Today, Bolt Prospects is releasing its Preliminary Prospect Rankings for the 2008-2009 season. Eight prospects make their debut in the Top 25 since the end of the 2007-2008 season. Half of the debutantes enter the list via the 2008 NHL Entry Draft including the #1 overall pick. The other half enter the list via various trades and acquisitions made by the new Lightning ownership.
Just a reminder of the rules: a prospect is any player under the age of 24 on opening night of the Lightningâ€™s NHL season that has not played 41 or more games in an NHL season or more than 82 games in their NHL career. For goaltenders, the games thresholds are slightly different. Netminders will be considered prospects if they have not achieved 30 or more decisions in an NHL season or 41 decisions in their NHL careers. In addition, all college players will be considered prospects, regardless of their age, until they graduate. Players over the age of 24 on opening night that have not graduated are considered overage prospects.
With all the legal disclaimers out of the way, lets begin:
1. C Steven Stamkos , Tampa Bay (NHL)
Despite a slow start to his rookie campaign, Stamkos remains the clear consensus choice as the Lightning's top prospect. It's only a matter of time before Stamkos, with his world class speed and shot, becomes one of the game's elite forwards. We just hope the Lightning can finally figure out the right linemates and role to put Stamkos in a position to succeed.
2. G Karri Ramo , Norfolk (AHL)
Ramo's numbers have been poor this season in Norfolk, but Admirals Head Coach Darren Rumble has been quick to defend his netminder in interviews as often being the lone factor holding Norfolk and its young defense into games. Still, we'd like to see some of the Ramo from his rookie campaign that used to steal games in Springfield. We also would like to see the same Ramo that won the breakaway event at the AHL Skills Competition a couple of years ago, rather than the Ramo that has gotten torched in the penalty shot session this season.
3. D Ty Wishart , Norfolk (AHL)
Wishart has struggled to adjust to the speed of the pro game, which is common for young defensemen. So, we're not pushing the panic button yet. However, we did think Wishart would bring more offense early in his pro career. He still has the natural ability to become a very solid NHLer.
4. RW Steve Downie , Norfolk (AHL)
When the Flyers drafted Downie, they thought they were grabbing a Bobby Clarke clone. Now, Downie looks more like the spitting image of Sean Avery or Darcy Tucker. Still, Downie is a gifted playmaker who is fully capable of becoming a good second/third line tweener and agitator at the next level, if he learns the meaning of the word discipline.
5. D Vladimir Mihalik , Norfolk (AHL)
Mihalik made his NHL debut for the Lightning in the team's opening trip to Prague in the Czech Republic, but his game has slid backward since that time. Mihalik has struggled mightily with his decision making with the puck and hasn't looked like the same player that was solid as a rock for Norfolk down the stretch last season.
6. D Matt Smaby , Norfolk (AHL)
Matt Smaby, with the exception of the occasional jarring open ice hit, plays a quiet stay-at-home game that is worthy of respect. He may lack the upside of Wishart or Mihalik, but we still believe he will be an NHLer. Whether or not that happens with the Lightning, though, remains to be seen.
7. LW/C Dana Tyrell , Prince George (WHL)
An old hockey man once warned me never to look too deeply into the numbers of the best player on a bad team. So, I won't over hype Tyrell's gaudy offensive statistics this season or his super-poor +/-. Tyrell has world class speed and acceleration and pretty good hands, and we look forward to Dana starting his pro career next season.
8. LW Radek Smolenak , Norfolk (AHL)
Pay attention, Lightning prospects, to a story of redemption and perseverance. A year ago Radek Smolenak was playing in the Coast for Mississippi after being exiled for displaying poor work habits. A year later he's a fixture on Norfolk's top line, which is arguably one of the most potent in the AHL. Hard work pays off, and things can turn around quickly. Smolenak's skating remains his biggest knock, but if he continues to play a power forward's game in the high traffic areas, it'll be hard to keep him out of the NHL.
9. G Riku Helenius , Augusta (ECHL)
Same as it ever was with Riku: we're still waiting for Riku to get enough game action to evaluate where Helenius is after he missed an entire season two years ago due to a shoulder injury. The rookie pro has been splitting time for a very young Lynx team in Augusta, and we should know more about where Helenius is by the second half of the season after he's seen more game action.
10. LW/C Johan Harju , Lulea (SWE)
"Big Joe" continues to be a late-round revelation for the Lightning as he has continued to stake his claim as being one of the best young forwards in the Swedish Elitserien. Like Smolenak, he's not a world class skater, but he can shoot the puck through a cement wall, and accurately too. The lack of an IIHF transfer agreement with Sweden may figure prominently in Harju's future.
11. C Paul Szczechura , Norfolk (AHL)
Speaking of revelations, who would have believed that when Norfolk acquired undrafted Paul Szczechura from Iowa of the AHL last season for future considerations that they would be acquiring a potential MVP candidate? Szczechura's numbers have been downright sick for Norfolk since joining the Admirals, and it's hard to deny that Paul is just one of those players who is more than the sum of his parts. He is just a good, all-around hockey player and we expect to see him in the NHL within the next couple of years.
12. C Alexander Killorn, Harvard (ECACHL)
There's probably not a bigger sleeper prospect in the Lightning organization than Harvard center Alex Killorn . Freshmen typically don't make much of an impact unless they're a star caliber prospect, and Killorn has followed up a very good Lightning rookie camp by playing very well in the early season for the Crimson. Don't be surprised if the Lightning make a play in a couple of years to lure Killorn out of college, and don't be surprised to see Killorn shoot up the depth chart when he does.
