As we start the stretch run of the 2010-2011 hockey season, BoltProspects is proud to announce its midterm rankings for the prospects of the Tampa Bay Lightning organization.
As is tradition, we will begin by reciting the rules of the rankings. Any skater prospect who was under 24 years of age on opening night of the Lightning's season and has played less than 41 NHL games in any single season and less than 82 career NHL games is eligible for the rankings. This excludes, for instance, winger Johan Harju , who turned 24 last May and is now considered an overage prospect, and Dana Tyrell , who has already played 52 games this season and is considered to be graduated from prospect status. For goaltenders, any netminder who has earned less than 30 NHL decisions in any single season and less than 41 career NHL decisions and was under 24 years of age on opening night is eligible for the rankings. That excludes Cedrick Desjardins , for instance, who turned 25 in September. The exception to these basic rules are NCAA based players, who are considered eligible prospects for the duration of their college careers regardless of age.
With the typical legal disclaimers out of the way, here are our 2010-2011 Midterm Rankings:
1.) RW Brett Connolly , Prince George (WHL)
After missing almost all of last season with a hip injury, Connolly has stayed relatively injury-free throughout his junior campaign this year and has put up the kind of numbers you'd expect from a player that has been compared to Patrick Marleau. His World Junior Championships were hurt by a minor concussion he had prior to the tournament, which helped relegate him to a role as an extra forward. But, he's scored at well over a point a game for Prince George and he did play well in a playmaking role in the limited time he got for Team Canada. We'd like to see Connolly get stronger along the wall and more involved with puck retrieval, but by and large he's had the kind of season that justifies the 6th overall pick the Lightning used on him last summer.
2.) RW Carter Ashton , Tri-City (WHL)
After a very good training camp and exhibition season where he nearly made the Lightning, Carter Ashton's offense stalled early in the year for Regina. That triggered a lot of concern for us after a mediocre junior campaign a year ago, but after that slow first month or so, Ashton has surged and is now at well over a point a game for the year. He also played well as the complimentary forward on Canada's second line at the World Junior Championships and he's a strong candidate to make the Lightning out of camp next season. He's often compared to the Lightning's own Ryan Malone . In our opinion, he's less crafty than Malone with the puck, but he's got a surprising burst that Malone doesn't have, and he's freakishly strong for his age.
3.) RW Richard Panik , Guelph (OHL)
We were a little surprised the Lightning returned Richard Panik to junior this season, but it's definitely a decision that has worked out. Panik has been consistently productive all season long for both Belleville and Guelph and he led the Slovakians by a mile in scoring at the World Junior Championships. Panik is incredibly slick with the puck and strong as an ox, and has earned comparisons to Marian Hossa. What we like even more is that when the stage gets bigger, Panik seems to elevate his game and play with jaw-dropping flair. He's fun to watch, and is also a legitimate threat to make the Lightning out of camp next season.
4.) G Dustin Tokarski , Norfolk (AHL)
It's been a tough season thus far for Dustin Tokarski, who once inhabited the top spot in our rankings but now checks in at 4th. Tokarski lost his starting job in Norfolk to veteran Cedrick Desjardins and has struggled in more of a backup role, posting a save percentage that has hovered around .900 most of the year. Tokarski had a brief spike in his play when Desjardins went down with an injury, but has struggled along with the Norfolk team as a whole in his absence. Still, we really like Tokarski and feel he's still the future of the organization. Remember, a lot of organizations, like Detroit for instance, don't even begin to think of bringing a goaltender into the NHL until they've had at least three years of development in the minors.
5.) LW/C Alex Killorn , Harvard (ECACHL)
We wish Alex Killorn would hurry up and graduate already. Readers of BoltProspects know we refer to the junior as the organization's stealth prospect: an extremely talented forward who has been compared to Brian Rolston but gets no ink because he plays for a dreadful Harvard team in the fairly anonymous ECACHL. Killorn's posted very respectable statistics for Harvard and will likely set career highs even though his team has lost 3 out of every 4 games they've played this year and after seeing Montreal first rounder Louis Leblanc bolt the program over the summer. At this stage, we expect Killorn to go ahead and get his degree, after which he'll immediately be a threat to make the Lightning. He's very good and flying very far under the radar.
