It's roughly the midpoint of the NHL season, and with the graduations of prospects James Wright  and Victor Hedman , and the conclusion of the U20 World Junior Championships, it's time for Bolt Prospects to release its 2009-2010 Midterm Rankings. The Midterm Rankings reflect a significant amount of change for the club, as it has been a year where the team's prospects haven't stuck to the script. Some players have failed to live up to expectations. Other have come out of nowhere to raise their stock. The end result is one of the widest shifts in rankings we've ever had.
Before we release the list, though, it's time for an obligatory reminder of the Bolt Prospects rules on what constitutes a prospect. Over the years we've fine tuned these criteria to try to define that moment when a player becomes an NHLer in terms that are as simple and understandable as possible, while at the same time differentiating between prospects and veteran minor league and European league players who fit under the description of an overaged prospect. Prospects who graduate join the list of Bolt Prospects Alumni on our Prospects page, which is a list that includes defensemen like Victor Hedman and Paul Ranger  and forwards like Steven Stamkos  and Steve Downie .
For skaters, a prospect who is under 24 years of age on opening night of the Lightning's season and has played less than 41 games in a single NHL season and less 82 career NHL games qualifies for the rankings. For goaltenders, a prospect who is under 24 years of age on opening night of the Lightning's season and has less than 30 decisions in a single NHL season and less than 41 career decisions in the NHL qualifies for the rankings. NCAA-based prospects are exempt from the age requirements and are eligible for the rankings for the full duration they are enrolled and playing in school.
So, with the legal disclaimers out of the way, it's time to get to the rankings:
1.) G Dustin Tokarski , Norfolk (AHL)
Norfolk (AHL): 24 GP, 11-13-0, 2 SO, 2.67 GAA, .911 sv%
For just the second time in the five seasons Bolt Prospects has posted rankings, there's a goaltender in the top spot: Dustin Tokarski. Tokarski came out of junior hockey with gaudy numbers, a Memorial Cup championship, and a U20 World Junior Championships gold medal, but questions persisted whether the smallish goaltender's dominance would translate to the professional ranks. So far, the questions have been answered as Tokarski has posted very respectable numbers with Norfolk and has wrestled the starting spot for the Admirals away from his fellow prospects. He'll carry the load for Norfolk in the second half as the Admirals try to become the first full Lightning affiliate at the top minor league level to make the playoffs since the Cleveland Lumberjacks of the IHL.
2.) RW Carter Ashton , Regina (WHL)
Lethbridge (WHL): 28 GP, 13-13-26, 52 PIM
Regina (WHL):11 GP, 4-5-9, 17 PIM
Season totals: 39 GP, 17-18-35, 69 PIM
Ashton's numbers are fairly solid, but he failed to step up and earn a spot with Team Canada for the U20 World Junior Championships as we had hoped. He's on a pace for about the same number of goals he had a season ago and around 10 more points overall, but he hasn't been as dominant as a player who nearly made the Lightning out of camp should be. Chad Schnarr of the Bolt Prospects staff points out that could change, though, in a second half where Ashton may play regularly with playmaker Jordan Eberle.
3.) RW Richard Panik , Belleville (OHL)
Windsor (OHL): 33 GP, 9-9-18, 19 PIM
Belleville (OHL): 3 GP, 2-1-3, 2 PIM
Season totals: 34 GP, 11-10-21, 21 PIM
So, here's the theory we're going with at Bolt Prospects with regard to Richard Panik: a thoroughbred needs to run. Panik played more of a supporting role with a talent-stacked Windsor team during the first half of the season, and put up mediocre numbers as a result despite possessing lottery-pick level skills. However, once he arrived at Saskatoon for the U20 World Junior Championships for Team Slovakia, he went from Clark Kent to Superman, leading his country with 6 goals and 8 points in 6 games and reminding us that Panik has the ability to be the man, offensively, when he's asked to be. Shortly after the tournament he was dealt to a Belleville club where he will be counted on heavily to try to push a team just outside the playoff picture into the OHL's postseason. We think this combination of ice time and responsibility is the elixir for Panik after having a limited role in the Czech Extraliga and in Windsor over the past season and a half, and we think he's due to explode in the second half for the Bulls.
