Best. Prospect. Season. Ever.
After each of the previous six seasons in which we've posted Final Rankings for the Tampa Bay Lightning's prospects, we've had the opportunity to look back on the year and celebrate the progress the organization has made in cultivating and developing its youth. Steady improvement has been made year-to-year as we've tracked the achievements of the team's young players around the world.
This year, the team reached heights we never imagined 6-1/2 years ago, with 9 of our top 10 prospects winning championships in their respective leagues this season. The Lightning's depth has our rankings bursting at the seams, with a few prospects that could make it to Tampa Bay next season surprisingly finding themselves on the outside of the top 10. Bottom line: we have no idea how the Lightning's developmental organization is ever going to top what they did this season.
Then again, with a large bag full of top-60 picks in this year's NHL Entry Draft, perhaps the seeds of the Lightning's next great prospect season are less than two weeks away from being planted.
In any event, now is the portion of our program where we remind readers about our rules that govern prospect status on the website. Skaters who play 41 or more NHL games in a single season or 82 or more career NHL games are considered graduated, and are no longer eligible for the rankings. As a consequence, Brett Connolly  is no longer eligible for inclusion in the rankings. Goaltenders who earn 30 or more NHL decisions in a single season or 41 or more career NHL decisions are considered graduated, and are no longer eligible for the rankings. Players 24 years of age or over on opening night of the Lightning's season are considered overage prospects and are not eligible for inclusion in the rankings. NCAA players are exempt from the 24-year-old rule and are eligible for the rankings for the duration of their college careers. The goal of our rules is to try to establish a simple, black-and-white definition of a prospect, allowing us to create a system by which we compare apples to apples with the maximum amount of transparency.
Be sure to check back on the website over the next couple of weeks as we release our NHL Entry Draft preview capsules for available prospects, and then after the draft when we release our 2011-2012 Bolt Prospects Supplemental Rankings, adding in the newest members of the Lightning organization. With that in mind, we know you're probably sick of the jibber jabber, so here are our 2011-2012 Bolt Prospects Final Rankings:
1. RW J.T. Brown , Tampa Bay (NHL)
The top spot in our rankings ironically belongs to the only player in our top 10 who didn't win a championship this season. The Lightning won a small-scale bidding war at the end of the year to land talented Minnesota-Duluth winger J.T. Brown, who was the MOP of the 2011 Frozen Four. Brown combines world-class speed with a healthy amount of jam and surprising creativity. The Lightning put him on the team's second line to end the season and he did not look at all out of place, earning a spot on USA's World Championships team in the process. Listed at just 170 pounds, Brown needs a very good offseason to bulk up and make sure he's got the durability to handle an 82 game NHL schedule. If he does the work, he's a legitimate Calder Trophy threat next season.
2. RW/C Cory Conacher , Norfolk (AHL)
The fairy tale season of Cory Conacher ended with an AHL Rookie of the Year award, AHL MVP award, and 4 assists and first star in the Calder Cup clinching win. That's quite the resume for the undersized pit bull out of Canisius who won an AHL contract in camp but didn't get an NHL deal from the Lightning until March. There was no better player in the first half of the AHL season than Conacher, who mixes above-average skating and skill, a quick release, and unbending tenacity. He needs to work on his discipline, and he may not have the top gear of the player he's most compared to, Martin St. Louis , but his heart and hustle have made him a contender for a spot in Tampa with a good camp in the Fall.
3. LW/C Alex Killorn , Norfolk (AHL)
The long wait for Alex Killorn to join the pro ranks is now over, and initial indications are it was worth it. Killorn's game just seems to transfer perfectly from college to the pro ranks. He plays a very honest north-south style with the occasional dash of skill. He's got decent size and above-average skating ability, too. His 3 goals and 12 points in 17 games were solid for a player who entered the postseason with just 10 games of pro experience and who was still completing his Harvard schoolwork. He needs a good offseason of conditioning work to get up to the pro level and we'd like to see him work on his shot, but his game is very translatable to a 2nd or 3rd line NHL role and he could challenge for a spot in Tampa in the Fall.
