Ten questions for this year's Lightning prospect season...
1.) How does Jonathan Drouin react to being returned to junior?
It's a tough pill to swallow, certainly, but I think Steve Yzerman made the right move by returning star prospect Jonathan Drouin to Halifax of the QMJHL today. Expectations were sky-high for the talented playmaker, to the point that they were utterly realistic and unattainable. The media was busy hyping Drouin as a fixture on the Lightning's top line alongside Stamkos and St. Louis while leading all rookies in scoring and winning a Calder Trophy, and all that at 18 years old before ever taking the ice for a regular season NHL game. It was insane, and ignored the lessons of past Lightning #1 picks Vincent Lecavalier and Stamkos. Yzerman did well to protect the psyche of his young prodigy, and should be applauded for the move.
Others may argue Drouin has nothing left to prove in the QMJHL. That is poppycock. There are still elements in the hockey world who believe Drouin rode the coattails of Colorado #1 overall pick Nathan MacKinnon. Those elements will be puffing up their chests even more with Drouin's demotion, even though their argument is also totally flawed. The opportunity here for Drouin is to go back to Halifax, sans MacKinnon, and once again dominate the junior ranks. Be the leader of Halifax and be the undisputed man in the Quebec league. He's fully capable of it, too, given how well he played last season when MacKinnon was out with an injury. A year from now, the Lightning should get a more physically mature and more defensively polished prospect more able to take a spot on a scoring line and meet the media's expectations.
2.) How many starts will Andrey Vasilevskiy get for Ufa in the KHL?
The Lightning probably would have preferred Andrey Vasilevskiy come to North America this season, but the gifted netminder chose to stay in Russia with Ufa in the KHL. So far, it's been a good situation, with Vasilevskiy splitting starts with veteran netminder Iiro Tarkki. That playing time against grown men is critical to Vasilevskiy's development. Keep an eye on Ufa over the course of the year. If they start playing Tarkki more as a clear number one with Vasilevskiy riding the pine, start hoping Ufa does the right thing and sends Andrey to their VHL affiliate where he can still get some starts.
3.) What's the real ceiling for Alex Killorn?
Alex Killorn hit a wall in the last month of the NHL season in 2012-2013. After about 3 months of playing outstanding hockey and looking every bit like an NHL scoring liner, and in the process making Cory Conacher expendable, Killorn's season ended with a whimper. It's not entirely surprising. Killorn had never played more than about 40-50 games in a season coming up through the prep and NCAA ranks, and conditioning was a mild concern when he made the leap to the pros. Did he condition himself like a professional this offseason and is he ready to smash through the wall and contribute for the full 82 game schedule and on into the playoffs?
4.) Will the Palat/Johnson/Panik line translate to the NHL?
They did it. Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Richard Panik convinced the Lightning, through their play, to promote the three as a line to the NHL. It's a well-rounded group with unquestionable chemistry, but it's still a group of three rookies. Palat brings good defesive play, ability to kill penalties, great puckhandling and playmaking skills, and surprising jam. Johnson's blazing speed and laser shot made him AHL MVP, but his most valuable asset may be his faceoff ability. Panik may be the most talented of all of them with size, strength, speed, and skill that all classes as elite. Can they sustain their play and stick together as a group? With other young lions like Brett Connolly waiting in the AHL, these three will have the pressure on them all season long to produce, or the Lightning may start to cull the herd.
5.) What is Radko Gudas' real upside?
When selected, Radko Gudas was thought to have the ceiling of a third pair, cantankerous energy player. His meteoric rise last season hinted he may have a higher ceiling than that, though, if his decision making and discipline improve. Gudas was, at times, a trainwreck late in the year giving up far too many odd man rushes with ill-advised pinches and getting himself pulled off the ice a bit too often in physical confrontations. He showed the latent mobility, skill, and big shot that we always knew he had in his time with the Lightning last year. Will this season be the year Gudas shows he knows how to apply them wisely?
6.) How does the Lightning's bottom pair grade out?
