Signing Season is Coming

The KHL's regular season came to a close Sunday, the NCAA is in the midst of its conference playoffs, and Canadian junior regular seasons will be closing next weekend. So, it's getting close to signing season, and I figured I'd post a little on the blog about some of the players who will potentially be joining the organization in the coming weeks and months. Before I do, though, I wanted to quickly address the new ownership situation.

We don't typically get involved talking about the business side of the franchise on Bolt Prospects. We believe it's enough of a task to try to keep a handle on the hockey side of the franchise, and in a perfect world the two sides would never cross. Unfortunately, over the past couple of years, they definitely have. So, what do we make of the sale of the team to Jeffrey Vinik? Not much, so far. Vinik's been tight lipped about what he's going to do with the hockey side of the team, and in fact I'd guess he's still in the process of evaluating everyone on the hockey side before he does anything. And that's fairly refreshing. When OK Hockey purchased the team, I commented it felt like the circus was coming to town. The ownership group was leakier than a sieve and rumors of the hiring of Barry Melrose were released into the wild months before the move was actually made. The owners and their psuedo-GM consultant, Brian Lawton, flaunted that they were going to camp out on the front lawns of free agents while the real GM, Jay Feaster, was mysteriously locked in a closet shortly after handing Steven Stamkos his sweater at the draft. The Dan Boyle trade came and went, speculation on the potential trade of Vincent Lecavalier raged, owners feuded, and distractions festered.

So, do I mind that all is quiet from Jeffrey Vinik thus far? Um, no. It's refreshing. It's a return to the more professional way that the team was run under PS&E. In that era, the hockey side of the business wasn't run through the media. Distractions didn't fester. The team won division titles and a Stanley Cup. That's how a hockey team should be run: almost like the mafia. What happens in the family should stay in the family.

That said, back to signing season:

Junior Players Likely to Miss the Playoffs:
Carter Ashton* (season ends 3/13)
Richard Panik (season ends 3/13)
Kyle DeCoste (season ends 3/13)

Norfolk Admirals fans have probably been wondering what they're going to do with Mark Parrish, Brandon Bochenski, and Paul Szczechura recalled to Tampa Bay. Help may be on the way, though, in the form of a couple of key prospects who could be signed to Amateur Tryout Contracts (ATO's). From the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League, right winger Carter Ashton could add the front-of-net presence the Admirals lost in Parrish. It's been a modestly disappointing season for the 2009 1st round pick, who has equaled his point total from a season ago but likely won't match his goal total from his draft year. But, scouts have always agreed Ashton's simple north-south style translates better to the pros than it does to the junior level, and the Lightning seriously considered adding Ashton to the opening night roster, so much so that they signed the winger before sending him back to junior.

The flair and finishing ability of Bochenski might be filled by 2009 2nd round pick Richard Panik of Belleville of the OHL. Panik's junior numbers have been disappointing, but he had a great U20 World Junior Championships for Slovakia and seems to elevate his play when he's going against a higher level of opponent. His teammate, Kyle DeCoste, is also eligible to be signed as an ATO, but with the more highly touted Ashton and Panik likely to be in the fold, DeCoste's services probably won't be required by the Admirals. (Note: DeCoste is currently sidelined with a concussion.)

Junior Player Who May Miss the Playoffs:
Michael Zador (regular season ends 3/14)
Matias Sointu (regular season ends 3/13)

It's hard to believe there was a time when goaltending coach Cap Raeder was praising Michael Zador as having better mechanics than Jaroslav Janus. Janus earned a pro contract and is riding a 5-game winning streak in the AHL while Zador has been riding the pine on and off for the Generals this season. His club is currently battling Matias Sointu's Sudbury Wolves for the final playoff spot in the OHL Eastern Conference with Sudbury holding an edge heading down the final stretch. With a solid tandem of Janus and Dustin Tokarski, signing Zador to an ATO seems highly unlikely, and much like DeCoste's situation, Sointu will have a hard time finding a spot in Norfolk with Ashton and Panik potentially joining the fold. Sointu's an interesting prospect in that he has good hands and is a good skater, but his lack of strength and size make him a long shot to ever become an NHL player.

Likely Deep Playoff Runs:
James Wright*
Alex Hutchings
Mark Barberio

At the opposite end of the spectrum from some of their fellow prospects, forwards James Wright and Alex Hutchings and defenseman Mark Barberio are expected to make deep playoff runs. Wright's Vancouver Giants are sitting in 2nd in the Western League's Western Conference and Hutchings' Barrie Colts are sitting alone atop the Eastern Conference in the OHL. Barberio's Moncton Wildcats are sitting in 3rd in the entire QMJHL and 2nd in the Atlantic Division. All three are among the best teams in the CHL and all three are threats to win a championship and go to the Memorial Cup tournament. As a result, it may be the AHL playoffs before the Lightning can even attempt to sign any of these players to ATO's, if they get a chance at all.

