Lightning Minor Pro Preview: Defensemen

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: Defensemen

IN: Dmitry Korobov, Daniel Milan, Jared Nightingale, Matt Taormina

OUT: Mike Kostka, Scott Jackson

Keith Aulie, age 23, 6’6” 217 pounds

Acquired: Trade with Toronto
BP Rank: 14

Last season: Coming from Tampa Bay to Norfolk last year prior to the playoffs, a lot was expected of Aulie, though he could only manage limited minutes until injuries let him into the top-6. While he was shaky in Tampa and started out the same in Norfolk, his play improved each round of the playoffs and his stay-at-home, simple game was effective for what Norfolk needed. He finished with six points and plus-7 in 18 playoff games. He was not used as much as other defensemen who had been a part of the club longer, and Aulie saw special teams play only on the penalty kill.

This season: Aulie was a lock for Tampa because of waiver considerations, so in order to play for Syracuse he will have to be signed to an AHL contract. The Tampa Bay Times reported this is inevitable should the lockout extend into the Crunch’s season. Aulie will be a big part of the Crunch, providing a defensive presence the team lost when Scott Jackson was not re-signed. Once the lockout is over, he’ll return to Tampa, likely as a No.6, 7, or 8 defenseman.

Prediction: Syracuse until the lockout ends

Mark Barberio, age 22, 6’1” 200 pounds

Acquired: A 2008 sixth round pick by the Lightning out of QMJHL Moncton
BP Rank: 7

Last season: Barberio put a skyscraper on top of the solid foundation he built in his first professional year, finishing as the AHL’s best defensemen and its top-scoring blueliner. He wasn’t as dominant in the playoffs as his points-per-game average dropped from .77 in the regular season to .50. He also finished a team-worst minus-2 for Norfolk in the playoffs.

This season: Due to one-way contracts, it would have taken a colossal effort by Barberio to make the Lightning out of camp. He may end up at the Forum later in the season and is a big part of the Lightning’s future. Offensive defensemen always seem to get the “bad defensively” tag, mostly because their offense overshadows their defense. Although Barberio has to keep working on his own-zone play, it’s serviceable for the NHL. A few years ago Barberio would have been a lock to start the season in Tampa at his current development level, but under Yzerman’s patient approach his opportunity will depend on 1) an open spot and 2) what player type is needed.

Prediction: Syracuse with a cup of coffee in Tampa by the end of the year

J. P. Cote, age 30, 6’2” 210 pounds

Acquired: AHL Contract

Last season: Cote was plucked out of the ECHL by Norfolk GM Julien BriseBois and Cote proved to be a steadying veteran influence on the young Ads club. The son of former Quebec Nordique Alain Cote tied for the team lead in playoff plus/minus with a plus-14 rating. Prior to the playoffs he accumulated 26 points for Norfolk in the regular season. His influence on and off the ice earned him a 2-year AHL contract with Syracuse this past offseason.

This season: Cote may wear a letter on his jersey this year for the Crunch. He is a coach’s dream and is part of Jon Cooper’s philosophy that teaching prospects comes from veteran players as much as the coaches. He could serve as the seventh or eighth defenseman on the club if needed.

Prediction: Syracuse

Radko Gudas, age 22, 6’0” 205 pounds

Acquired: A 2010 third round pick by the Lightning out of WHL Everett
BP Rank: 11

Last season: Gudas turned the proverbial corner in his development, becoming a rock in the defensive end for Norfolk. There are opponents who have permanent bruises from his hits and men around the world continue to try to emulate his playoff beard to no avail.

This season: Like Barberio, Gudas had an outside chance to make the Lightning out of camp, but there simply doesn’t/didn’t look to be room for him with all the one-way contracts held by Lightning defensemen. He will be a top pair defenseman for Syracuse to start the year, and he could be in Tampa at some point depending on a roster spot and if the Lightning need a defenseman with offense (Barberio) or physical own-zone play (Gudas). Like an opposing forward, keep your eyes on Gudas.

Prediction: Syracuse with a cup of coffee in Tampa by the end of the year

Dmitry Korobov, age 23, 6’3” 230 pounds

Acquired: Signed as a free agent out of KHL Minsk in August 2012
BP Rank: N/A (signed after supplementary rankings; will be included in first rankings of the new season)

Last season: Korobov, who was courted by the Lightning a year ago, signed with the Bolts after completing his second season with Dinamo Minsk of the Kontinental Hockey League. Korobov, a promising young defenseman with good size and two-way ability, had 11 points in 39 games last year. He had three assists in seven games at the 2012 World Championships, playing against NHLers and other European professionals.

This season: Korobov was likely slated for Syracuse anyway, so starting the year in New York shouldn’t be much of a disappointment for him. He is expected to be part of the Crunch top-7 and how much ice time he earns depends on how quickly he learns the North American game. His game should translate well to the smaller ice surface. It’s hard to see a scenario where he falls to ECHL Florida, though Aulie moving to the Crunch could push him out of the top-6. Crunch coach Jon Cooper frequently played seven defensemen last season while with Norfolk.

