With about a month to go in the regular season over in Europe, and a little over a couple of months left to go in North America, the 2008-2009 season has turned out to be a good one for the prospects of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Asked to buoy the Lightning's sagging playoff hopes and to compensate for a spate of injuries on the top club's blueline, the team's youth has served admirably and done their part to help right the ship for Head Coach Rick Tocchet's club. Heading into the stretch run of the season, it looks like the youth in the Lightning organization may be priming for a big finish, capping a 2008-2009 season that in many ways has been a validation of the work that's been done by the club's scouts and developmental people, past and present.
But, before we get into it, let me once again give the tri-seasonal disclaimer about Bolt Prospects' criteria on what exactly makes a prospect. We try to make it as simple as possible: any player 24 years of age or older at the start of the season is considered an overage prospect and is no longer eligible for the rankings, with the exception of NCAA players who are still in school. Prospects at the skating positions who play 41 or more games in a single NHL season or 82 total career NHL games are no longer considered prospects. Hence, top draft pick Steven Stamkos  is no longer considered a prospect by our criteria. For goaltenders, a netminder who racks up 30 or more decisions in a single NHL season or 41 career NHL decisions is considered graduated, and is not eligible for the rankings. So, in case you were wondering who graduates next: Szczechura (23 games) and Downie (24 games) are the next two in line.
Bolt Prospects' Midterm Rankings were compiled by the Bolt Prospects Senior Staff of myself, Timothy, and Chad; a motley crew that has been doing prospect rankings now for about seven years between our time at HF and the founding of Bolt Prospects for the 2005-2006 season. Each member compiled their own top-25 list, and a composite list was generated. Ties on the list were broken the old fashioned way: message board arguing at 10 paces. Bolt Prospects will release its 2008-2009 Final Rankings some time after the conclusion of all of the team's prospect's playoff seasons.
So, without any further delay...
1.) RW Steve Downie , Tampa Bay (NHL)
For the first time in a couple of years, someone not named Stamkos or Ramo occupies the top spot on the Bolt Prospects rankings. The reason is simple: after earning an AHL suspension shortly after being acquired from the Flyers organization, Downie has started to focus on hockey rather than extracuriculars. And, oh yeah, he's one hell of a hockey player when he does. With the Admirals, Downie racked up 8 goals and 25 points in 19 games en route to being named an AHL All-Star, and in recent recalls with the Lightning he has become a regular linemate of Steven Stamkos. Foreshadowing? Downie is a strong skater who is surprisingly hard to knock off the puck for a player with such small stature. He also is a deft playmaker with an underrated shot that he has started to use more in the last month or so, with good results.
2.) G Karri Ramo , Tampa Bay (NHL)
If Karri Ramo could call for a "do-over" of the 2008-2009 season, thus far, we suspect he would probably do it. Ramo has struggled with his positioning and his rebound control this season behind a young defense in Norfolk that has, at times, left him exposed. Still, we've seen Ramo excel behind even worse defensive corps as a rookie in Springfield and it's hard to believe this campaign's version of Ramo is the same player who performed so well down the stretch of last season with Tampa Bay. However, talk of jettisoning the young Finn is, in our opinion, extremely premature. At 22 years old, Ramo is still two years younger than Mike Smith  was when he made his NHL debut, and considering Ramo's already shown he can compete in the NHL we feel there is plenty of time for him to turn things around. In fact, he may earn the backup job in Tampa Bay by default now that Olaf Kolzig  has been forced out for the rest of the season due to injury.
3.) C Paul Szczechura , Tampa Bay (NHL)
If there were a school that gave out degrees in hockey (please save your jokes about the various CCHA and WCHA schools), we believe Paul Szcechura would be a double doctorate. His shockingly seamless transition from the AHL to the NHL was made possible by the fact he is in the upper ten percentile of players in the way he thinks the game, placing him a stride ahead of his competition and in just the right spot in terms of body positioning to win loose pucks. We don't think Szczechura has quite the offensive chops to be a big scorer in the NHL, but his versatility and intelligence should provide the foundation for a long and successful NHL career.