6.) LW/C Mattias Ritola , Norfolk (AHL)
General Manager Steve Yzerman snagged Ritola from the Red Wings organization off of waivers just before this season, but recurring bouts of an inner-ear disorder have hampered Ritola all year long. We like how crafty Ritola is with the puck, but we question the Swede's physical play along the wall and he hasn't been as strong as advertised in his own third. He'll need to get healthy, though, before he can improve, and that improvement will now need to take place in the AHL with his reassignment to the Norfolk Admirals.
7.) D Radko Gudas , Norfolk (AHL)
One of the most pleasant surprises of the prospect season thus far has been the play of Radko Gudas in Norfolk. Despite being a rookie with just one year of North American experience with Everett of the WHL, Gudas has quickly become one of Coach Jon Cooper's most trusted blueliners and his emergence made former 1st round pick Ty Wishart  expendable in the Dwayne Roloson  deal. Gudas came to the Admirals with a well deserved reputation for big neutral zone hits, but he also had a huge plus number for the Silvertips and he's had a strong plus rating all year for Norfolk. Even better, we've been very happy with how comfortable Gudas looks carrying the puck with speed and confidence out of his own end. The one big knock on Gudas is his lack of size and he'll need to develop more strength, especially when it comes to having a stronger base, but so far he's lived up to billing as a Darius Kasparaitis type defenseman.
8.) D Mark Barberio , Norfolk (AHL)
The play of defenseman Mark Barberio has been less surprising than that of Gudas, but it's been no less pleasant. Barberio was a star for Moncton of the QMJHL playing well over 20 minutes a night and having not less than 45 points in each of his last three years with the Wildcats, and his success has transferred pretty well to the AHL. What we love about Barberio is the heady, instinctive game he brings to the table in the offensive third of the rink. He's not a terrible skater, but he's not explosive either, which he makes up for by being outstanding at anticipating the play and getting in great position to get his shots or hold the puck in at the point. He needs to work more on his defensive game and get quicker with his first couple of steps in his skating, but he certainly looks like a solid NHL prospect, who in the past has drawn comparisons to Craig Rivet.
9.) C Mitch Fadden , Florida (ECHL)
It's not often that we feel this positive about a prospect who gets sent down to the ECHL, but Mitch Fadden was outstanding with the Florida Everblades prior to being shut down for the year with a hematoma in his leg. Prior to his injury, Fadden had been named an ECHL All-Star with a gaudy stat line of 15 goals and 51 points in 37 games. Fadden, who has drawn comparisons to Ray Whitney, has long been considered a talented but enigmatic offensive talent who many felt could be a legitimate NHLer if he ever developed with regard to his play along the wall and in his own zone. With plenty of ice time and a mandate to get better from GM Steve Yzerman, Mitch Fadden appeared to finally be making those strides and should be considered a real threat to have a breakout season in the AHL next year. He's a great skater who is magical with the puck and extremely crafty as both a playmaker and a goal scorer.
10.) RW/C James Mullin, Fargo (USHL)
The shock of the Lightning prospect year so far has been the play of 4th round pick Jimmy Mullin  out of Fargo of the USHL. Put simply, rookie players don't put up the kind of numbers Mullin has put up in the USHL so far unless they have high end offensive talent. Mullin leads Fargo in scoring at well over a point a game despite missing significant time to play with Team USA at the World Junior-A Challenge where he was dominant for the Americans while leading the tournament in goals. He's done so because he's a very good skater who is extremely crafty and a great finisher. Mullin is committed to play for Miami of Ohio in the CCHA starting next season, and we suspect he will soon assume Alex Killorn's mantle as the Lightning's next stealth prospect out of the NCAA ranks.
