Training camp is just around the corner for the Lightning, and in about a month they'll be dropping the puck on the 2009-2010 NHL season. But, for Lightning prospect followers the season starts Thursday, September 10, when Dimitri Kazionov and Kazan square off with Yaroslavl. It will be Bolt Prospects' fifth season of covering the team's prospects, and one of the most interesting in the past half decade. Here's a quick preview of the year ahead:
The biggest thing going in Europe this year will be sniper Johan Harju in his first, and hopefully only, season in Russia with Dynamo Moscow. Harju took the money to play one more season with lifelong teammate and Oilers prospect Linus Omark. Will Dynamo get their money's worth, and will Harju continue his improbable run at an Olympic berth for Team Sweden? Although not a prospect anymore, a lot of attention will also be on Karri Ramo as he tries to lead Omsk to a KHL title. The last time Karri played in Europe, he hoisted a championship in the Finnish SM-liiga with HPK. Also of interest, young power forward Denis Kazionov of Khabarovsk, who along with his brother Dimitri was invited to Lightning prospect camp this summer but declined. Denis finished last season in the Czech Extraliga, but he's back in Russia this season to try and follow in his older brother's footsteps in attempting to become a KHL regular.
The OHL is perhaps the epicenter of the Lightning prospect universe this season, with prospects Richard Panik, Alex Hutchings, and Jaroslav Janus. Panik has already announced his arrival to North America with a YouTube classic exhibition game goal, and he will have his lottery pick caliber talent put to use by Coach Bob Boughner in Windsor. With the Spitfires, Panik will chase a Memorial Cup on a team that has the impressive firepower of potential top 2010 pick Taylor Hall and top Nashville draft pick Ryan Ellis. Alex Hutchings enters his fourth season with Barrie after leading the Colts in scoring in each of the past two seasons. Could Sheldon Keefe's team record of 48 goals be in jeopardy? Meanwhile, in Erie, if he doesn't earn a pro contract out of Lightning camp, Jaroslav Janus will try to lead the Otters back to respectability one year removed from being the darling of the U20 World Junior Championships for Slovakia. Janus has world class athleticism. Can he develop the positioning and poise to match? Flying under the radar are solid goaltender Michael Zador of Oshawa and Kyle DeCoste of Sault Ste Marie. Zador will be looking to prove why he was a first round draft pick of London in the OHL Priority Draft a few years ago, while Kyle DeCoste will try to rise from obscurity to grasp the brass ring of an NHL contract.
In a league all to himself, Mark Barberio will also try to earn himself an NHL contract with Moncton. Now the lone remaining Lightning blueline prospect in junior hockey, Barberio's shown he can put up big numbers in streaks. Can he show the consistency to put up a 60-70 point season and stake the claim to being one of the best defensemen this year in the "Q"?
First round pick Carter Ashton of Lethbridge will continue his evolution as a world class power winger prospect. His 30 goals last season were just the tip of the iceberg as the big, gritty forward will continue to polish up his game. Meanwhile, in Vancouver, Giants center James Wright will try to step up from checking liner to scoring line leader in pursuit of his own NHL pact. With Zabotel and Kane possibly moving up to the pro level, will Wright be able to help fill those skates?
The stealth prospect, Alex Killorn, will enter his sophomore campaign on a mission to return Harvard to respectability in the ECACHL. After dazzling the Lightning in this summer's rookie camp, much is expected of the former prep standout in his second, and possibly last, season of college hockey. Meanwhile, up in Vermont, speedster Matt Marshall will look to make an impact after spending much of his freshman year building up his strength and learning how to compete at the NCAA level. Finally, fresh off a dynamic run through last year's USHL slate with Fargo, defenseman Luke Witkowski debuts for Western Michigan in the CCHA. Kirill Gotovets will go to Cornell and try unleash Belarussian fury from the backline on the rest of the ECACHL, but not quite yet - he's got one more year at Shattuck St. Mary's Prep in Minnesota. Witkowski is a stay-at-homer, and Gotovets is a finesse puckmover: the odd-couple of Lightning late-round sleepers.
