The Tampa Bay Lightning have steadily built one of the NHL's elite farm systems during Steve Yzerman's tenure as general manager with an effective mix of prospect development, quality scouting and risk-taking to strengthen their organizational depth.
In the salary-cap world of the NHL, it is difficult at times to find teams exhibiting patience when it comes to player development, let alone find teams that have a large amount of top prospects in the AHL. A lot of top under-20 players will make the jump from the CHL to the NHL, or stay in college and Europe before making a brief stop in the American league on their way to the top level. However, Tampa Bay has veered from this model with a lot of good, young players in Syracuse, their AHL affiliate, which won last season's championship (then based in Norfolk) largely due to quality young prospects.
Tampa Bay has also shown that it is willing to take risks in the draft, using high picks on injured players like Brett Connolly and Slater Koekkoek. Also, in 2011, the team's first three picks were Russians -- Vladislav Namestnikov, Nikita Kucherov and Nikita Nesterov -- all of whom look like quality prospects. Tampa also has one of the league's best goaltending prospects, Russian Andrei Vasilevski. Plus, top young players like Cory Conacher (a current Calder candidate) and Tyler Johnson were undrafted players who Tama Bay's scouts were able to identify as potential NHL contributors.
Given the team's successful mix of scouting, draft strategy and existing talent, it appears the Lightning are primed for a bright future. To get a better sense of Tampa Bay's young talent, I spoke with Julien BriseBois, Tampa Bay's assistant general manager who also serves as Syracuse's GM, about the franchise's top prospects.
Here's a look at some of Tampa Bay's key AHL prospects and top amateurs.
Mark Barberio, Defense: Barberio was the AHL's defenseman of the year last season. BriseBois said Barberio has improved his defense and is knocking on the door to the NHL, and sees him as a player who can run a power play. Barberio is a high-end skater whose main areas of concerns as a pro include getting stronger and improving play in his own end. With those areas coming along, he could be an asset for Tampa in the near future. He has top-four defenseman upside and could be a player who plays on a top power-play unit.
J.T. Brown, Right Wing: Brown was one of the best college free agents last season, and after signing with Tampa Bay he looked solid in a few games with the big club. Brown is an intriguing player because he projects to potentially have scoring value and can check as well. He's been sidelined since late December after having shoulder surgery. Brown is a, "two-way guy who plays at a high speed, has skill and is competitive," said BriseBois. Brown needs to get stronger and get accustomed to the trials of a pro season, but he's certainly a guy who is close to playing full time at the top level.
Brett Connolly, Right Wing: Connolly played in the NHL last season where he provided average output; however, in the AHL, where he was not eligible to play last season due to the CHL-NHL agreement, he's been very good. BriseBois said the team still thinks very highly of Connolly's potential -- as have other scouts I've spoken with. Connolly, the sixth overall pick in 2011, is a high-end skater who can impact a game with his speed, hands, size and shot. He is a very big part of Tampa Bay's future and could be a top-line player in the NHL.
Tyler Johnson, Center: Johnson went undrafted several times and signed with Tampa Bay in the spring of 2011. He's had two very good AHL seasons, and this season he's among the top AHL scorers who haven't left for the NHL. BriseBois described Johnson as, "one of the team's best penalty-killers who's fast and has a great shot." Another NHL source also really likes Johnson's play-making skills. He's knocking on the door to the NHL and has scoring-line upside as well as defensive value despite being only 5-foot-9.
Alek Killorn, Center: Killorn has had a very good first full season as a pro. He's averaged roughly four shots on goal per game, which is a very impressive feat for a rookie pro. In the past, I had heard from scouts who liked the power elements of Killorn's game but questioned his upside. However, Killorn has arguably been more impressive as a pro than he was in college, and could potentially play with a scoring line at the top level. BriseBois says Killorn is NHL-ready, calling him a "big body who protects the puck well who can rush the puck, with good hands and a good shot."
Vladislav Namestnikov, Center: Namestnikov missed a significant portion of the season after suffering a shoulder injury. The missed time and an adjustment period has made his rookie pro year a bit of a bumpy ride. Namestnikov was characterized by BriseBois as a "high-speed player with great hands who makes quick decisions." Several scouts who watched Namestnikov in the OHL are very optimistic about his ceiling and two-way potential. His development as a pro next season will determine whether he projects as a two-way, second-line pivot or if he can take that next step in his development.
Richard Panik, Right Wing: Panik was drafted as a multi-tool forward who had a lot of things he needed to work on, specifically his consistency. After talking to a few sources, including BriseBois, that area of Panik's game is a lot better and overall he has come a long way as a player. One AHL scout raved about his skill set. Panik is a dynamic puck handler and skater with a great shot who protects the puck well. He has all of the upside in the world, but how the rest of his development continues to progress will determine how much of that potential he will achieve.
Radko Gudas, Defense: Gudas was a third-round pick in 2010 who has progressed pretty well. BriseBois said Gudas is NHL-ready and has been a very good penalty killer in the AHL. Gudas gets his value from his high-end physical game and play in the defensive zone. His offensive ability is average at best -- and he won't be a power-play guy at the top level -- but he could play some tougher defensive minutes and lay some crushing blows.
Dmitry Korobov, Defense: Korobov was signed by Tampa Bay last summer after he spent a few seasons in the KHL getting regular playing time (he also played for Belarus at the World Championships last season). Korobov's a large, skilled defenseman but has had an adjustment period to the North American game. BriseBois says the 23-year-old is good with the puck, is mobile and can make one-on-one stops. However, an overseas scout said he is not that optimistic when it comes to Korobov's offensive potential.
Ondrej Palat, Left Wing: Palat was a seventh-round pick by Tampa Bay in 2011 after being passed over the season before. He was solid in the AHL last season and has taken his game to a new level in 2012-13. BriseBois called Palat a "really good two-way player who plays all situations, competes hard, with good hands and hockey sense." Palat is a player who can fly under the radar given the other names in Syracuse, but he's a quality prospect with good all-around potential.
Slater Koekkoek, Defense: Koekkoek was taken 10th overall by Tampa Bay last summer. He missed half of last draft season after injuring his shoulder and is out for the rest of this season after reinjuring the same shoulder. One OHL scout described Koekkoek's recent play as so-so, saying that he looked great offensively but that he was running around too much on defense. BriseBois said that Tampa really likes Koekkoek's tools, but he certainly needs to get more reps and time to develop. Koekkoek was highly touted as a 16-year-old and he still has top-end potential -- but his development has been a bumpy road.
Nikita Kucherov, Right Wing: Kucherov, a second-round pick of Tampa Bay in 2011, has scoring-line upside. In the recent World Juniors in Russia, one head scout told me he thought Kucherov was one of the better forwards at that tournament. He's a player with speed, skill, finishing ability and vision. Best of all, he's in North America producing a lot in the QMJHL. Kucherov still needs to bulk up to be ready for the transition to the pros.
Andrei Vasilevski, Goaltender: Vasilevski is having yet another stellar season in which he's been dominant in the Russian junior league. He also was excellent for Russia at the World Juniors that took place in Ufa, where his KHL team plays. He's a big, athletic goalie with advanced technique and awareness. After the World Juniors, he got called up to play for Salavat Yulaev in the KHL where he's started a little under half of the games and has been good during that limited playing time. For a goalie to get that responsibility in the KHL as an under-20 player is quite unusual, and is just another step in the right direction for one of the game's top goalie prospects.