4.) D Matt Smaby , Tampa Bay (NHL)
It's been two years coming, but we feel like Matt Smaby has finally broken through in his latest recall. After tip toeing around NHL ice for bits and pieces of the past two seasons, we are finally starting to see Matt Smaby play his style of hockey at the top level: aggressive, physical, and borderline nasty. Lightning fans have seen players like Smaby come through town before (see: Sarich, Cory) so they should be well prepared for some of the mistakes Smaby is sure to make as he learns the game at the next level. But, as long as they are mistakes of aggression, we feel that the growing pains will surely be worth it, because a player like Smaby definitely fits the tough new identity that Head Coach Rick Tocchet is trying to instill in his club.
5.) D Ty Wishart , Norfolk (AHL)
Now that Lightning fans have gotten to see a couple of games of Ty Wishart at the NHL level they've gotten a taste of what the big defenseman brings to the table: a preternatural calmness. In fact, if we have a criticsm, it might be that Wishart is a little too calm. There are times he makes decisions so methodically that any slower and he might be moving backwards. We'd like to see the big young blueliner pick up the urgency and pace in his game, which will allow him to assert himself more in the physical game. We also expect it would help him flesh out the offensive side of his skillset that has largely remained dormant throughout his rookie professional season. Wishart was a big point producer in junior and he has some decent puck skills, but he's only managed 1 goal and 4 points so far this season in the AHL. Still, we feel fairly confident that Wishart is on schedule and should be a solid NHL player within the next couple of seasons.
6.) LW/C Dana Tyrell , Prince George (WHL)
It's regretable that Tyrell hurt his knee in Canada's exhibition match against Sweden just before the U20 World Junior Championships. Tyrell had earned a spot on Canada's top line and he looked poised to have a monster tournament that probably would've vaulted him up a few spots higher in these rankings. Now, Tyrell's junior career appears over as he will spend the rest of this season rehabbing after surgery. Hopefully, that rehab will go well and there will be no negative effects on Tyrell's incredible acceleration, which is perhaps the best of any player in the organization not named Stamkos or St. Louis. He already has a contract and should be counted on to be a key contributor in Norfolk next season.
7.) D Vladimir Mihalik , Norfolk (AHL)
Vladimir Mihalik has all the athletic ability he needs to have a long NHL career in his 6'8" frame, but the 6" of gray matter between his ears remain in question. To put it another way, if Szczechura has a double doctorate in hockey, then sometimes it feels like Mihalik is still working on his GED. His failure to consolidate his developmental gains since last season has been extremely frustrating to watch, as it appeared that the monsterous Slovakian had figured out the little things positionally and in terms of managing his gaps. If he could refind that part of his game, there's no doubt he'd be a beast defensively. But, for now, we're downgrading our projections for Mihalik and he's opened the door for other prospects to potentially pass him by on the depth chart.
8.) LW Radek Smolenak , Norfolk (AHL)
If someone could please explain what has happened to Radek Smolenak in the last month, please e-mail the staff at Bolt Prospects and let us know. After a very solid callup to the NHL earlier in the year, Smolenak played well in scoring 4 goals in his first 3 games back in Norfolk. But, in the 10 games since, he has 0 goals and just 4 helpers, stoking speculation that maybe Smolenak isn't quite the same player without Paul Szczechura setting him up. We love his game. He's big, feisty, and has a great shot with a wickedly quick release. With a little work on his defensive coverage, he looked like a strong candidate to make the NHL next season. Now? We'd just like him to get back on track in the AHL this season.
9.) C/LW Johan Harju , Lulea (SWE)
Would it be presumptuous for us at Bolt Prospects to interpret news out of Sweden that the Lightning are planning to sign "Big Joe" Harju as an early Valentine's Day present from the Lightning organization? Late round gems are the reason why Bolt Prospects exists, and Harju has shone brilliantly over the past two seasons as he has developed into one of the best goalscorers in the Swedish Elitserien. And, even better, he's still improving. He's already matched his goal scoring and point totals from last season with about a month left to go before the playoffs. Harju is a big body who is versatile enough to play center or wing, with a heavy, accurate shot that makes opposing teams tremble on the power play. We expect Harju to start in Norfolk next season, but his experience at the top level in Sweden makes him a prime candidate to climb the ladder quickly to the NHL.
10.) G Riku Helenius , Norfolk (AHL)
Twelve. That's the number of games that Helenius has played in this season. Twelve? The plan coming into this year was to try to get the big Finn as much game action as possible to try to overcome a lost season to injury two years ago and a junior season last year that saw Helenius split time between the pipes. Unfortunately, the athletically gifted keeper has been caught in a vicious cycle between sitting on the bench in Norfolk and the occassional spot start in the ECHL as injuries to Olaf Kolzig at the top level have produced a domino effect that may ultimately take a huge toll on Helenius' development. So, what's our wish for Riku Helenius? We just want him to get some game action. Please.