4.) D Ty Wishart , Norfolk (AHL)
Norfolk (AHL): 38 GP, 4-8-12, 23 PIM
Good news/bad news. The good news is that Ty Wishart's offensive abilities, which were dormant last season, are finally starting to surface. The rearguard has already surpassed the 7 points he posted as a rookie last season, and looks to be on course for a solid 20-25 point campaign. He's getting some power play time and he's making it count. The bad news is that Wishart, who was +5 a year ago, is -15 this season, which is the second worst plus-minus mark on the Admirals. We think big defensemen take a little longer to develop and we think Wishart's still on track to make the NHL in a couple of years. We're just hoping his plus-minus can make a comeback in the second half and that he establishes himself as a bona fide two-way threat from the blueline.
5.) C Paul Szczechura , Tampa Bay (NHL)
Norfolk (AHL): 14 GP, 6-8-14, 12 PIM
Tampa Bay (NHL): 27 GP, 2-0-2, 4 PIM
After an unspectacular training camp, Paul Szczechura has come back strong and looks to have earned a regular third line spot with the Lightning in the NHL. He once again showed he can be a point-a-game performer in the AHL after being sent down, and he's added speed and forechecking hustle to the Lightning's lower lines since his recall to the team. His offensive production is down overall from last season, though, and for Szczechura to have a long NHL career he's going to need to use his quickness, smarts, and skill to start generating some numbers at the big league level.
6.) C/LW Dana Tyrell , Norfolk (AHL)
Norfolk (AHL): 33 GP, 0-9-9, 8 PIM
At Bolt Prospects, we expected Tyrell to have a bit of a slow start to the season as he adjusted to the pro game while trying to shake off the rust of a half a junior season lost to a knee injury. That said, now that the second half has arrived, it's time for Tyrell to step up for Norfolk in the Admirals' push for a playoff spot. Tyrell's speed can be a big asset for Coach Darren Rumble and the Admirals down the stretch. No more excuses for Tyrell: it's time to perform.
7.) RW/C Blair Jones , Tampa Bay (NHL)
Norfolk (AHL): 26 GP, 6-13-19, 8 PIM
Tampa Bay (NHL): 13 GP, 0-0-0, 10 PIM
The staff at Bolt Prospects has always contended Blair Jones can be an NHL player, and we've long speculated that Head Coach Rick Tocchet and his system are a perfect fit for the way Jones plays the game. Jones struggled mightily with consistency issues in terms of his effort level and defensive play during his first three seasons of pro hockey, but it became very clear in November that everything was starting to click for Jones in the AHL as he started scoring at a torrid pace in the month and was leading the Admirals in plus-minus. That November surge earned Jones a call up to the NHL that the forward has capitalized on to the tune of a regular spot on both the Lightning's third line and on the team's second penalty killing unit. When Jones is hustling like he is now, he's a joy to watch on the forecheck, and we feel like it's only a matter of time before he starts putting up numbers and cementing himself as a regular NHL player.
8.) D Vladimir Mihalik , Norfolk (AHL)
Norfolk (AHL): 39 GP, 0-8-8, 47 PIM
Speaking of players for whom things are beginning to click: consider mammoth defenseman Vladimir Mihalik. The big blueliner had earned a reputation in his first two pro seasons of being soft and out of shape. He resolved to change that image by training hard during the offseason to significantly cut his body fat and increase his endurance. The result has been a player who is more capable of moving his feet and getting in position to take the body. The downside is that his offensive numbers have essentially stagnated over the course of his two and half years in the AHL, but we're alright with that. A 6'8" defenseman with a huge reach who plays his position well and uses his body can be an amazing asset to an NHL team, and we're projected big Vladdy to be in the NHL full-time next season.
