning player who overcame his skating deficiencies to forge a solid NHL career as a checking liner: Rob Zamuner. A similar path could be in the future of Ryan Craig.
6.) D Paul Ranger, Springfield Falcons (AHL)
Ht/Wt: 6'2" 215 lbs. Drafted: 6th Round 2002
69GP 3-8-11 46PIMs (-7)
With the Lightning so deep at the defenseman position, it's high praise when GM Jay Feaster goes on the record as saying a player has perhaps the most potential of the group. That's exactly the kind of plaudits that were given to rookie AHLer Paul Ranger, who wrestled the mantle of the team's top offensive defenseman prospect away from all comers. Put simply, when Paul Ranger suits up for a hockey game, he shows up anywhere and everywhere on the rink. Possessing great mobility and an aggressiveness that seems a match made in heaven for Craig Ramsey's 'Safe is Death' system, Ranger asserts himself in all three zones of the rink in a manner reminiscent of current Lightning star Dan Boyle. Ranger sports a good, hard point shot and not the slightest bit of fear of jumping into the rush. After taking much of the season to settle into the pro ranks, Ranger made a splash in the final weeks of the season notching 6 points in his last dozen games of the year, including points in 4 of the last 5, and posting an impressive +8 rating over that span. Because he opted in to the draft in 2002, many people forget that Ranger was the third youngest Falcon this season, born just 2 weeks before the team's top 2003 draft pick, Mike Egener. That means Ranger has plenty of time to work on getting in better condition and gaining more upper body strength to help him compete physically. True, Ranger doesn't necessarily relish the physical game, but he definitely shows hustle and a willingness to get his nose dirty and win back pucks in the defensive third of the ice. He isn't as close to the NHL as some of his Falcons teammates, but given another year or two of development and Ranger could be a serious contender to fill the shoes of one of the Lightning's older offensive defensemen like Darryl Sydor.
Pete's Lightning Prospect Rankings
6.) D Paul Ranger, Springfield (AHL)
7.) C/LW Ryan Craig, Springfield (AHL)
8.) D Doug O'Brien, Springfield (AHL)
9.) D Gerard Dicaire, Springfield (AHL)
10.) G Brian Eklund, Springfield (AHL)
11.) D Matt Smaby, North Dakota (WCHA)
12.) RW Darren Reid, Springfield (AHL)
13.) C/LW Nick Tarnasky, Springfield (AHL)
14.) G Karri Ramo, Lahti (FIN)
15.) G Jonathan Boutin, Quebec (QMJHL)
16.) G Gerald Coleman, London (OHL)
17.) C/LW Dimitri Kazionov, Togliatti (RUS)
18.) C/LW Zbynek Hrdel, Rimouski (QMJHL)
19.) LW Mark Tobin, Rimouski (QMJHL)
20.) D Andreas Holmqvist, Springfield (AHL)
21.) D Mike Lundin, Maine (HEast)
22.) LW Justin Keller, Kelowna (WHL)
23.) LW Dennis Packard, Springfield (AHL)
24.) C Andre Deveaux, Springfield (AHL)
25.) LW Alexei Glukhov, Victoria (ECHL)
Note:Rankings take into consideration future upside AND NHL readiness in comparing players. The team the player is listed with is the last franchise in the league the player spent the largest part of the year with. Height/weight metrics were compiled from the player's team or league where available. These rankings are my personal rankings and not representative of the opinions of the Boltprospects staff as a whole.