We're now almost two months deep into the second NHL lockout in less than a decade. As difficult as it is to remember, though, hockey goes on. It goes on in small junior rinks in Canada and on campuses throughout the U.S. It goes on in the sporting halls of Sweden and Russia. And, it goes on in Syracuse, New York, where players on the cusp of making the highest level of hockey in the world patiently await the mere chance to make their case to play in the NHL. For those players, and in spite the cynical greed of the NHL's business wing, Bolt Prospects presents its 2012-2013 Preliminary Rankings.
We delayed the release of the rankings a few weeks when optimism ran high that hockey would be back after Thanksgiving, believing that perhaps an NHL training camp was in the cards for some of our prospects. But with the breakdown of talks between the commissioner and the NHLPA, it looks like a Lightning camp is far from imminent. So, we press forward, in spite of the setback.
The rules remain the same. Any player 24 years of age or older on the date that would have been opening night for the Lightning is considered overage and not eligible for the rankings. For that reason, Riku Helenius  no longer factors into our list, although he likely does factor into the Lightning's future. Likewise, skaters who have played either 41 or more games in a single NHL season or 82 or more career NHL games are also ineligible. So, while Brett Connolly  fills up the nets in Syracuse, he is considered a graduated prospect and does not figure into our list. Goaltenders who have 30 or more NHL decisions in a single season or 41 or more career NHL decisions are also ineligible. Lastly, players in the NCAA ranks are eligible for the list regardless of their age.
1.) G Andrei Vasilevskiy , Ufa Jr. (RUS Jr.)
Maintaining his top spot in the rankings is goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. The young netminder had an amazing start to his junior season, running off a 7-game winning streak to start the year en route to winning 14 of his first 16 starts. The workhorse goaltender's torrid pace has slowed a bit in recent weeks, possibly because of his unprecedented workload for Head Coach Alexander Semak. But, even still, it's hard to say Vasilevskiy's done anything to lessen his value on the road to this year's U20 World Junior Championships, with Vasilevskiy's command performance in the opening match of the Subway Super Series offering a preview of what's to come. That's good for a Lightning organization that believes Vasilevskiy, who may be one of the best young goaltenders to be drafted in recent memory, is their future franchise goaltender.
2.) D Slater Koekkoek , Peterborough (OHL)
Coming off his shoulder injury a year ago, Slater Koekkoek has gotten a lot of work done to start the 2012-2013 season. He was elected team captain and has been a minutes-eating workhorse, with point totals that are sneaking up on a point-a-game pace. Peterborough's been down the past few seasons, but Koekkoek may be in the process of breathing new life into one of the OHL's proudest franchises. The leadership component is a bonus for the Lightning, who were counting on Koekkoek's skating and skill to help him develop into a top-4 NHL defenseman. If he can wear a letter, all the better.
3.) RW J.T. Brown , Syracuse (AHL)
With just one goal in the first four games of his rookie pro campaign, it wasn't a scorching start for highly touted free agent signee J.T. Brown. The slow statistical start was further complicated by Brown getting injured, raising inevitable questions about his durability. But, it's hard to deny Brown's skill and versatility, and he's started to hit the scoresheet regularly since returning from the shelf. He's got great speed, slick hands, and will play with some jam. Sooner or later, we expect him to go crazy in Syracuse with The Rookie Whisperer (tm), Jon Cooper, behind the bench.
4.) C/W Cory Conacher , Syracuse (AHL)
Cory Conacher has picked up exactly where he left off last season, leading the Syracuse Crunch in scoring and featuring prominently amongst the league's top scorers. The recipe is simple: speed and tenacity applied in the north-south axis. It's the kind of game that will work at any level of hockey, and it's the kind of game that allows you to have a faster start early in the season than players who like to dangle and play more of an east-west game.
