Prospect Roster Speculation - Forwards

Last week we looked at which defensemen and goaltenders could see time with the Lightning this year. Today, we take a look at the forwards.

Unlike the defensemen and goalies, figuring out which forward prospects could make the team out of camp and which ones could earn a call-up is far from simple. Therefore, we’ll break down the candidates individually.

First, the givens, in no particular order: Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Steven Stamkos, Ryan Malone, Teddy Purcell, Ryan Shannon, Nate Thompson, Dominic Moore, Steve Downie, Adam Hall.

These 10 forwards, combined with the eight defensemen Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman expects to keep, as well as two goaltenders, leaves three roster spots open. Head Coach Guy Boucher will likely switch between dressing six and seven defensemen, meaning of the three forward spots open only one is guaranteed to play. It is also possible the team could carry only 12 forwards as they did last season in spurts.

While Yzerman, Boucher, and management say roster spots will be earned in a meritocracy system - and that is what the players need to hear - in today’s NHL, contract status (not necessarily salary in this case) plays a huge part in roster management. Also high on the list is the opportunity for development-rich playing time.

The Lightning currently have 44 players under contract on their 50-man organizational roster, including Brett Connolly, who only counts if he plays more than nine games at the NHL level.

Here’s a look at the candidates to fill the three open forward positions with the 2011-2012 Tampa Bay Lightning.

Tom Pyatt, W/C (24): Pyatt was an offseason signing by Tampa Bay and like Dana Tyrell, spent his first full year in the NHL last season (with Montreal). Pyatt compares to Tyrell in that he has good speed, versatility, penalty killing ability, and is undersized. Pyatt scored 43 one year for OHL Saginaw on his way to an 81 point season, but had just seven points last year for the Habs in a limited role. The fact Pyatt has to pass through waivers could give him a leg up on Tyrell for a spot with the big club. Pyatt, who is two years older than Tyrell, played for Boucher in Hamilton two years ago, scoring 13 goals and 35 points in 41 games.

Dana Tyrell, W (22): Tyrell spent the entire 2010-2011 season with the Lightning, accumulating six goals and 15 points in a defensive/energy roll. Tyrell’s speed is craved by Boucher for his system and Dana is one of the team’s best penalty killers. A former 30-goal scorer in the WHL, Tyrell has more offense than he’s shown so far, too. So why is he on this list and not the one above? He’s still on his entry-level contract, which means he can’t be exposed to waivers. If the Lightning are faced with a log-jam on the bottom lines and at least four of the candidates have played up to their potential to make the team, the Bolts could ship Tyrell back to the AHL and keep another play that could ultimately be lost to waivers. Tyrell has another gear at both ends of the ice and may have to show them in order to make the team. While a demotion to the AHL is probably unlikely, it’s a possibility depending on contract status.

Mattias Ritola, W (24): After being claimed on waivers from the Red Wings last fall Ritola played 31 regular season games and one playoff contest for the Bolts last year with mixed results. It wasn’t until his inner-ear condition was finally effectively treated that he began to turn his game around. It was also at this time he was demoted to Norfolk and the Red Wings refused to reclaim him off waivers. While playing healthy for Norfolk Ritola really caught the eye of Lightning farm followers. He wracked up 27 points (9 goals) in just 17 games and had five points in four playoff games for the Admirals. The hockey world knows Ritola has skill, but it was likely his contract status that scared teams away when he was subjected to waivers. Ritola signed a three year contract with Detroit before last season so anyone claiming (or reclaiming) him is on the hook for Ritola’s paychecks through 2012-2013. While his price tag is at the bottom of the payroll list, committing to two-plus years of an on-the-fence player is a risky decision. For this reason Ritola may be able to pass through waivers again if he can’t make the Bolts out of camp, but the Lightning could be playing with fire if they try that again. Ritola is responsible enough to play on the bottom lines and skilled enough to play on the top lines in a fill-in roll, which makes him a likely candidate to stay. We rank Ritola No.8 among eligible Bolt prospects.

Michel Ouellet, W (29): A teammate of Brad Richards for Memorial Cup-winning Rimouski in 2000, the last time anyone saw Ouellet in the NHL he was skating in three games for the Canucks in 2008-2009. Since that time he’s bounced around Europe, ending up with Hamburg in Germany last season (39 GP, 11-17-28). Ouellet agreed to come back to the NHL for another shot, signing a two-way contract with Tampa Bay in the offseason. Ouellet, who is skilled but doesn’t skate exceptionally well, had his most productive season with the Penguins in 2006-2007, scoring 19 goals and 48 points. He flirted with 20 goals as a member of the Lightning the following year, too. Because he’s “been there before,” has significant professional experience, and is subject to waivers, Ouellet is a strong candidate to make the team. The key to playing time could be his two-way game as he’ll likely see some time on the third line, depending what Boucher does with Ryan Malone, who played on the third line at times last season. Developmental playing time is not an issue for Ouellet as he’ll turn 30 this season, so if he stays in Tampa, the coaching staff won’t feel guilty about having him sit in the press box as a healthy scratch if needed.

Blair Jones, W/C (24): Jones has never spent a full season in the NHL, but had a strong close to the 2010-2011 campaign with the Lightning and appeared in seven playoff games. The light has finally turning on for Jones, who is at his best when he’s a menace on the forecheck and throwing his body around. Jones is an ideal candidate for a bottom line spot because he can kill penalties and provide energy. He has more size than Tyrell and Pyatt and the Lightning lack size outside of Nate Thompson on the lower lines. If his face-offs were better, he may have made Adam Hall expendable. Lightning prospect followers have been waiting for Jones to finally make his move with the big club. Jones would have to pass through waivers to be sent to Norfolk.