11.) G Dustin Tokarski , Spokane (WHL)
The hockey world got a heavy dose of the Dustin Tokarski magic as junior hockey's premiere big game goaltender brought Sweden to its knees in the U20 World Junior Championships final to help bring Team Canada its zillionth gold medal in a row. It's a good thing too, as Tokarski was under major pressure after a so-so performance earlier in the tournament had put Tokarski and Canadian Head Coach Pat Quinn under the microscope in the Great White North. Tokarski's very good positionally, strong mentally, and he rises to the occassion when a big save must be made, which makes up for his small size and middling athleticism. Having earned a contract, Tokarski's next step is to conquer the pro game starting in Norfolk of the AHL.
12.) C Alex Killorn , Harvard (ECACHL)
Here's something folks need to know about NCAA hockey: rarely do freshmen make a big impact because they are facing off against players in their early to mid-20's that are older and stronger than many Canadian junior players. So, having Alex Killorn among the leading scorers for the Crimson, despite their down year, should make Lightning prospect watchers sit up and take notice. Since being drafted, when he was listed at mousey small 161 lbs, Killorn has grown an inch and 34 pounds and now is a solidly average 6'1" 195 lbs, and he hasn't lost any speed or skill in the process. We expect Killorn to play one more year in college before the Lightning take a strong run to sign him, and when they do we would not be surprised to see Killorn shoot up into the top ten in these rankings. Killorn is like the XBox 360 Elite the Lightning organization has on layaway, and the day is fast approaching when they'll finally get to take their new toy out of the box.
13.) D Kevin Quick , Norfolk (AHL)
The title of fastest riser in these Midterm Rankings goes to Kevin Quick, who, after a year in hockey purgatory, used the opportunity presented by mass injuries on the blueline in Tampa to reassert his status as one of the organization's brightest young prospects. We're still waiting for Quick's offensive game to really show up on the scoresheet in Norfolk, and he has yet to establish himself as a real power play quarterback, but in four games in Tampa he reminded us all why the Lightning used to salivate at the thought of Kevin Quick's NHL future. Quick's skating and first pass blends nicely with his precocious assertiveness and poise, and it's hard not to project what he could be one or two years and about 15 pounds of muscle into the future.
14.) C/RW Blair Jones , Norfolk (AHL)
It's a tribute to the development of several players throughout the Lightning organization that the play of Blair Jones has somewhat fallen through the cracks. The big, rugged Saskatchewan product has continued to improve statistically despite seeing reduced ice time on a deeper Norfolk club and he's even become a lethal weapon playing as the righty point shot on the Admirals' power play. Jones is a good forechecker with good size who could probably fit what Rick Tocchet is doing in Tampa Bay pretty well. Will he get the chance? We feel like Blair Jones still has an NHL future somewhere. But, with the depth in the Lightning organization ahead of him, we wonder if it will be in Tampa Bay.
15.) C Mitch Fadden , Tri-City (WHL)
We're not exactly sure what Mitch Fadden's season in Tri-City has proven this year. With his experience and skillset, he can sleepwalk his way to multi-point nights in the WHL, and he isn't really being pressed to play tighter defense or more physical in the corners in the process. So, while his numbers may be gaudy, we feel like the real work for Fadden developmentally is yet to be done. Fadden has great speed, good hands, and a scorer's ability to make the puck follow him. He also is the type who believes that corners are for bus stops and mail boxes and who sometimes takes cherry picking to the level of an art form. If it was our choice to make, we would definitely sign him, because he does have elite level offensive talent. However, we'd also designate one of our assistant coaches to routinely break their foot off in his rear end to make sure he committed to play a more honest all-around game.
16.) D Andy Rogers , Norfolk (AHL)
If it wasn't for bad luck, Andy Rogers would have no luck at all. The former first round pick showed great improvement early in the season for Norfolk, and looked ticketed for a recall to Tampa Bay. And, considering he's what we term a "thumper", a stay-at-home defenseman who relishes taking the body, we think he'd have a solid shot at catching Rick Tocchet's eye. However, just before the rash of injuries hit the Lightning blueline, Rogers himself went on the shelf for what seems like the hundreth time in his young career, and a golden opportunity went by the boards. More than that, his opportunity ended up landing in the lap of Kevin Quick who seized it by the throat and probably leapfrogged Rogers on the depth chart. There are backwoods preachers who have taken less snake bites than he has, and that's a shame.
