Over the next few weeks, as we come to finale of the prospect season with the Memorial Cup which will feature four of the organization's prospects, I will be blogging my own organizational rankings 5 prospects at a time beginning today with the overagers. By the time it is complete, I will be releasing my Top-5 Overage Lightning Prospects, my Top-25 Lightning prospects along with some Honorable Mentions who missed the cut. So lets begin...
First off, what is an "Overage Prospect"? For the sake of these rankings I am counting any prospect who will be 24 years of age or older by the start of next season who has played less than a half a season (41 games) at the NHL level. These are older players, mostly playing in Europe, who I feel could step in immediately and provide utility for the Lightning organization either at the NHL or AHL level. With many of them, because they play in Europe, money is an issue in signing these prospects as they are already handsomely compensated overseas for being some of the best in their respective nation's club leagues, so it's not feasible to sign all of them. Still, if you're looking for some immediate impact, these are the Lightning's Top-5 Overage Prospects:
1.) C Eric Perrin, Hershey Bears (AHL)
Ht/Wt: 5'9" 180 lbs. Drafted: Signed as a Free Agent (Undrafted) Age: 29
80GP 24-49-73 46PIMs (-2)
Perrin is the most familiar name of the five for Lightning fans as he was called up at the tail end of last season to play 4 regular season and 12 playoff games in the Lightning's '04-'05 cup run. To the chagrin of the Springfield Falcons, Perrin decided to sign a contract this past season with last year's partial Lightning affiliate the Hershey Bears. There Perrin further bolstered his credentials as one of the best scorers in the AHL almost matching his previous season's total of 75 points for a Bears team that missed the playoffs despite having a winning record. Perrin's skill and heart is certainly NHL caliber, but unlike his best friend and former Vermont U. teammate Martin St. Louis he lacks the kind of high end burst and acceleration to really dominate at the top level. His size is, of course, a concern but he should get a shot at proving again that he can contribute in the way of scoring depth at the NHL level.
2.) LW Anton But, Yaroslavl Lokomotiv (RUS)
Ht/Wt: 6'2" 189 lbs. Drafted: Acquired Via Trade (5th Round 1998 NJ) Age: 24
60GP 12-22-34 58PIMs (+10)
Q: What Lightning property in Russia scored the most points in last seasons Superleague regular season and playoffs? Vincent Lecavalier? No. Dimitry Afanasenkov? No. It was LW Anton But, who was acquired from the Devils organization in the Andrei Zyuzin trade many moons ago. What made But's career year in '04-'05 so impressive is that he did it in a season where the Russian Superleague saw an influx of dozens of upon dozens of locked out NHLers into the fold. Despite this raising of the talent level though, But outpaced his previous season high by 4 points and was consistently amongst the league's top scorers throughout the campaign. But has decent NHL size, great skill, a finishers touch and good speed. He'd make for fantastic depth in the Lightning's system and could be a savior for the SPringfield Falcon's anemic offensive attack. The question though is But's willingness to accept playing in the AHL ranks in North America to sharpen his game and the Lightning's willingness to pay him the kind of money he no doubt will expect as an established star in Russia. He does have scoring line upside as an NHLer, but the window of opportunity is closing.
3.) RW Eero Somervuori, Oulun Karpat (FIN)
Ht/Wt: 5'10" 174 lbs. Drafted: 7th Round 1997 Age: 26
56GP 16-26-42 14PIMs (+15)
One of the more disappointing decisions by a prospect last summer was Eero Somervuori's decision to forego a generous offer by the Lightning to stay in North America and play for the Springfield Falcons and instead take an offer to play for Karpat in the Finnish SM-liiga. Somervuori is a hardworking, short, stocky winger with good wheels who has established himself as one of the best scorers in Finland over the past 4 years. In North America last season, Somervuori caught on down the stretch with partial affiliate Hamilton notching 19 goals before adding 5 points in 10 playoff games for the Bulldogs. His development stopped however with Karpat. True, Oulun did win the SM-liiga championship, but when Micheal Nylander was taken off Somervuori's line at mid season (and eventually left for Russia) Eero floundered for much of the rest of the year and was almost non-existent in the playoffs. Somervuori has signed to play with Ambri-Piotti in the Swiss league this coming season, but could still provide an important scoring threat to the Springfield Falcons... presuming he and his agent haven't burned their bridge with GM Jay Feaster. Like But, he does have scoring line upside at the NHL level, but his window of opportunity is closing.
4.) G Fredrik Norrena, Linkopings (SWE)
Ht/Wt: 6'0" 190 lbs. Drafted: 7th Round 2002 Age: 31
43GP 1.86 GAA .935sv%
At one time, before the acquisition of John Grahame, Norrena was looked upon by the organization as a legitimate NHL backup possibility behind Nikolai Khabibulin. However, at the time, Norrena's agent balked at a two-way deal, the Lightning decided to go with Kevin Hodson, and the rest is history. Make no mistake, Norrena is one of the best goaltenders in Europe. Battle tested in both Finland and Sweden, Norrena finished second in the Elitserian this season in both GAA and sv% behind only Rangers prospect and former Vastra Frolunda teammate Henrik Lundqvist. It's amazing to think that in just two short years since his transfer, Norrena has helped turn Linkopings from a basement dweller into the team with the second best regular season record in Sweden in the '05-'05 campaign. Norrena is quick, agressive and, for a 20 point Jeff Reese bonus, loves to play the puck. He is currently in the prime of his career but has no path to the NHL so long as Khabibulin and Grahame are still in place in Tampa. Should the Lightning go with a Brian Eklund and a veteran goaltender tandem though, Norrena could conceivably replace someone like JM Pelletier while biding his time for trade or injury to open up the backup slot in Tampa. Age and lack of opportunity hold Norrena down at #4 on this list, but make no mistake, he may be the best of the bunch.
5.) D Timo Helbling, Kloten Flyers (SWZ)
Ht/Wt: 6'2" 209 lbs. Drafted: Acquired Via Trade (6th Round 1999 NSH) Age:23
44GP 2-9-11 119PIMs
Helbling, who turns 24 in July, is another prospect who chose to return to Europe rather than stay in the Lightning organization this season and play for the Falcons. Back in his native Switzerland, Helbling established himself as one of the most punishing blueliners in the NLA ranking in the top-5 in the league in penalty minutes the entire campaign. The Falcons, who saw veteran Terry Virtue flop in Springfield and Darren Rumble's retirement, could've used Helbling's AHL veteran composure and stay-at-home toughness to stabilize their young corps. And they still could use him, which is why he touches base at #5 on this ranking. At the NHL level, he grades as a #6/7 stay at home defenseman with decent mobility, but will have to vie with many other younger Lightning prospects like Mike Egener or Paul Ranger to get to the big leagues.