13. G Dustin Tokarski , Spokane (WHL)
Just stop the puck, baby. Tic isn't big. Tic isn't supremely athletic. But, you can't get pucks by Tic. No Lightning prospect netminder has had stats this gaudy since Gerald Coleman  was manning the crease for the London Knights, and unlike Coleman, Tokarski's numbers aren't being inflated by playing behind one of the best junior teams of all time. With that in mind, we very much look forward to Tokarski's pro debut in the Lightning organization.
14. C Blair Jones , Norfolk (AHL)
Jones has somewhat fallen off the map since playing a fair number of games in Tampa during his rookie season. The book on Jones is very simple: when he puts the effort in he is one of the most tenacious forecheckers in the organization. That's his ticket to the NHL, whether it be with the Lightning or another team.
15. C Mitch Fadden , Tri-City (WHL)
The Lightning have been very tight lipped as to why they didn't sign Fadden out of Norfolk camp earlier this season, and it's unclear whether they'll make a play to sign Fadden next summer. Fadden is a talented, speedy forward, and like most good offensive forwards the puck seems to follow him around the offensive zone. Still, we'd like to see him bulk up and compete more in the corners and in the high traffic areas.
16. LW Luca Cunti , Rimouski (QMJHL)
It's tough to evaluate Luca after he lost half of last season to the NCAA Clearing House and spent the other half in the less competitive USHL. His numbers with the Oceanic are fairly respectable, but we expected Cunti's goal totals to be significantly higher. He has a lot of speed and has stickhandling abilities that border on the fantastic, but the Lightning may not sign the talented Swiss-born forward this summer if he doesn't start to compete more along the walls and in the high traffic areas.
17. D Andy Rogers , Norfolk (AHL)
The good news is that Rogers hasn't spent significant time on the shelf yet, which is a positive development. The bad news is that his decision making with the puck remains an area of deep concern for the Lightning organization. Rogers, physically, is still everything you would want in a blueliner, but with Wishart, Mihalik, and Smaby ahead of him, Rogers needs to climb the ladder quickly to have any future in Tampa Bay.
18. Michal Sersen , Bratislava (SVK)
You know the magazines and the gum they have at the checkout aisle at the grocery store? That's about what Michal Sersen was for the Lightning on their opening swing through Europe: the NHL equivalent of a checkout impulse buy. Sersen played well in Bratislava's exhibition game against the Lightning, and GM Brian Lawton quickly made a move to snap up the smallish puck mover. The Lightning have already signaled their intention to try to lure Sersen to North America next season. We'll see if Sersen is more like a copy of Time or the National Enquirer when and if he does.
19. RW/C Chris Lawrence , Augusta (ECHL)
Lawrence has been a disappointment after it looked like he might be on the verge of a breakout season. The power forward had a good Lightning Prospect Camp and Traverse City Tournament, but did very little in Norfolk before his exhile to the Coast. Our only hope is that Lawrence can somehow follow Radek Smolenak's lead, and that by this time next season he's putting up big numbers in the AHL using his size and skill to play an honest, power forward's game.
20. D Mark Barberio , Moncton (QMJHL)
We like this guy. Barberio is putting up great numbers on a Moncton club that is a leading contender to win the QMJHL this season. He's a guy who doesn't have the prettiest skating stride, but he has great anticipation and hockey sense. It was clear from his play at Traverse City that he has some developing to do before he can become a good pro, but he has many of the intangible qualities that can take a player like him to the NHL.
21. LW Juraj Simek , Norfolk (AHL)
Simek, who was acquired from Vancouver in the Lukas Krajicek  deal, has put up modestly good numbers for Norfolk in his second season of pro hockey. Although he is Slovakian by birth, Simek was trained in Switzerland in the Kloten organization before spending one good season in the WHL with Brandon. The smallish forward has some skill, but he looks like a depth player at this point in his career.
22. C James Wright , Vancouver (WHL)
James Wright is another sleeper who is currently putting up solid numbers for Vancouver in the WHL. The big center was a high draft pick out of bantam, but has failed to live up to his offensive billing until this season. Like Smolenak and Lawrence before him, Wright fits into the mold of Lightning prospects that has a future if he can play an honest power forward's game and shows the will to physically compete.
23. D Kevin Quick , Augusta (ECHL)
It's been a tough year for Kevin Quick, whose fall down our rankings has been precipitous and swift. Put simply, he probably shouldn't be playing pro hockey at this point in his career as he lacks the physical and mental maturity to really thrive in the pro game. So, the Lightning have put Quick down in the Coast where, hopefully, he can learn the pro game at a less taxing pace. Quick still has great wheels, and above average hockey sense. But, his ascension through the ranks will now have to come the hard way.
24. RW Matt Marshall , Vermont (HEast)
Marshall is seeing modest ice time for Vermont as a freshman, which is encouraging. The young forward has the reputation of being one of the Lightning's best young skaters with a penchant for hitting anything that moves. Marshall will continue his development at Vermont over the next few seasons as, hopefully, his hands and hockey sense will begin to catch up with his skating.
25. LW Justin Keller , Norfolk (WHL)
Keller, who was runner-up for WHL Player of the Year in his final season of junior hockey, has struggled to translate his successes to the next level. His lack of size and ordinary skating ability are a liability in the pro ranks, and he has simply struggled to cope against the bigger and stronger players in the AHL. He lit it up in a short stint in the Coast earlier this year with Augusta, but that is more of an indication of just how far his stock has fallen, and it is difficult to see the Lightning re-signing Keller after this season, barring some major improvement in his play.