While the Admirals wait for future stars like Ashton, Panik, and Hutchings to join the pro ranks, they'll get their first taste of speedy forwards Dana Tyrell and Mitch Fadden, and golden goaltending prospect Dustin Tokarski. Tyrell lost half of last season with a knee injury, but if it's possible, actually gained some burst from his already freakish ability to accelerate thanks to hard work in rehab. Meanwhile, Fadden will try to see if his gaudy 318 points in 340 career junior games translates to the pro level. He's got world class speed and hands, and a scorer's knack of making the puck follow him. Can Coach Darren Rumble get him to dig in the corners and play hard in his third of the rink? And, what else can be said about Dustin Tokarski, Canada's gold medal winning netminder from last year's U20 World Junior Championships? The young man doesn't know how to lose. He'll likely start the year as the backup in Norfolk, but the organization sees shades of Marty Turco in their young dynamo from Spokane.
Also, some returning Admirals will try to take the next step in their quest to make it to the NHL. Blueliners Ty Wishart, Vladimir Mihalik, and Kevin Quick, along with former prospect Mike Lundin, will form the heart of the Admirals' defensive corps. Wishart showed he could be defensively steady in his rookie pro campaign. Now he'll try to prove he can be a force in both sides of the rink in his second pro season. Meanwhile, it's do-or-die time for hulking blueliner Vladimir Mihalik, who is entering the final year of his entry-level contract. The big Slovak has struggled with consistency in his first two seasons of pro. Is this the year he finally puts it all together? Closing out the trio is speedy puckmover Kevin Quick, whom the Lightning will be looking to for offense, hoping he can put up numbers to match his wheels and his devil-may-care rushing style. Adding depth is big stay-at-homer Scott Jackson, a former second round pick of the Blues who is looking to make more of an impact this season.
Up front, it's also do-or-die time for fourth year pros Radek Smolenak and Blair Jones. Smolenak and Jones both put up 20 goals last season in the AHL for the first time in their young careers and appear on the cusp of the NHL. Can they show the consistency to make it to the next level? It's also a critical season for third year pros Juraj Simek and Chris Lawrence. Simek's a speedy forward with a good all-around game who's a coach's favorite in the "A," but can he move the needle and make headway in his quest for the NHL? And then there's Chris Lawrence, who scored 47 goals in his final season of junior and has only scored 10 in the AHL in two seasons since. Is this the year that the young power forward, who was once touted as Jeff Carter Lite, turns the corner?
Finally, in goal, former first round pick Riku Helenius enters the year as Norfolk's presumed starter. He finished his rookie campaign with a sterling 2.72 GAA and .918 save percentage at the Admirals, and given that there are two goalies ahead of him in Tampa who had injury problems last season, chances are the big Finn will find himself on NHL ice again before the season is out.
We've never entered a season at Bolt Prospects with so many prospects likely to graduate into the NHL in a given season. Second overall pick Victor Hedman may be the best pure NHL prospect drafted since Sidney Crosby. Yes, even better than Steven Stamkos! By season's end, will he be holding down at least 18 minutes a night on one of the club's top two pairings? Will he be joined at the heart of the club's defensive corps by super-mobile Matt Lashoff, who has the potential to be a 30-40 point a year defenseman in his own right? And, up front, will Steve Downie or Martins Karsums win a job on right wing alongside Alex Tanguay and Vincent Lecavalier? Will Paul Szczechura win a job on one of the club's checking lines, and will he stay healthy long enough to keep it?
That's right, it's conceivable as many as five prospects could graduate to the NHL level by January, with even the quixotic return of former Kings first-round pick Lauri Tukonen to North America holding an outside chance at producing a graduation. Promise? Lots of it. Competition? Tooth and nail. This season promises to be perhaps the greatest in Bolt Prospects' history, and we can't wait for the puck to drop in just a few hours a world away in Russia. Game on.