4. G Dustin Tokarski , Norfolk (AHL)
Dustin Tokarski's wild ride of a season ended with Tokarski helping his club sweep the Eastern Conference Finals and Calder Cup Finals while allowing just 6 goals in the process, reasserting Tokarski's reputation as a big-game championship netminder. He led the AHL in both regular season and postseason wins and set career highs in wins, GAA, and shutouts. It wasn't easy for Tokarski though, who was pushed all season long and even lost his starting job at one point in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Tokarski also disappointed in his first extended stint of NHL action late in the year after being called up to fill in for the injured Mathieu Garon . He's close to being NHL ready but not quite there yet. Consistency has been elusive, and we need to see less goals go through him and improved rebound control before he's truly ready for the NHL.
5. D Mark Barberio , Norfolk (AHL)
Conacher may have been voted the AHL's MVP, but within the Admirals locker room second year defenseman Mark Barberio was named the team's MVP. Barberio led the AHL in scoring amongst defensemen with a magnificent 13 goal, 61 point, +28 campaign. He was the engine of an unstoppable Admirals regular season power play and had erased any and all lingering questions about his skating. However, once the playoffs started, Barberio's production tailed off as other teams targeted Barberio physically, and as Barberio slowed down he took Norfolk's power play down with him. Barberio probably needs one more year of seasoning where he learns how to overcome teams coming after him. Once he does that, he should be an excellent two-way contributor in the NHL.
6. C Vladislav Namestnikov , London (OHL)
After a regular season where his goal production was down and he only showed modest statistical improvement and where he failed to make Russia's U20 WJC team due to a nagging injury he was hiding, Namestnikov started to come into his own in the playoffs. He posted 18 points in 19 games for the OHL champions and was one of London's best players in the postseason. That's not unimpressive given how stacked the Knights are with high-end NHL prospects. The Lightning have always acknowledged Namestnikov is a long-term project, so we don't expect him to challenge for a spot in Tampa Bay this Fall. However, recent indications point to Namestnikov joining the AHL ranks next season, and he will have an excellent chance to join Russia's U-20 World Junior Championships team in Ufa next year, as well.
7. RW Richard Panik , Norfolk (AHL)
On raw potential alone, Panik would be in the top spot in our rankings. Other than J.T. Brown, perhaps no other Lightning forward prospect possesses top line potential, and not even Brown has the versatility of Panik, who can play just about any style you need. Panik staved off demotion to the ECHL early in the year after a disappointing camp, but caught fire in the second half of the year as he adjusted his game and habits to the pro style. We were disappointed that he went cold the final month of the regular season and could not get to 20 goals and his 6 points in 18 playoff games were modest, from a production standpoint. But, the 5 postseason goals he had tended to be big situational goals and he showed the maturity to maintain his effort level and continue to contribute in other ways even though he wasn't getting the statistical results. Panik's got great speed, superlative stick handling and passing skill, and a laser shot, but it would be foolish to characterize him as a finesse European. Panik is surprisingly strong on the puck and a menace on the forecheck who isn't afraid to drive the net. He probably needs one more year of seasoning in the AHL, but there were times in the Calder Cup Finals he was clearly the Admirals' best player. He could be a beast if he stays the course.
8. C Tyler Johnson , Norfolk (AHL)
While Cory Conacher was the best player in the AHL in the first half, we felt nobody was better in the second half than Tyler Johnson. Johnson roared to a 31 goal rookie campaign and shook off an injury early in the playoffs to finish with 14 points in 14 games. Johnson's got world-class, Dana Tyrell -caliber, speed that he follows up with a deadly shot. Listed at 5'9" and 175 pounds, his durability at the NHL level will be in question, but you've got to catch him to hit him, and that's not easy. He possesses the extra gear you want in a player that size, and that may make him a better long-term NHL prospect than even AHL MVP Conacher.
9. D Radko Gudas , Norfolk (AHL)
Warrior. That's the best one-word description of Radko Gudas. Despite standing at just 6'0", Gudas plays with the ferocity of a much larger man. His mobility is incredible and it allows him to maintain excellent gap control and to quickly move into position to clobber oncoming rushers foolish enough to have their heads down. He's certainly not afraid of getting into position to blick his fair share of shots, either. Gudas played a ton in key situations in the playoffs and was a strong +9 after finishing the regular season +19. He still occasionally makes some poor decisions with the puck, but on balance he was about as good as any Admirals defender on their Cup team and a key part of why they allowed just 6 goals in the final two rounds. We think he is close to being NHL ready with a good camp in the Fall.