11.) G Jaroslav Janus , Florida (ECHL)
One of the bigger disappointments of the Lightning prospect season has been the erratic play of netminder Jaroslav Janus for Florida of the ECHL. A year ago, Janus was pushing Dustin Tokarski by staking his own claim to being the Lightning's goaltender of the future with a 2.07 GAA and .922 save percentage before going down to a late season knee injury. This year, though, Janus was pushed down to the ECHL by the acquisition of Cedrick Desjardins where he has sat backup for much of the year to Bobby Goepfert and he has had a sub-.500 record. Worse, Janus was shelled for 7 goals in his only start of the season for Norfolk with Desjardins on the shelf injured. Janus is extremely athletic and competitive so we're by no means writing the netminder off at this early juncture. But, we know he can definitely play better.
12.) D Adam Janosik , Gatineau (QMJHL)
The biggest mover among Lightning prospects at the U20 World Junior Championships was Slovakian defenseman Adam Janosik, who at 18 years old was rock solid on his nation's top pair and also chipped in consistently on offense. Janosik took that momentum back with him to Gatineau and looks poised to have a strong stretch run to the season. Janosik was touted as a dynamic power play specialist when he was picked by the Lightning in the third round last season, blending great speed with outstanding vision and passing skills. If he can add a solid defensive component to his game like he did at the WJC's, he's an NHL prospect for sure.
13.) D Charles Landry , Montreal (QMJHL)
The Lightning's "bonus pick," signed out of the Traverse City prospect tournament this summer, was Montreal defenseman Charles Landry and he's rewarded the Lightning for their investment by destroying his career high in points with 36 points in 44 games so far this year. The 19 year old defenseman is a coveted righty shot with a good two-way game, and in 2008-2009 played for Lightning coach Guy Boucher, who was then with the Drummondville Voltigeurs.
14.) LW Alex Hutchings , Florida (ECHL)
Another disappointment this season has been the play of talented rookie forward Alex Hutchings, who has struggled for Florida of the ECHL. After posting 81 points a year ago for Barrie in the OHL, the speedy winger suffered a hernia injury that required surgery over the summer. He was assigned to Florida early on in the season and has had anemic numbers in the ECHL. Hutchings has been compared to NHLer Brian Gionta, but he's struggled to get his feet underneath him in his first pro season and appears to be a longer term project for the team.
15.) D Kevin Quick , Norfolk (AHL)
Defenseman Kevin Quick has stabilized his stock in his third full professional season setting a career high in points and a very respectable plus-minus rating. With 14 points so far, Quick may eclipse his points production from his entire AHL career prior to this year, but he still hasn't quite taken the next step and become the dynamic offensive player he was projected to become when he was selected in the 3rd round of the 2006 draft when he was compared to Brian Campbell. We like Quick's skating ability and the offensive aggression he showed in his 6 games with Tampa Bay in 2008-2009 and we hope the Lightning give him a fourth season to prove himself, but we're also still waiting for Quick to show the production he's capable of over the course of a full season.
16.) D Scott Jackson , Norfolk (AHL)
One of the unsung heroes of the Norfolk Admirals over the past couple of seasons has been stay-at-home defenseman Scott Jackson. Jackson overcomes sub-par skating with good positioning a high degree of grit and earned a call-up for Tampa Bay's final game last season after spending most of the year paired with Ty Wishart as the top Admirals blueline duo. Unfortunately for Jackson, with the Lightning adopting a more uptempo style at both the NHL and AHL level, he may be less attractive as a prospect despite the fact he reminds us of former Lightning defenseman Nolan Pratt.
17.) D Vladimir Mihalik , Norfolk (AHL)
Another victim of organizational changes has been former first round pick Vladimir Mihalik. Now in his fourth professional season, the behemoth Slovakian has seen his ice time with Norfolk diminish behind fleeter footed d-men like Michael Vernace , Troy Milam, and Radko Gudas. Like Jackson, we suspect Mihalik may need to go to another organization to get his NHL shot, assuming he doesn't return to Europe next season.
