The BP Mailbag continues this week with more questions for my Alex Kharitonov-sized crystal ball (prospect followers from the Dudley era will understand that reference).
If you believe the rumors that Tommy Pyatt is being shopped, that’s how a roster spot opens up for Stamkos. I wouldn’t be overly surprised to see Pyatt waived if Tampa Bay is backed into a corner, but right now I’m of the opinion that Richard Panik  would be the one to go down to Syracuse if someone is demoted. Panik’s averaging about 12 minutes of ice time for the year, but around 10 for the last five games and less than that if you spread it out over the last dozen games. He’s also been a frequent healthy scratch. Those are the signs, and they've been there for a while.
Cooper likes Panik’s physical game and especially his potential to dominate on any given shift, but Panik just hasn’t shown that yet this year for Tampa. Perhaps he gets the Connolly treatment with the Crunch. The other candidates for demotion would be JT Brown or Nikita Kucherov . Both are around the 13-minute mark, but both have been inserted into special teams play recently; Brown on the PK and Kucherov on the power play. Plus, Kucherov has five goals in his last 11 games, which projects to 37 over a full year (stats are fun to manipulate). If you want to keep projections simple, Kucherov would have 16 goals this year if he would have played the same amount of minutes in 50 games similar to Palat and Johnson. All that to say… I seriously doubt Kucherov is going anywhere. My guesses for creating openings: 1. Panik to Syracuse 2. Pyatt to another organization/Syracuse 3. JT Brown (but doubtful). Crombeen has been a scratch, but he’s under contract for another year. Pyatt is a free agent at year’s end.
Re: Connolly… I talked a bit about this last week. He needs a top-9 spot with the Lightning and there really isn’t one available, unless you move Brown down to the fourth line. Brown hasn’t done anything to deserve that. As mentioned above, there could be two spots created if need-be.
I’ve been asked if Connolly will be traded, and I really don’t know. If Yzerman needs a big piece for a trade to get a top-4 defenseman, Connolly is arguably the most expendable player in the team’s deepest category: young, skilled forward. Yzerman loves his prospects, so it will take a lot to deal one (see Bishop, Ben). I think Connolly returns to Tampa before the year is done and is a part of the organization at season's end. I’m 50/50 on him being with the Lightning next September. Yzerman could gain better roster balance by moving him for a similar piece on defense (who's a righty).
Related to these questions, one was posed with a comment about “saving” Kucherov by putting him in Syracuse. Tampa uses a year of his contract no matter where he is, and he’s certainly having an impact on the big club. His ice time keeps rising. There’s no reason to do anything but further increase his minutes.
As for lines when Stamkos returns, this is what I think you’ll see:
Don’t get crazy. Palat and St. Louis have been excellent together and Palat is the perfect type for 91-26. Killorn could slot in there instead, but there’s no reason to break up his line. And right after Stamkos coming back, I’m most excited to see Kucherov with an offense-first center in the near future. It will be interesting to see which of Johnson and Kucherov plays sniper and which one plays playmaker. Both can do either, especially Kucherov. Brown's the digger.
Any chance we see a line brawl like the one seen in the Calgary-Vancouver game if we start our fourth line? (RSchmitz via BP Messageboard)
Awesome. First, TB doesn’t even really have a fourth line; Cooper usually dresses 11 forwards. But, let’s say Cooper wants to rough it up, Hartley-style. Who would he dress? In my opinion, he’d have Keith “Muhammed” Aulie take the face-off, with … Malone and Crombeen on the wings? Gudas and maybe Aulie are the Lightning’s best fighters at this point. Panik is an underrated fighter, but I’m not sure the other team would know that. I don't know that Cooper could send that message even if he wanted to. Also, look at the Flames record vs Tampa Bay's if you have a problem with that.
In addition, I love Torts. He tried to get through an entire team of equipment-laden professional athletes and a cinderblock wall to get at Hartley. Are YOU going to dog it on the forecheck next game?
Did Nashville ruin Lindback's future by not allowing him to play in the minors for a year or two? (Donnie D via BP Messageboard)
I think there’s some legitimacy to that question. When he came over, he had one full season as Timra’s No. 1 in the Swedish Elite League under his belt, and that was 42 games. As a 22-year-old, he played in 26 games, total, in North America. Twenty-two of those were in Nashville backing up Pekka Rinne. He played in 18 (16 for Nashville) the following year. So, coming into the 2012-2013 season, when Tampa Bay was hoping he’d be ready for 1-B duty, Lindback had played in only 86 games in the past THREE seasons. By comparison, Dustin Tokarski  played in 146 in his three years in Norfolk, and two of those years were interrupted by NHL call-ups and Jaro Janus hot streaks.
All that to say, I don’t know all the details of Nashville’s organizational picture at that time, so I can’t make an educated judgment on what was right or wrong. I do know that the No. 1 ingredient for successful development is game-speed ice-time, and Lindback had very little of it from his draft year forward.
The moral of this story is folks who want Vasilevskiy backing up Bishop next year should just sit back, sip their iced tea, and be patient. Enjoy the process by recognizing it's a process.
What defensemen would you like Yzerman to go after? (via trade or FA) (@Rozpedowski_9)
Dan Girardi is a UFA at season’s end. His price will be high, but he’s a vet top-4 who’s a righty. Steady on and off the ice. You take what's available. It’s unlikely the Rangers will let him go mid-season if they’re in contention, which means he’s an asset-free buy in the off-season if Tampa Bay wins a bidding war. Beware of cap concerns.
I've always like Ryan Ellis with Nashville as a young, righty, offense-first defenseman and thought a Connolly-Ellis swap made sense, but I think the Lightning have matured quicker than I thought they would and the Lightning need someone with more of a vet presence now, especially if Koekkoek is going to join Gudas, Sustr, and Barberio on the Lightning back line. That's a lot of inexperience.
I'm still surprised Yzerman didn't land Cody Franson when he was rumored to be on the block. I still like him.
Yzerman has said he doesn’t want to rent a player if it means giving up a part of the Lightning’s future, so I don’t see him spending a lot for renting someone like Kris Russell (though he's a lefty). If Barberio continues to improve his play and Sustr comes back more consistent, then maybe there’s not a need for further Sami Salo  insurance. There's just not much available on the market right now.
Think Cote will be up for the rest of the season? (@davidgreen17)
The first sign would be Cote as a healthy scratch, which hasn’t happened yet. His minutes are limited, and he’s not a developing prospect anymore, so he’s safe using in a 7/8 role. There’s a long way to go before the end of the year, but there isn’t anyone pushing him back to Syracuse right now either.
Does Henri Ikonen  remind you of Palat? Think he could follow a similar development path? (@MMal8992)
Palat is pretty special. He processes the game at an elite level, skates well, sees the ice exceptionally well, and has grit and skill. A better comparison for Ikonen is JT Brown, if you’re looking at the present-day Lightning. He’s an energy player with enough skill to survive in the top-6/9 in a complimentary role. Ikonen may have better stick skills, but Brown has a much better shot.
Ikonen can be signed when Kingston is done this year and then join Syracuse. All signs point to Ikonen being a part of the Crunch next season, and probably for a couple seasons after that. There's a clog of young forwards ahead of him and there's no reason to rush him. He’s a player coaches will love.
That's all for this week. Be sure to post your questions on the BP messageboard or to me on Twitter, @boltprospects.