10. G Riku Helenius , JYP (FIN)
Riku Helenius' career rose from the dead this season. After losing his AHL job and being banished to Sodertalje of the Swedish league, Helenius struggled two years ago just to see the ice behind a much less pedigreed Pontus Sjogren for Sodertalje in the Elitserien. The former first rounder left Sweden for JYP in his native Finland, and proceeded to demolish any idea that he was a bust, leading Finland in most statistical categories en route to the Urpo Ylonen Award as the league's top netminder and an SM-liiga championship. Helenius is your standard Finnish butterfly goaltender who has great size and positioning. We look at him a lot like Tokarski in that he benefitted a lot from how strong JYP was defensively and we'd like to see more consistency from him, especially in terms of rebound control. He's close, though, and the Lightning's decision to re-sign Helenius now makes him a strong possibility to be the backup in Tampa Bay next season.
11. RW Nikita Kucherov , CSKA Jr. (RUS Jr.)
After dominating the U-18 World Junior Championships two years ago, many expected Nikita Kucherov to break into the KHL with CSKA this year and be a star contributor for Russia at the U-20 World Junior Championships. That didn't happen, though. Kucherov couldn't stick at Russia's top level and went back down to the MHL, which he dominated against inferior players. His World Junior Championships performance was solid, albeit somewhat unspectacular as the Russians picked off a Silver medal, and his year ended with shoulder trouble that forced him to miss most of CSKA Jr.'s failed MHL title defense. Kucherov's got excellent skill with the puck and a finisher's touch. He's also an above average skater, although he lacks the top gear we might like to see. Next year will be critical for him. He needs to stick in the KHL and for Russia to do well in Ufa on home ice, Kucherov will have to be dominant. It'll be a make-or-break season, for sure.
12. D Keith Aulie , Norfolk (AHL)
The most controversial part of our rankings may be the precipitous drop of defenseman Keith Aulie. Acquired near the deadline for former top prospect Carter Ashton , the big defenseman struggled to fit in with both Tampa Bay and with Norfolk. Let's cut to the chase: we don't like his skating. Not in this system. The Lightning jettisoned similar players in Vladimir Mihalik  and Matt Smaby  largely because of their lack of mobility, and it's a little tough to see a top prospect like Ashton go for the same type of guy. He struggled to earn ice time and the trust of the coaching staff in Tampa and the same happened with Norfolk, where he was the team's #7 d-man in the playoffs until Scott Jackson  went down to injury. He needs a very good camp and start to next season to win us over.
13. C James Mullin, Miami-OH (CCHA)
It seems like a lifetime ago that James Mullin finished a superb freshman season at Miami of Ohio. The speedy forward finished third on the team in scoring with a very respectable 11 goals and 26 points in 37 games. Mullin is dynamic offensively as both a finisher and a playmaker and had 60 points in 52 games two seasons ago in Fargo, which is unheard of production in the USHL unless you're a high-end offensive talent. We love little guys who go to the NCAA because the weight training programs tend to be excellent. As Mullin gets stronger and continues to develop, look for the Lightning to try to lure him out of school after his junior season, at the latest. He's just too good to wait for.
14. LW Ondrej Palat , Norfolk (AHL)
Other than Conacher, perhaps no player beat expectations by a bigger margin than Ondrej Palat. The overage 7th round draft pick out of Drummondville had to fight just to get an NHL contract and avoid demotion back to juniors to start the year. Then, he had to stave off demotion to the ECHL, as well, before exploding in the second half on line combinations with Richard Panik and Tyler Johnson. From that point on, everything about Palat was better than advertised. He was criticized as being a perimeter player, but he showed excellent body positioning and willingness to battle on the forecheck. They claimed he was soft defensively, but he quickly became one of Jon Cooper's most trusted penalty killers and a smart decision-maker in his own third at even strength. They said he was an average skater. Look, if you can keep up with Panik and Johnson, we'd say skating's not an issue. The only thing that wasn't undersold about Palat is his playmaking ability, which is excellent. He has great vision and savvy and makes his linemates better. He needs another year or two of seasoning, but the transition from long shot to legitimate NHL prospect that he has already made has been fun to watch.