5.) C/W Alex Killorn , Syracuse (AHL)
He's not as diminutive as Conacher, but Alex Killorn brings a style to the rink that makes him similar to Conacher. He also plays a north-south game, and that's helped him get off to a quiet, rock solid start as a rookie. Killorn's also taking more faceoffs and playing a more versatile role than he did in the Calder Cup Playoffs last year, as well. When he was drafted, Killorn drew comparisons to Brian Rolston. He's done nothing yet to dissuade us from the belief he will be a solid NHLer like Rolston.
6.) C Vladislav Namestnikov , Syracuse (AHL)
There's good news and bad news for Namestnikov early in his rookie campaign. The good, maybe even great, news is that Namestnikov doesn't look out of place or scared in the AHL despite being one of the youngest and leanest players in the league. That bodes well for his future. The bad news is that he has already gotten injured, which was a result we somewhat expected given his light weight and surprisingly jam-filled style of play. He's got to get bigger and stronger, but after a quick look to start the year we absolutely see why the Lightning thought they were drafting a difference maker in all three zones when they took Namestnikov.
7.) D Mark Barberio , Syracuse (AHL)
Honest question: how much more is there left for Mark Barberio to prove in the AHL? Seriously. He led the league's blueliners in scoring last year en route to being named the top defenseman in the league. This year he's off to a solid start for the Crunch, and it's almost become old hat. The critique remains that Barberio's defensive zone coverage isn't perfect, but he's fixed his skating and his hockey sense in the offensive third remains PHD level stuff. It's not a question of if Mark Barberio becomes an NHL defenseman. It's a question of when, and whether he tops out as a bottom pair power play specialist or if he can become a minute-eating top four in the league.
8.) G Dustin Tokarski , Syracuse (AHL)
Oh, by the way, at number eight is last year's AHL leader in wins and a championship-winning goaltender, Dustin Tokarski. Tic has been somewhat overshadowed by the drafting of Vasilevskiy and the signing of former first rounder Riku Helenius, but all he's done so far is take the early lead for the starting role for the Crunch. He's a calm, compact goaltender who plays his angles, and posts wins, making him part of Tampa Bay's embarrassment of riches between the pipes.
9.) C Tyler Johnson , Syracuse (AHL)
Cory Conacher may have won the AHL MVP award, but for our money the best player in the league during the second half last year was Tyler Johnson. The centerman has not disappointed so far in his sophomore campaign, currently leading the Crunch in goals. Johnson's not big, but he has two things going for him: world class speed and an absolute laser for a shot. With the right supporting cast around him, that's made Johnson one of the most feared snipers in the AHL.
10.) RW Richard Panik , Syracuse (AHL)
Rounding out the top 10 is maddeningly inconsistent Richard Panik, the Slovakian power forward who may have the most tantalizing talent package of any prospect not named Vasilevskiy. He's quick, ridiculously strong on the puck, and has puckhandling skills to make Vincent Lecavalier  blush. And yet, he was held scoreless in all but one of Syracuse's games in the month of October. Since then, he's scored in every single game in November, though, prompting us to fall in love with the Panik attack all over again. Maybe we shouldn't have been surprised he's started to come on strong. Sooner or later, a player with this much talent has got to break through.
11.) D Radko Gudas , Syracuse (AHL)
Also on Syracuse's early season M.A.S.H. list was cult hero Radko Gudas. Listed at 6'0" and a shade over 200 pounds, Gudas has averaged 180 penalty minutes a season over his first two years in the AHL. But it isn't the physical game that intrigues us about Gudas. He's easily one of the most mobile defenders in the AHL, allowing him to win races to loose pucks, and he's not bad at all when he has to handle it, either. All those components put together give the Lightning the makings of a third pair defender who is capable of providing juice to his team on any given night.