Although he might have the less familiar name, Barberio could probably help the Admirals the most. At present, Norfolk is suiting up a pair of PTO contracted players on defense, Zach Tarkir and Ryan McGinnis, and they could definitely use some additional depth. If Moncton goes deep in the playoffs, that depth may need to be supplied by some college free agent defensemen on ATO contracts, though. Wright would probably make the easiest transition into Norfolk after spending half the season in Tampa Bay before returning to the junior ranks. He holds a pro contract and no coach will ever turn down a strong skating, defensively solid, hard working centerman who happens to be good on faceoffs to boot, especially come playoff time. Hutchings is an intriguing mix of speed, skill, and leadership, and is one of a handful of players who give OHL defensemen nightmares when they hit the pillow at night.

The Wild Card:
Alex Killorn

Alex Killorn's sophomore season could have ended this weekend, but after knocking off Princeton in the first round of the ECACHL playoffs he'll get at least another week to try to salvage a disappointing season for the Crimson. Killorn has long been known as the stealth prospect in the Lightning organization. He played a season of prep hockey after being drafted and the Ivy League has never been atop the list of the scouting world's must see games, but time and time again in prospect camps Killorn has proven it's right to consider him a blue chip NHL prospect.

The question is whether Killorn is ready to leave the college ranks and the chance to hold a Harvard degree at this stage of his career to make a run at his NHL dreams. He might be after two disappointing seasons in a struggling program. If he is, though, I doubt he'll leave school on an ATO. I would expect that the Lightning would have to sign Killorn to an entry level contract, similar to how they handled Mike Lundin a few years back when he left the University of Maine. Because of that, although I think Killorn could definitely help the Admirals, I wouldn't count on him joining Norfolk for their playoff run.

Out of the European Leagues:
Johan Harju
Vasily Koshechkin
Karri Ramo

They probably won't be able to join Norfolk for the playoffs, but once their teams are eliminated in the KHL playoffs I expect the Lightning to put a full court press on at least two of a trio of Russian-based prospects. Winger Johan Harju is considered to be one of the best prospects in the Lightning organization, but after dominating the Swedish Elitserien the past couple of years he struggled in his rookie campaign in Russia. His game is probably better suited to the North American ranks and he's still considered the second coming of Detroit's Johan Franzen to some in Sweden. He's in the first year of a two-year deal signed with Dynamo Moscow, but he has an escape clause he can exercise this offseason.

In net, the Lightning will almost certainly tap at least one, if not both, of their KHL prospects to try to solve their big league goaltending problems. Antero Niittymaki has lived up to his reputation as a streaky NHL netminder and is a UFA this offseason while his tandem-mate Mike Smith has struggled to keep his save percentage above .900 all season, so the Lightning likely will be in the market for goaltenders. The club is reportedly very interested in signing Koshechkin, who has arguably been the best netminder in Russia over the past 4 seasons. The Lighting took a flyer on the 6'6" butterfly style backstop in the 8th round of the 2002 draft, and he's routinely been among the Russian league leaders in shutouts and save percentage ever since. It seems like the Lightning have been pursuing Koshechkin forever, but after his beloved Togliatti club had to cut him loose earlier this year due to financial troubles, allowing him to sign with Magnitogorsk, one wonders if the time is finally right. If not, the Lightning know exactly what they have in Ramo, who has had a decent season for Omsk and was a starter for Team Jagr in the KHL All-Star Game. Like his fellow Finn Niittymaki, it's fair to call Ramo streaky. But, he's got NHL experience, good size, good athleticism, and makes a good fallback if the Lightning can't manage to lure Koshechkin.

Likely Offseason Signees:
James Wright*
Carter Ashton*
Richard Panik
Alex Killorn
Alex Hutchings
Mark Barberio

Wright and Ashton have already signed entry-level contracts with the Lightning and will be with either the big club or Norfolk next season. Richard Panik could go back to junior for a second season, but he got a long look with the Lightning in preseason and didn't look out of place in the pro ranks. I believe he needs a challenge, and the challenge is in the AHL. Killorn is the biggest question mark on the list. I've added him, though, because I believe he might be amenable to join the pro ranks given the state of Harvard's program and I think the Lightning are equally amenable to pulling out the stops to get him signed. Rounding out the potential signings are Hutchings and Barberio. Hutchings is going to be a fan favorite in Norfolk over the next couple of seasons as he makes his way toward the NHL. Imagine the best of Dana Tyrell melded with the best of Mitch Fadden, Admirals fans. And, given the lack of defensive depth in the Lightning's system, signing Barberio seems like a no-brainer. His skating style is considered awkward by some scouts, but he's been logging big minutes for Moncton for three years now and Red Line Report considered him a Craig Rivet clone in his draft year. Considering Vladimir Mihalik or Ty Wishart may go up to Tampa Bay next year, the need to sign Barberio becomes even more clear.

What that means is that this may be the deepest class of incoming prospects in a long, long time for the Lightning. Indeed, it might be the deepest class of incoming Lightning prospects ever if Killorn comes along for the ride. That's good news for Norfolk, considering much of their depth may be lost in the offseason as a couple of their veterans are in the final years of their contracts, some of the team's 4th year pros are likely to be moving on, and some of the team's younger prospects may be moving up. So, it'll be coming at just the right time.