15. G Jaroslav Janus , Norfolk (AHL)
What you ask of your backup is to push the starter and try to take his job, and Jaroslav Janus gave Dustin Tokarski all he could handle in Norfolk this season. The athletic Slovakian keeper rebounded from an atrocious 2010-2011 campaign to finish tied for 9th in the AHL with 23 wins. With Tokarski up in Tampa, Janus helped maintain the Admirals' record 28 game win streak with a personal 15 game win streak of his own, and he temporarily took over the starting job in the final 2 games of the Connecticut series in the 2nd round of the playoffs after Tokarski struggled in Game Four. Janus has an abundance of quickness, but the Lightning know they need to get him to settle down and play a calmer game to be successful. When he does, he's every bit as good as any prospect in the organization. The question now is when he'll finally get the shot to be a number one, especially with the re-addition of Riku Helenius to the depth chart.
16. D Evan Oberg , Norfolk (AHL)
Now that he's an AHL champ, where is Evan Oberg going for his offseason vacation? Anywhere he damned well pleases with all the Sky Miles he racked up in his numerous insurance call ups to Tampa Bay. Seriously, though, once the Lightning allowed Oberg to settle into Norfolk, he became a key part of the Admirals defensive corps. You could make a strong argument, in fact, that he probably deserves better than where we have him in the rankings. Mobility is Oberg's calling card, and he uses his well at both ends of the ice to maintain good gap control defensively and to jump into the play or aggressively carry the puck offensively. Decision-making on when to jump in is the only major weakness we see, as he gets a little overexcited 1-2 times a game. Aside from that over-exuberance, though, we feel he's actually not far off from the NHL.
17. D Nikita Nesterov , Chelyabinsk Jr. (RUS Jr.)
The Lightning organization loves 5th round pick Nikita Nesterov, but we're still on the first date. Nesterov progressed as a player with Chelyabinsk Jr. this season and was arguably Russia's best defenseman in the Subway Super Series. He also got limited time and wasn't a liability in 10 games with Chelyabinsk at the KHL level. Statistically, he had a very strong U-20 World Junior Championships, too, although we felt he looked overmatched and a little loose defensively in Russia's upset Semifinal win over Canada. Don't get us wrong, there's a lot to like there. Although listed at just 6'0", Nesterov plays like a guy 2-3 inches taller and 15 pounds heavier. Sometimes, though, he looks like he has the footwork of a bigger guy, too, and that's what gives us a little pause.
18. C Matthew Peca , Quinnipiac (ECAC)
We apologize in advance to Matthew Peca and former coach Sheldon Keefe  for this ranking. With so many Admirals having great seasons, someone had to move down and Peca drew the short straw. That shouldn't detract at all, though, from his unbelievable freshman campaign. Peca, who came into the season after nearly joining Quebec of the QMJHL, which put on a full-court press for his services, had a great rookie season with 8 goals and 39 points in 39 games. The 5'9" forward is, dare we say, Conacher-esque, with super-concentrated tenacity in a small, speedy, skilled package. Much like Mullin, we think he'll benefit greatly from an NCAA conditioning program, and we don't expect him to make it to graduation before the Lightning push a contract his way. He's just too good.
19. C Danick Gauthier, Saint John (QMJHL)
Given the success of Tyler Johnson as an undrafted free agent forward, perhaps we should just go ahead and proclaim Danick Gauthier a future AHL star now. A classic late bloomer, Gauthier went insane this year with 47 goals and 86 points in 66 games which tied him for 6th in the QMJHL in scoring. He followed that up with 13 goals and 21 points in 17 postseason games to finish tied for 10th in the league in playoff scoring. Standing at 6'2" and about 200 pounds, Gauthier doesn't have high-end speed, but he has good hands and a good amount of jam. Expect him in the AHL and to be contributing next season.
20. D Luke Witkowski , Western Michigan (CCHA)
The second half of 2011-2012 showed Luke Witkowski's not a prospect to sleep on. The junior defenseman played with a deep defensive corps for the Broncos that included the much-heralded Danny Dekeyser and Matt Tennyson and he did not take a backseat to his teammates, especially in the CCHA playoffs. Anybody expecting flash will be disappointed by Witkowski, but if you like responsible, rugged defense and leadership intangibles, like every hockey coach on the face of the planet does, you'll like a guy like Witkowski. The only negative we see is that Witkowski's beard fell below Radko Gudas' beard on the depth chart. In a normal year, he would've moved up a lot in our rankings and Witkowski's emergence may well have been part of the reason Adam Janosik  and Geoffrey Schemitsch  went unsigned.
*Pete Choquette, Timothy Bennett, and Chad Schnarr contributed to this report. Written by Pete Choquette.