12.) RW Nikita Kucherov , Quebec (QMJHL)
After missing most of the first month of the season while his surgically repaired shoulder finished mending, Kucherov exploded onto the scene in his rookie season in the Q. Surrounded by an explosive Remparts roster, Kucherov still stuck out as one of the most skilled young players on the team. He has speed, he has world class puckhandling ability, and he's a finisher. The fact he's taken the next step to come to North America has to thrill the Lightning, because he has first round caliber talent. That talent will be on display in Ufa at the U20 World Junior Championships this year where Kucherov will be expected to be one of Team Russia's leading men. But, there's been a dark side, too, as Kucherov has ended up in the press box while Quebec pondered whether to trade Kucherov to alleviate its log jam of European imports. In the end, they chose to move Kucherov to Rouyn-Noranda. We'll see if a greyhound like Kucherov ends up meshing well with a bunch of Huskies.
13.) G Jaroslav Janus , Bratislava (RUS)
One of the real pleasant surprises of the early season has been the exceptional play of Jaroslav Janus in the KHL. The young Slovakian netminder found himself without a spot in the AHL after the Lightning signed Riku Helenius, despite Janus' exceptional play down the stretch last year that helped him finish in the top 10 in the league in wins, despite being a backup to Dustin Tokarski. Janus eventually made his way to Slovan Bratislava, a top Slovakian club playing their first season in the Russian KHL. After a preseason tryout, Janus not only made the team, but he is now the club's starter with an early season save percentage comparable to Lightning overage prospect Vasily Koshechkin , who seems to have dominated Russian hockey for much of the last decade. Lightning Assistant GM Julien BriseBois has already gone on record to say the team wants Janus back whenever it's practical, and the way he's played so far this year it's easy to see why.
14.) LW Ondrej Palat , Syracuse (AHL)
One of our Bolt Prospects favorites, late round steal Ondrej Palat has continued his exceptional play from the second half and playoffs of last season. He's currently playing big minutes for the Crunch and sits tied with Johnson for second on the team in scoring. Creative. Crafty. Quick. Palat's a magician with the puck on his stick, and in the AHL he's shown a knack for making his linemates better. He doesn't get the attention Conacher and Johnson do, and he isn't the raw talent that Panik or Brown is, but watch a Syracuse Crunch game and try not to get on the edge of your seat when #12 has the puck.
15.) C/W James Mullin, Miami-OH (CCHA)
The next great stealth Lightning prospect, speedy scorer James Mullin is off to another solid start for the Miami RedHawks, notching four points in the first 10 games of the season. Underclassmen don't have a big impact in top leagues like the CCHA unless they have a special skill set, and Mullin does. He's quick as a hiccup with great hands. The only question now is if and when the Lightning will lure Mullin out of the NCAA ranks and into a pro jersey.
16.) RW Brian Hart , Harvard (ECAC)
It's too small a sample set of games to pass any sort of early season judgement on Brian Hart, who we affectionately refer to as The Hitman here on Bolt Prospects. Hart is a power forward, possessing a heavy shot and a skill set that has been compared with former NHLer Bill Guerin. We'll see if Guerin's fellow Northeasterner, Hart, can have an instant impact for his club the way Guerin did for Boston College some 23 years ago. Three points in his first five games with the Crimson isn't a bad beginning.
17.) D Keith Aulie , Syracuse (AHL)
For most players and fans the NHL lockout has been a curse. For Keith Aulie, and the Lightning's interest in Keith Aulie's future, it may turn out to be a bit of a blessing. Had the season gone as planned, the waiver eligible Aulie likely would've been playing limited minutes in Tampa Bay. Now, the big, young defenseman gets to play big minutes in the AHL, gaining more experience and sharpening up his game. The hope is that, with enough ice time, Aulie will gain the same supernatural understanding of angles that made Jassen Cullimore one of the top shut down defensemen in the franchise's history. We'd be all for that here on Bolt Prospects.
18.) C Tanner Richard , Guelph (OHL)
Overage draftee Tanner Richard has justified the Lightning's use of a third round pick by piling up helpers for the Guelph Storm early this year. The Swiss forward has been a steady assist machine in the OHL, validating some scouting services opinions that Richard was one of the real sleepers of last year's draft. Like Palat before him, who was also an overage draft pick, look for Richard to progress to the AHL next year and help make his linemates better, too.
