Lightning Minor Pro Preview: Centers

The Syracuse Crunch will open training camp on September 28 with more talent than they originally expected. The NHL lockout forced the postponement of the Lightning’s training camp and subsequently meant all prospects and young NHLers expected to start the year in Tampa will now start the year in the AHL.

Lost in this situation is the opportunity to have out-of-nowhere stories like Cory Conacher or Brett Connolly last year or perhaps most famously, Dmitri Afanasenkov in 2003.

While that’s bad news for the Tampa Bay media and fans, it’s good news for the Syracuse fan base, who at this point is like a kid with a birthday the day after Christmas. Not only does a championship team show up at their arena’s front door, now they get a significant upgrade in talent to a team that was already expected to compete for a championship.

This is also good news for the Florida Everblades – another team coming off a championship – as they’ll get the players pushed down from Syracuse.

The question is who?

Here’s a look at the latest minor pro organizational roster of the Tampa Bay Lightning and some notes and predictions for each player, broken down by position.

Today: Centers

IN: Vladislav Namestnikov, Kyle Wilson, Danick Gauthier

OUT: Trevor Smith

Philip-Michael Devos, age 22, 5’11” 184 pounds

Acquired: Minor league contract

Last season: Devos, who was signed to a rare 2-year minor league contract by Norfolk, began his first year as a professional with ECHL Florida, accumulating 14 points in 19 games before he was called up to Norfolk. He was with Norfolk for close to three weeks before being sent back down. When he returned to Florida, he had six points in two games and was recalled for good. For the year he had seven goals and 24 points in 52 games. He had two points in the nine playoff games in which he played.

This season: The lockout assignments/signings from the Lightning to Syracuse made the Crunch much deeper at wing than center, which benefits Devos. He will likely battle rookie Vladdy Namestnikov for ice time at center, especially if coach Jon Cooper only dresses 11 forwards. At the least, Devos provides Syracuse with quality depth at center and on their power play.

Prediction: Syracuse

Danick Gauthier, age 20, 6’1” 182

Acquired: Signed as a free agent out of QMJHL Saint John in March 2012
BP Rank: Not ranked

Last season: Thanks to a newfound dedication to offseason workouts, Gauthier had a career year last year and earned an NHL contract because of it. He jumped from 11 goals to 47 in one year and ended up with 86 points in 66 games for the star-studded Sea Dogs. He added 13 goals in 17 playoff games as Saint John won the league title for the second year in a row.

This year: As a rookie pro Gauthier is expected to have some rough patches, but he has the work ethic now to get through them. He has good size, will go to high-traffic areas to score, and is a decent two-way player. While primarily a center, he also can play wing. With players like Brown, Connolly, Namestnikov, and Conacher being assigned to Syracuse, it’s likely Gauthier will start the year in ECHL Florida.

Prediction: Florida with a handful of games in Syracuse as a frequent call-up

Tyler Johnson, age 22, 5’9” 170 pounds

Acquired: Signed as a free agent out of WHL Spokane in March 2011
BP Rank: 10

Last season: As we tweeted frequently about Johnson last year, he’s good at the hockey. Johnson (pictured) scored 31 goals and was named to the AHL All-Rookie team. He added 14 points (six goals) in the playoffs despite missing four games. He didn’t just score goals for the Admirals, either. Johnson was one of Norfolk’s top faceoff men, frequently taking own-zone faceoffs in important games. Johnson’s style of getting his 5’9” frame low to the ice during draws helps his success rate.

This season: Johnson will be one of Syracuse’s offensive leaders and possibly its No.1 center. If he added weight in the offseason, he could flirt with time in Tampa Bay by the end of the year. The former 120-point scorer in the Northern Pacific league (in 39 games) can also play wing, which may be his ticket to the big show. He’s blocked at scoring center in Tampa by Vincent Lecavalier and that Stamkos fellow.

Prediction: Syracuse

Vladislav Namestnikov, age 19, 6'0" 179 pounds

Acquired: A 2011 first round pick of the Lightning out of OHL London
BP Rank: 8

Last season: Namestnikov had an up-and-down training camp for the Lightning as a thin teenager, though he left the coaches impressed. Namestnikov has speed, good hands, a high hockey I.Q., and great two-way ability. He returned to London and led the team in assists with 49 in 63 games. He added 18 points in 19 playoff games as London won the OHL title and made it to the Memorial Cup.

This season: Some outsiders speculate Namestnikov could make the Lightning, but that has a very slim chance of happening – especially under Tampa Bay’s patient GM, Steve Yzerman. As it is, Namestnikov will probably start slow with Syracuse, possibly starting on their third or fourth line until he gets more comfortable playing against men. Hopefully he’s added some muscle this offseason as that may be his biggest area for improvement. Namestnikov projects as a very adept two-way center at the NHL level. He could also play wing. His playmaking ability would make him an ideal linemate for Stamkos.

Prediction: Syracuse

Kyle Wilson, age 27, 6'0" 201 pounds

Acquired: Traded from Nashville with Anders Lindback in June 2012
BP Rank: Graduated prospect

Last season: Wilson finished second in scoring for the “other” AHL Admirals team, in Milwaukee (22-32-54). He led the club in scoring in the playoffs with three points in their first round series loss. Wilson was a leader for the Hershey Bears in their championship runs in 2009 and 2010.

This season: Wilson is considered a locked out player so he can’t join the Crunch until the lockout ends. When (if?) it does, he essentially replaces Trevor Smith for the Baby Bolts as both a veteran leader and an accomplished AHL scorer. Wilson has 39 games of NHL experience with Nashville, Columbus, and Washington (13 points) and 388 AHL games with San Antonio, Hershey, Springfield, and Milwaukee (301 points).

Prediction: Syracuse after the lockout, with spot duty in Tampa as needed

Lineup Prediction:

The Syracuse Crunch signed Evan Oberg, Matt Taormina, Mike Angelidis, and Pierre-Cedric Labrie today to minor league deals. The Syracuse Post-Standard reported the club is still talking with Keith Aulie, who tweeted this morning he was in Tampa. Crunch GM Julien BriseBois told the Post-Standard that he doesn’t have any reason for concern right now.

Assuming Aulie is signed by the Crunch, and barring injuries or an end to the lockout, here’s how the Crunch lineup could look for their opener on October 12 against Rochester (starting seven defensemen, as is typical of Jon Cooper):

Richard Panik – Tyler Johnson – JT Brown
Brett Connolly – Alex Killorn – Cory Conacher
JT Wyman – Vladislav Namestnikov – Ondrej Palat
Mike Angelidis – PC Labrie

Forwards scratched: PM Devos, Alex Hutchings, Eric Neilson
Note: Killorn is usually listed as a center and played the position at Harvard, but was a winger with Norfolk late last year. He was listed in our Wingers preview.

Mark BarberioRadko Gudas
Keith Aulie – Matt Taormina
JP Cote – Dmitry Korobov
Evan Oberg

Defensemen scratched: Jared Nightingale

Dustin Tokarski
Riku Helenius

Sent to ECHL Florida: Danick Gauthier, Charles Landry, Daniel Milan, Pat Nagle

Previous Previews: Wingers, Defensemen, Goaltenders.