18.) D Brock Beukeboom , Sault Ste Marie (OHL)
We lied. Come to think of it, the biggest disappointment of the Lightning prospect season has actually been third round pick Brock Beukeboom, who after amassing 26 points a season ago with the Greyhounds may be lucky to get to 10 this year. Beukeboom, whose father Jeff played 804 games for the Oilers and Rangers, was named captain of the Greyhounds at the start of the year, but it's been all downhill since as his offensive numbers have plummeted and he's consistently been a minus player. To make it worse, Beukeboom has missed time this year with concussion problems and Sault Ste Marie sits in dead last, currently, in the OHL's Western Conference. It looks like a lost season for Beukeboom and his club alike, and we can only hope they'll get 'em next year.
19.) LW Stefano Giliati , Norfolk (AHL)
Stefano Giliati may have been an afterthought in the deal that sent defenseman Matt Lashoff  to the Toronto organization, but the third year pro hasn't played like an afterthought for the Admirals. Possessing good speed, decent hands, and a little bit of edge, Giliati has already set a career high in points supplying energy throughout the Admirals lineup wherever coach Jon Cooper has plugged him in. Giliati is a BoltProspects favorite, and despite his smallish size, we've become intrigued with him as a potential NHL prospect.
20.) D Geoffrey Schemitsch , Owen Sound (OHL)
After posting 40 points in 62 games a year ago, speedy defenseman Geoffrey Schemitsch is on a pace for less than 30 points this season with the Attack. Schemitsch's play earned him a spot on Canada's U18 team last summer, but he struggled at the tournament like most of the Canadians and his game has yet to recover. We like how Schemitsch skates and we're not terribly bothered by his allergic reaction to physical play because he reminds us of Mike Lundin . We'll be very interested to see how he does in the postseason when he gets the first taste of playoff hockey in his junior career.
21.) C Brendan O'Donnell , Penticton (BCHL)
After scoring at will last year for the Winnipeg South Blues of the MJHL, Brendan O'Donnell has had a solid rookie season for Penticton in the BCHL scoring well over a point a game for the Vees. O'Donnell is committed to North Dakota of the WCHA where he projects to be a two-way centerman in one of the top programs in the NCAA.
22.) D Kirill Gotovets , Cornell (ECACHL)
Belarusian native Kirill Gotovets has had an interesting year. This summer, he appeared for Belarus against grown men in the World Championships. This fall, he began play for Cornell of the ECACHL where he's appeared in every game this season. That's respectable for a freshman, and the mobile offensive defenseman has three more seasons to develop his game in college before the Lightning have to make a decision whether to sign him.
23.) G Riku Helenius , Sodertalje (SWE)
Too little, too late? After spending much of the season relegated to the backup role behind Pontus Sjogren in Sodertalje, former first rounder Riku Helenius has played more of late as the club tries to secure a playoff spot in the Elitserien, or at least avoid the promotion/relegation tournament. That's a significant fall off, though, for a goaltender who entered the year with the expectation of being the nightly number one starter for the team. Helenius is in the final year of his entry-level deal with the Lightning and at this stage it might be surprising if he gets a qualifying offer from the team this offseason.
24.) D Luke Witkowski , Western Michigan (CCHA)
Big stay-at-home defenseman Luke Witkowski has seen solid progression in his game in this, his sophomore season. After going -13 a year ago in 32 games, Witkowski has had a big plus rating for much of the year for Western Michigan and he's already matched his 6 points from a season ago. He'll have two more years with the Broncos before the Lightning have to make a signing decision.
25.) C Levi Nelson , Norfolk (AHL)
There's not much to say about third year pro Levi Nelson, who was acquired from the Boston organization in a deal for Juraj Simek . Nelson, who was known as an edgy two-way player, has appeared in just 6 games for the Admirals since the trade. Given the organizational depth the Lightning has amassed, one wonders if Nelson will receive a qualifying offer this summer.