17.) LW Lauri Tukonen , Rauma (FIN)
Ordinarily, getting a former 11th overall pick for a defensively challenged borderline NHL defenseman would be considered a steal, but we're not getting our hopes up too high after the Lightning's acquisition of winger Lauri Tukonen from the Stars for Andrew Hutchinson . Tukonen's a decent skater with a decent skill set who has put up decent numbers in Finland, but he also earned a bit of a reputation as a heartless tin man when he was in the Kings organization, and he's never come close to living up to his promise of becoming the next Olli Jokinen style Finnish power forward.
18.) C James Wright , Vancouver (WHL)
Wright started off the season like a house of fire for the Giants, but he has tailed off of late. Still, he's one point shy of his season totals from last season and while he may never live up to his original billing as a former first round WHL Bantam Draft pick, we like what Wright projects to be as a pro. He's big and strong and, when he goes to the net, can create quite a few problems for the opposition. We think he still could become a nice lower line player at the next level.
19.) LW Luca Cunti , Rimouski (QMJHL)
The Lightning have a decision to make on whether or not to sign Luca Cunti at the end of this season, and with just 12 goals in 44 games in the defensively challenged QMJHL, it's pretty hard to get excited about the once touted Swiss winger. Part of the blame belongs to the NCAA, whose ridiculous decision to disqualify Cunti from playing at St. Cloud State ruined a perfect development opportunity for Luca. However, that doesn't excuse Cunti from putting up mediocre numbers in a league he should be able to dominate. Cunti's a great skater who is a supremely gifted stickhandler with great hands, but he hasn't taken the next step and time is running out for him to impress the Lightning.
20.) LW Justin Keller , Norfolk (AHL)
It's been a roller coaster for Justin Keller. A year ago he was representing Norfolk as the Admirals' lone AHL All-Star representative. In the time since, he's languished on the team's lower lines and even seen a stint with the now defunct Augusta Lynx in the ECHL. He's picked it up a bit lately with 10 points in his last 18 games for the Admirals, but it feels a bit too little a bit too late for the third year pro.
21.) RW Juraj Simek , Norfolk (AHL)
Simek might've been a couple of spots higher in our rankings, but he missed a month in December and January due to injury. The Slovakian-born but Swiss-trained winger is a decent AHL depth player with a fair amount of speed, skill, and hustle, but it's very hard for us to project any NHL future for him.
22.) D Mark Barberio , Moncton (QMJHL)
Like Wright, Barberio started the season on a tear for the Moncton Wildcats, but his offensive output has slowed to a snail's pace over the past month. We like Barberio's ability to log big minutes, and that he has the smarts to overcome an awkward first step. But, a late round guy like Barberio can't afford to fall off the planet for a month and climb the ladder with so many talented prospects ahead of him.
23.) D Michal Sersen , Bratislava (SVK)
The Lightning brought the rights to Sersen home with them from Europe on the opening road trip of the season and vowed, at the time, to try to lure Sersen to North America next season. However, we can't help but be a little suspicious about a smallish guy who has put up mediocre numbers on the best team in a very mediocre Slovakian Extraliga.
24.) RW/C Chris Lawrence , Norfolk (AHL)
One of the biggest negative surprises we've had this year has been the ineffectiveness of big power forward prospect Chris Lawrence. Lawrence had a decent run in the final month of last season in Norfolk and he had a pretty good Traverse City tournament to start this year, but he's struggled to break through on a deeper Admirals club this season. We haven't written Lawrence off, as we still feel he could "pull a Smolenak" and really explode with his blend of size, strength, and a dash of skill. But, checking in at 24, it's not like Lawrence can fall much farther.
25.) RW Matt Marshall , Vermont (HEast)
Remember what we said about the NCAA? Freshmen rarely make an impact, so don't jump off the Matt Marshall boat too fast just because he's failed to make a dent for Vermont in his first season. He's still a fantastic skater who isn't afraid to take the body, and those are both elements that are in demand if you're looking for a sleeper to take a flyer on.