9.) LW/C Johan Harju , Dynamo Moscow (RUS)
Dynamo Moscow (RUS), 42 GP, 3-11-14, 28 PIM
The speculation is that Johan Harju is making somewhere between $900,000 and $1,000,000, tax free, this season in the KHL with Dynamo. That's a lot of rubles, but after becoming one of the dominant goal scorers in the Swedish Elitserien over the past two seasons, Harju has struggled to find the back of the net in his premiere season in Russia. The good news is that Harju, who has primarily played center this season, has started to adapt by playing more of the set up role and his assist totals have started to steadily climb in the month of December and into January. We still believe Harju is a good NHL prospect and that his game is a better fit for the North American style than the KHL, so we're still hoping the Lightning will still sign the big Swedish prospect this summer.
10.) C/LW Alex Killorn , Harvard (ECACHL)
Harvard (ECACHL): 14 GP, 5-4-9, 16 PIM
Throughout all of the Lightning's rookie camps, Killorn has remained one of the most highly praised players, but he's struggled to help turn the tide at a Harvard program that used to be a threat to win the ECACHL every season and has now fallen into the bottom half of teams in that league. We wonder if Killorn will stick around for two more years at Harvard if the team continues to struggle. The call of the NHL and a change of scenery may end up being too much for Killorn to resist.
11.) D Matt Lashoff , Norfolk (AHL)
Norfolk (AHL): 33 GP, 3-6-9, 57 PIM
In the five years Bolt Prospects has been online, there has never been a prospect who has had a more disappointing half a season as Matt Lashoff has had this year. Lashoff finished the 2008-2009 season as the organization's top rated prospect in the Final Rankings after anchoring the Lightning's power play down the stretch and showing the potential to evolve into a Paul Ranger/Andrej Meszaros  type, 30-40 point-a-year, 20 minutes-a-night, mobile defenseman. Since that time, Lashoff showed up to training camp and quickly showed the coaching staff he hadn't worked an iota on the holes in his game and he was quickly demoted to Norfolk where he sits tied in points with Vladimir Mihalik and has a team worst -16 rating. He's been passed by Mike Lundin  and probably Mihalik as well on the depth chart, and one has to wonder what happens next with Lashoff. He's got tremendous speed and soft hands. He needs to step up and run the Admirals power play like a precise Swiss watch in the second half and prove he should still be in the organization's plans. As far as this site is concerned, though, our staff feels burned.
12.) LW/C Alex Hutchings , Barrie (OHL)
Barrie (OHL): 40 GP, 26-23-49, 34 PIM
When the Lightning committed the theft of Alex Hutchings in the fourth round of the June draft, we at Bolt Prospects knew we had a steal on our hands. The question was how big a steal Hutchings would be. After the first half of this season, we're starting to believe he's going to be on the higher end of the steal scale. A lot of players entering their fourth season of junior hockey start to become disinterested and their production and development start to flatten out. That hasn't happened for Hutchings, who is set to annihilate his own personal statistical bests and has become arguably one of the five best players in the OHL today. He's a holy terror in all phases of the game and he possesses a high motor and great speed. Size is the only knock, but Lightning fans know full well that can be overcome with work ethic and heart.
13.) G Jaroslav Janus , Norfolk (AHL)
Erie (OHL): 13 GP, 7-4-2, 0 SO, 2.81 GAA, .918 sv%
Norfolk (AHL): 3 GP, 0-3-0, 0 SO, 2.03 GAA, .927 sv%
Jaroslav Janus' path to a pro contract was one of the more interesting ones in recent memory. Janus started the season on an ATO contract with Norfolk after Lightning GM Brian Lawton challenged the Slovakian backstop to earn a contract rather than return to junior. Janus performed well in two starts with Norfolk before lack of playing time and an inability to come to terms on a deal led Janus to return to Erie of the OHL. Janus played very well in 13 games with Erie before being signed by the Lightning, who have now made Janus the number two goalie with the Admirals. What Janus has is world class athleticism and reflexes. What he's gaining is better control and positioning. What he looks like is another late round steal, much like Tokarski.