The Lightning have 5 clear NHL defensemen on their roster going into the season, and three question marks in the form of Keith Aulie, Mark Barberio, and Andrej Sustr. Whether or not at least 2 of this group shows they can log decent NHL minutes will go a long way to deciding whether or not the Lightning can actually compete for the playoffs. Aulie probably has the most limited ceiling of the group, but he's the most experienced and brings a physical element that the others do not possess. Barberio looked like a sure-fire NHLer 2 years ago en route to earning honors as the AHL's top defenseman. He took a step backwards last season, though, and there are question marks about his physicality, his positioning, and his decision making in the defensive third. He's got remarkable hockey sense and ability to run a power play, but that won't matter if he's a defensive liability. Sustr is the greenest of the three, but he's also probably the most intriguing. Sustr was arguably the best Syracuse Crunch defenseman late in their run to the Calder Cup Finals last season. If you can get past the Zdeno Chara stereotype of an Eastern European, 6'8" tall defenseman, you'll see a young man who plays like Dan Boyle trapped in Chara's body. He's a go-go offensive defenseman who, despite a slow first step, has surprising influence on a game's pace and tempo. He's the one of the three who may have top-4 potential as an NHLer, and that's part of the reason he edged a crowded field to make the team.
7.) Is Vladislav Namestnikov the next AHL MVP?
This is an unfair question, and reflects how spoiled the Lightning organization is with back-to-back AHL MVP's Cory Conacher and Tyler Johnson being developed in Norfolk and Syracuse. In the playoffs last season, if you had to pick a guy to be the next AHL MVP, it'd probably be ex-first rounder Vladislav Namestnikov, who started to look a bit like the Pavel Datsyuk clone the Lightning hoped he was. Namestnikov wasn't quite so impressive in camp and preseason, but with blazing speed and ridiculous stickhandling and playmaking skill, Namestnikov may be the guy to watch in Syracuse this year. That's even more so the case considering he'll likely get fellow Russian star Nikita Kucherov as a linemate. These guys could be magical together. I don't typically envy people having to live in Syracuse in the winter, but this winter might be an exception.
8.) Will the junior defensemen make Yzerman's gamble pay off?
Steve Yzerman shocked us, slightly, by electing not to take a defenseman at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. The team believes it got the equivalent of a late first round pick at the position with Sustr, and the move was a calculated bet on 2012 draftees Slater Koekkoek and Dylan Blujus. Koekkoek, after suffering his second major shoulder injury in as many years, lands in a good spot with Windsor of the OHL. The former first round pick has good size and mobility and plenty of offensive flair of his own. Blujus, meanwhile, started his season unfortunately with a knee injury and needs to rebound strongly as a solid 2-way player for Brampton of the OHL. The Lightning desperately need these picks to pan out, especially considering the decision to pass on Seth Jones in favor of Drouin. Can Kokkeoek and Blujus justify Yzerman's faith?
9.) Will the investments in power forwards pay off?
A common, unfounded, criticism of the Lightning has been that they've neglected to draft power forwards since Yzerman took over the team. Not so. Last season, Yzerman invested a 2nd round pick in Harvard power forward Brian Hart (the best there is, best there was, etc...) and this year Yzerman passed on a defenseman in the 2nd round to select another talented American, Adam Erne from Quebec of the QMJHL. In the long run, the Lightning need to mix in some muscle at the forward position to help create space for talented smaller players like Drouin. That's where Hart and Erne come in. Hart had a solid freshman campaign with the Crimson and Erne was impressive in the preseason before being returned to junior. If both prospects pan out, the Lightning's long-term forward corps will go from being in great shape to being in pinch-me-wow unbelievable shape.
10.) Eastern European Soul.
The blueline in Syracuse is changing. Big time. The group will have a distinctly more Eastern European flavor this year, even despite the lead singer of the mythical Eastern European Soul Machine cover band, Sustr, winning a spot in Tampa Bay. The group will continue on as a three-piece with veteran Dmitry Korobov and rookies Artem Sergeev and Nikita Nesterov. As much as the Lightning need Koekkoek and Blujus to pan out, they could get a huge boost if this new trio of Syracuse defensemen start to make pushes for the NHL of their own. Korobov, who was a bit of a quiet wallflower last season as a rookie, will be put in the interesting position of being a mentor for the two rookies this year. The Belarussian is a veteran of the KHL and plays a solid two-way game with a bit of seek-and-destroy physicality sprinkled in. His footwork may mean his upside is the most limited of the three, but he'll be the rock Sergeev and Nesterov need to lean on in their maiden campaigns in North American pro hockey. Sergeev is a mobile power play specialist who has already showed decent progress in the preseason. As a free agent signee/bonus pick player, Sergeev could make an impact as an effective minute eater for Syracuse because his skating is so good. Nesterov is the bigger project of the three, needing to work on his upper body strength and his footwork. But, the two-way defender has a lot of support within the Lightning organization. They think he's the cat's pajamas after helping to anchor Russia's junior squad for several seasons against the best junior hockey teams in the world. This is the start of seeing if Nesterov's ceiling is as high as the Lightning's scouts think it is.