Prediction: Syracuse

Charles Landry, age 21, 6’1” 187 pounds

Acquired: Signed as a free agent out of QMJHL Montreal in September 2010
BP Rank: Not ranked

Last season: After being injured by a Richard Panik hit in a drill during Lightning camp, Landry split his rookie pro season between AHL Norfolk (23 games) and ECHL Florida (36). Due to a depleted forward rank in Norfolk, he even saw some time at winger near the end of the year. He returned to Florida for the playoffs and helped the ‘Blades win the Kelly Cup, notching a goal and two assists in 11 playoff games.

This season: Landry, one of only three right-handed defensemen as options for Syracuse (with Gudas and Nightingale), provides the Crunch with defensive depth and potential two-way ability. Step one for Landry will likely be solidifying his game in Florida. He should earn more minutes with the Everblades this year, especially if he’s put on weight during the offseason. Landry had two more years on his entry-level contract and has to be entrenched in Syracuse by the time that ends in order to stay in the organization.

Prediction: Florida, with spot duty in Syracuse as needed

Daniel Milan, age 20, 6’2” 200

Acquired: Signed as a free agent out of QMJHL Moncton in September 2011
BP Rank: Not ranked

Last season: Milan was a surprise signing midway through training camp last year before being sent back to Moncton of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He was coming off an impressive rookie season for the Wildcats with 38 points in 68 games. Despite his offense, Lightning GM Steve Yzerman said he was signed for his defense. It’s a good thing, because Milan’s offense disappeared last year for Moncton and then for Victoriaville after he was traded prior to the playoffs. He only managed 11 points in 62 games, which had to be below expectations for the Lightning brass.

This season: Milan will go to Syracuse for camp, then likely start his professional career with ECHL Florida. He has good size and compete-level and should start the climb up the organizational ladder as the years progress. He’s a determined individual who is willing to put in the work to make it happen.

Prediction: Florida, with emergency recalls to Syracuse if needed

Jared Nightingale, age 29, 6’3” 205 pounds

Acquired: AHL contract

Last season: Nightingale, a former tryout player for the Springfield Falcons under the Lightning’s watch, played for AHL Connecticut last year, putting up 10 points and 110 penalty minutes. That was about half as much as the year before when he had 204 minutes of feeling shame in the box for the Whale/Wolfpack.

This season: Nightingale was signed by the Crunch to provide size, leadership, and some muscle should it be needed. The Lightning’s philosophy is fighters have to be able to play regular shifts, but Nightingale is more of a defensive defenseman who can fight. With Aulie being sent down, that could push Nightingale to the press box as a healthy scratch. Right now Nightingale looks to be the eighth defenseman.

Prediction: Syracuse, though as a healthy scratch on occasion

Evan Oberg, age 24, 6’0” 191

Acquired: Trade with Florida
BP Rank: 21

Last season: Oberg traveled back and forth from Tampa to Norfolk so many times he was on every flight attendant’s Christmas card list. The constant availability to Tampa proved valuable, however, as it allowed the Lightning to keep prized prospects Barberio and Gudas in Norfolk while Oberg, a seasoned minor-league pro, served as roster insurance for the Lightning. When he did play in Tampa, he played well. He played a simpler game with the Lightning than he did in Norfolk, when he was prone to errors veterans shouldn’t make – especially in the playoffs.

This season: Oberg will start in Syracuse on a minor league contract to avoid waivers, but could find himself making trips to Tampa should the need arise after the lockout. A lot depends on his game and the developing games of Barberio and Gudas. Oberg is more of a do-it-all type who the Lightning don’t mind having watch games from the pressbox, thereby leaving Barberio and Gudas on the ice in the AHL. His spot on the organizational ladder above Barberio and Gudas may be coming to an end.

Prediction: Syracuse, with spot duty in Tampa as needed

Matt Taormina, age 25, 5’9” 190 pounds

Acquired: Signed as an unrestricted free agent by the Lightning in July 2012
BP Rank: Graduated prospect

Last season: Taormina played 30 games for the New Jersey Devils, scoring a goal and adding six assists. He played 33 games for AHL Albany, putting up 16 points.

This season: Taormina is expected to help ease the loss of Mike Kostka, who signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs, especially on the power play. He is expected to sign a minor league contract to avoid waivers like Aulie and Oberg. He can also help fill the Marc-Andre Bergeron role in Tampa with his offensive abilities on the power play if needed. Taormina should thrive in Jon Cooper’s system.

Prediction: Syracuse with spot duty in Tampa as needed

Syracuse’s blueline will likely consist of seven players each game, and could look like:

Barberio-Gudas
Aulie-Taormina
Cote-Korobov
Oberg

Nightingale

Landry
Milan

Next up: Wingers
Previous: Goaltenders