19.) D Dylan Blujus , Brampton (OHL)
Big, mobile defender Dylan Blujus has had a tough start to his 2012-2013 season, with a team worst plus-minus rating thus far. That's tough news for the Lightning, who need the righty shot second rounder to develop and help rebuild their depth at the position. He does have a decent six points in his first 16 games, though, and at 18 he's already one of Brampton's biggest minute eaters.
20.) D Dmitry Korobov , Syracuse (AHL)
Rounding out the top 20 is big, skilled defenseman Dimitry Korobov. Korobov spent the past three seasons playing for Dynamo Moscow of the KHL before being signed as a free agent by the Lightning this season. The 6'2" 236 pound Belarussian has been solid for the Crunch, too, with a +10 rating so far this year. Scouts also see offensive potential in the big blueliner, which bears watching as the season moves along and Korobov becomes even more comfortable playing in North America.
21.) D Nikita Nesterov , Chelyabinsk (RUS)
Nikita Nesterov's had about as good a season as a young stay-at-home defenseman can have in the KHL for Traktor Chelyabinsk. Although he has yet to register a point for the team, Nesterov has gained invaluable experience at Russia's top level, occasionally playing more than 20 minutes a game for the team. That's no small feat in a normal year, but this year, playing against locked-out NHLers, it's an even stronger sign for Nesterov's future. However, a ho hum Subway Super Series does give us some pause. Nesterov was held off the scoresheet in the tour after being one of the leading scorers from the blueline in last year's U20 World Junior Championships. We wonder what version of Nesterov will show up once this year's WJC tournament begins back home in Ufa.
22.) C Matthew Peca , Quinnipiac (ECAC)
An even more stealthy Lightning prospect, Matthew Peca has sizzled a bit less in his sophomore season for Quinnipiac of the ECAC. He has four points in his first 10 games after a scorching 39 points in 39 games a year ago. In many ways, we see the blueprint for Peca in Syracuse in the form of Cory Conacher. Like Conacher, Peca is a speedy, skilled, gritty north-south player who just produces, regardless of his size.
23.) D Artem Sergeev , Val d'Or (QMJHL)
The Lightning may finally have a bonus pick defenseman who has paid off in the form of Russian born defenseman Artem Sergeev. The Foreurs defenseman has posted 17 points in his first 24 games, well on his way to exceeding his 20-point campaign a year ago. Sergeev is exceedingly mobile with a big shot, and will likely join fellow Russians Vasilevskiy, Namestnikov, Kucherov, and Nesterov in Ufa for this year's U20 World Junior Championships. With that much prospect talent, don't be surprised if the quintet brings home Gold.
24.) LW Nikita Gusev , Khabarovsk (RUS)
Nikita Gusev was too good for junior hockey, but is not quite ready to crack the KHL for a CSKA club now laden with locked-out NHLers. The solution? Gusev was loaned to CSKA's farm team in the VHL, Russia's second-best men's league. And despite being one of the younger players in the league, Gusev more than held his own by posting around a point a game. His play was good enough to prompt Amur Khabarovsk of the KHL to trade a first round pick in the KHL junior draft to get his rights. Gusev's now too old to play for Russia in the U20 World Junior Championships, but the diminutive magician is still too talented to count out as a prospect. Like Palat and Richard before him in our rankings, Gusev just makes his linemates better.
25.) D Luke Witkowski , Western Michigan (CCHA)
Closing out our rankings is perennial Bolt Prospects favorite and expert beard grower Luke Witkowski of Western Michigan. When he came on campus, Witkowski was a solid stay-at-home defender with leadership credentials from his time in the USHL. Now in his fourth year of college hockey, Witkowski's learned a ton. We like what we see in Witkowski in terms of a strong, responsible defenseman who is a conscientious team leader and is occasionally chipping in on the scoresheet. Winning organizations have players like Witkowski peppered throughout the depth chart, and we are pulling hard for Luke to get a contract with the Lightning this summer because of it.