14.) LW Radek Smolenak , Norfolk (AHL)
Norfolk (AHL): 29 GP, 5-10-15, 40 PIM
Chicago (NHL): 1 GP, 0-0-0, 5 PIM
Smolenak is another prospect who has made the rounds this season. He started his year with Nizhnekamsk in the Russian KHL, but couldn't make that team out of training camp so he re-signed with the Lightning during their camp with a view toward possibly earning a spot with the team. However, when Smolenak didn't make the team and was assigned to Norfolk of the AHL he was grabbed by the Chicago Blackhawks as depth for their opening games in Finland. Smolenak got one game for the Hawks before the Lightning took Smolenak back on re-entry waivers and he's been providing scoring depth for the Admirals ever since. Smolenak's goal scoring has been down this season as he competes for ice time on a deeper Norfolk roster, but we still love his grit and his willingness to go to the front of the net. He is another player like Blair Jones who is a fourth year pro who could be on the cusp of making the NHL and could get very, very hot in the AHL at any time.
15.) G Riku Helenius , Norfolk (AHL)
Norfolk (AHL): 12 GP, 5-7-0, 0 SO, 2.75 GAA, .896 sv%
Helenius entered the season penciled in as Norfolk's number one goaltender, and after a solid October he seemed to be holding his own against wunderkind Dustin Tokarski. Since that time, however, Helenius' play has been atrocious, prompting the team to sign Jaroslav Janus and drop Helenius all the way to the third spot in Norfolk. That's not a good sign for a former first round draft pick who earlier this year was acquitting himself quite well in head-to-head matchups against fellow 2006 first rounder Jonathan Bernier. Rarely have we seen a prospect fall so far, so fast in the span of a couple of months, and it doesn't seem like there are any members of the current Lightning organization who are really on the Riku Helenius bandwagon right now.
16.)RW Martins Karsums , Norfolk (AHL)
Norfolk (AHL): 36 GP, 4-12-16, 6 PIM
We might've written a similar negative review for Karsums as we did for his fellow former Bruins prospect, Matt Lashoff, except for two things. First, we were never that high on Karsums because of what we perceive to be a lack of balance and hockey sense, and second because Karsums has become sizzling hot over the past couple of weeks. In his last 7 games with Norfolk, Karsums has 2 goals and 10 points and three multi-point games. In between all that scoring, Karsums was also selected to represent Team Latvia in the Olympics, as well. We're still concerned about the holes in Karsums' game, which haven't gone away, but we're also hoping for a post-Olympics bounce that could potentially push Karsums back up to the NHL level - if he decides to stay in North America and spurns a chance to head back to Europe.
17.) RW Juraj Simek , Norfolk (AHL)
Norfolk (AHL): 38 GP, 10-10-20, 10 PIM
Simek is the third and final member of the Admirals that hails from the mean streets of Presov, Slovakia, and although he's the lowest ranked of the three he may be having the biggest impact on Norfolk's season. Simek has good speed and a well rounded game, which has led Coach Rumble to use Simek in a multitude of situations, including on a scoring line this season. Simek has responded well and is on pace for about a 20 goal season as a result. Simek's size and his lack of elite skill level give us concern that he is not really an NHL prospect in this, the third and final year of his entry-level contract. However, if he keeps playing well he's likely to earn a cup of coffee in Tampa at some point, where he'll have the opportunity to make an impression on the Lightning brass who sign his checks.
18.) D Kevin Quick , Norfolk (AHL)
Norfolk (AHL): 29 GP, 0-2-2, 6 PIM
Bad news/good news. The bad news is that we were hoping that this would be the year that Kevin Quick would break out offensively. However, Quick showed up to camp overweight and has seen his power play time limited in Norfolk, leading to just 2 points in 27 games with the Admirals. Sounds bleak, right? The silver lining is that Quick is leading the Admirals in plus-minus at a very solid +7 rating, indicating that he is at least taking care of matters in his own third of the rink. Still, with the way Quick skates and his skill level, he should be fighting for power play time and chasing down 30 point seasons in the AHL. Next year is the final season of Quick's entry-level deal, so time is ticking for Kevin to put it all together.
19.) C Mitch Fadden , Norfolk (AHL)
Norfolk (AHL): 12 GP, 0-0-0, 2 PIM
We knew we should have gotten that Bowflex, or at least a Total Gym for the slightly built Mitch Fadden. Coming off a 37 goal, 76 point campaign in his final season of junior, Fadden has yet to score a single point in the AHL due in part to a slew of minor injuries. It's all a part of the educational process for Fadden, whom we hope is learning that pro hockey requires a player to train 365 days a year to be able to take the physical rigors of the game. It'll also require Fadden to play a more well rounded game physically and defensively than he often seemed unwilling to in junior. He's a project, and we knew that going in. But, he skates really well and sort of like Steve Downie, the puck follows him.