Carter Ashton, W (20): We are clamoring for Ashton (pictured) to make the NHL roster this fall as he can bring scoring, grit, and size to a lineup that desperately needs it – especially if Ryan Malone’s shoulder injury is worse than expected. Ashton skates well, can bang in rebounds from the front of the net, and throw his weight around. What he doesn’t have is pro experience and experience is something Yzerman wants to give his prospects. With experience – especially abundant playing time – comes effective development. Though he was signed two years ago, Ashton’s entry level contract doesn’t kick in until this year so he has a free pass to playing time in Norfolk. Expect to see him in Tampa at some point during the year if he doesn’t make the club in September/October. It will all depend on his projected playing time in Tampa and if Yzerman thinks his development would be better suited playing 20 minutes a night in Norfolk to start his professional career. Ashton is our second-ranked prospect.

Alexander Picard, W (25): Picard, a former top-10 pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets, was signed by the Lightning in the offseason to provide offensive depth. It sounds cliché, but Picard making the team depends on his camp. The mid-20s are usually when some “forgotten” prospects find their groove and prove themselves worth the risk to sign them. Picard was a star in the QMJHL before being drafted and has done well in the AHL. Last year was his best as a pro as he scored 24 times and had 46 points in 59 AHL games. He is subject to waivers if moved to Norfolk, but in this case his reputation as an underachiever likely will mean he passes through to the Admirals. If a team is starved for offense, however, they could take a chance on him. We could see Boucher getting the most out of this Quebec-native, too, and Picard could finally make his mark in the NHL. It’s hard to believe someone who won the Mike Bossy award as the Q’s best professional prospect has only two assists in 67 NHL games.

James Wright, C/W (21): Wright spent half of the 2009-2010 season with Tampa Bay and even saw some time on Vincent Lecavalier’s line before being sent back to the Vancouver Giants of the WHL. Wright was placed in Norfolk last year to round out his offense and ha d a respectable 16 goals and 47 points in 80 games. Wright has filled out his 6-3 frame since he played for the Lightning and now has the physical stature to play a checking line center role for the Bolts. However, the fact Wright is still in his entry contract and has a free pass to Norfolk likely means he’ll have to dominate in camp to earn a spot over others who are waiver eligible. He could be a replacement for Dominic Moore this time next year, especially if his face-offs improve.

Richard Panik, W (20): If anyone is going to give Brett Connolly a run for having the highest offensive ceiling on this list, it’s Panik. The big Slovakian is the total package – he can hit, score, dish, skate, dangle, and fight. So why isn’t he higher on this list? Consistency. Panik is the poster child for Yzerman wanting prospects to play their way out of their shortcomings. Panik has professional ability, but not a professional approach to each game. It would not be far-fetched to think Panik could dominate a camp scrimmage or two, or some shifts in an exhibition game, but only if he’s consistently dominant will he make the Bolts to start the year. And even then, considering he has a free ticket to Norfolk, he may not make it. We can’t wait for when he does, though. We rank Panik No.3 on the Lightning’s list of prospects.

Trevor Smith, W/C (26): Another free agent acquisition by the Lightning this summer, Smith is coming off a 43-point campaign split between AHL Springfield and Syracuse. Smith has seven games of NHL experience to his credit with the Islanders, and has one NHL goal. He provides the club with offensive depth and AHL scoring, but has the ability to fill in if needed at the NHL level.

Brett Connolly, W (19): No player on this list has a higher ceiling than Connolly and possibly no player has improved themselves physically as much as Brett. Connolly has spent the summer in Toronto building strength to cope with the rigors of professional hockey and most importantly shield himself from injuries. Yzerman said Connolly needed to get stronger last season after Brett was knocked out of the WHL playoffs with a separated shoulder. His 2011-2012 hockey year didn’t get off to the best start as yesterday he left a scrimmage at Canada’s World Juniors Development Camp with a leg injury. Fortunately, it looked worse than it actually was and reports are Connolly only suffered a bad bruise. Connolly’s best (only?) chance to make the Lightning is if the Bolts appear to be short a scoring liner and are in need of impact offense - and are willing to roll the dice on him. Connolly would have scored 50 goals in the WHL last year if not for missing time with Team Canada and a minor knee injury (he had 46 goals in 59 games). The key with Connolly is his contract status. While he’s already signed his entry level contract, he’s not old enough to play in the AHL. Therefore, the Lightning’s 2010 first round pick can only play in the NHL or WHL. He’s likely not ready for the grind of the NHL, but he could be too advanced in his development to go back to the Dub. What is better for him, getting 10-12 strategic minutes in the NHL or being able to take advantage of shortcuts and possibly getting bored at the WHL level? If he goes back, he’ll likely be given the goals of leading the league in scoring and guiding his hometown Prince George Cougars deep into the playoffs. In reality, Connolly has to prove he can play a full season healthy and continue to develop strength, so there's probably close to 100% chance he returns to juniors. We rank Connolly as the Lightning’s top prospect.

Mike Angelidis, W (26): A darkhorse for playing time in the NHL this year is former undrafted free agent Mike Angelidis. A 20-goal scorer for the Admirals last year, Angelidis is gritty and skilled enough to play in some form at the NHL level, though he has zero minutes of NHL experience coming into this season. Angelidis is subject to waivers if he doesn’t make the team out of camp, but should have no problems getting to Norfolk where he can continue to work his way up the ladder.

J.T. Wyman, W (25): Like Pyatt, Wyman played under Boucher with Hamilton two years ago. The 6-2 winger has approached 20 goals his last two seasons in the AHL and while he’s expected to start the year in Norfolk, he does have three games of NHL experience under his belt – all with the team that drafted him, Montreal. Wyman is subject to waivers if he’s sent down.