20.) D Mark Barberio , Moncton (QMJHL)
Moncton (QMJHL): 40 GP, 8-26-34, 40 PIM
Because the Lightning don't have a lot of incoming depth on the blueline outside of Norfolk, a defenseman like Mark Barberio might be in a very good position to pick up an NHL contract this summer. While Barberio's goal totals started slow compared to last season, he's shown an overall improvement in his point totals, and he's always logged huge minutes over the past two and a half seasons for the Wildcats. The common knocks on Barberio are a lack of consistency, which still hasn't gone away, and his awkward skating style. We've seen a lot worse skaters make it to Tampa, however, and we'd hate to lose a guy who might finish this year sitting on a 50 point season.
21.) D Luke Witkowski , Western Michigan (CCHA)
Western Michigan (CCHA): 20 GP, 1-3-4, 24 PIM
One of the true dark-horses of the organization is Western Michigan defenseman Luke Witkowski, a rugged stay-at-home blueliner who has appeared in 20 of the Broncos 22 games thus far this season. Witkowski starred with Fargo of the USHL last season, where he was a league all-star who captained his club all the way to the Clark Cup finals before falling to Indiana. Although his -9 rating is currently a team worst for the Broncos, it's important to note that typically freshmen defensemen don't get the kind of quality ice time Witkowski is getting, which is indicative of a player who is ahead of the curve.
22.) D Scott Jackson , Norfolk (AHL)
Norfolk (AHL): 34 GP, 0-7-7, 17 PIM
What big defenseman Scott Jackson lacks in foot speed, he's always made up for with positioning and intelligence. This season has been no different, as Jackson is currently second on the Admirals with a +5 rating. At 6'4" 215 lbs, Jackson certainly has the size to be a sturdy stay-at-homer. The question is whether his skating is a non-starter for an NHL career.
23.) RW/C Matt Marshall , Vermont (HEAST)
Vermont (HEAST): 18 GP, 1-2-3, 10 PIM
After playing sparingly as a freshman for Vermont, Marshall earned praise from Vermont's coaching staff for improving his upper body strength and he has appeared in all 18 games this season for the Catamounts. Marshall has world class skating ability, and now that he's bulked up the next step will be for the current sophomore to become a regular contributor for Vermont offensively as an upperclassman in the future.
24.) LW/C Denis Kazionov , Ekaterinburg (RUS)
Ekaterinburg (RUS): 38 GP, 4-3-7, 12 PIM
The younger of two Kazionov brothers drafted by the Lightning, 22 year old Denis is proving this season to have the athleticism to compete in the KHL, arguably the second best league in the world. Kazionov blends good speed and surprising strength with the typical above-average skillset of most Russian developed players. When he was drafted, there was speculation the Lightning would try to bring Denis and his brother Dmitri to North America. This summer, both brothers were invited to the Lightning's prospect camp but declined in order to stay and train with their KHL clubs. Will the Lightning make another attempt next summer?
25.) LW Matias Sointu , Sudbury (OHL)
Ottawa (OHL): 21 GP, 3-7-10, 6 PIM
Sudbury (OHL): 10 GP, 2-2-4, 8 PIM
Season totals: 31 GP, 5-9-14, 14 PIM
After missing most of last season with a shoulder injury, Matias Sointu jumped the pond to North America to play in the OHL where he has put up modest numbers. Sointu also appeared in 4 games for Finland at the U20 World Junior Championships, putting up a respectable 1 goal and 3 points at the tournament. At 5'10" 176 lbs, Sointu has questionable size, but he has good wheels and showed a finisher's touch in Finland before his shoulder injury. The Lightning will make their decision on whether or not to sign Sointu this summer. Update: Sointu is currently out of the Sudbury lineup due to another injury (undisclosed). He had surgery recently in Finland and is expected to return to the Wolves in a couple weeks.