If you checked out on this season when the clock struck 0:00 in game 48, you’re missing out. The Bolts were a big disappointment in 2013, no way around it, but several Bolts and soon-to-be Bolts are giving you plenty of reason to be optimistic right now.
In case you’re missing it, let me bring you up to speed: The Syracuse Crunch are tearing apart the AHL playoffs. At the time of this writing, they’re up 2-1 in their series against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, and their loss in the series represents their lone loss so far in the playoffs. The Crunch swept their first two series of the playoffs (3-0 and 4-0), giving them, at one point, a playoff record. They’re currently 9-1.
But a closer look reveals even more reason for optimism. It appears both Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, each of whom spent considerable time in the NHL this season, were returned to the AHL much better for the experience. As of 7 games, they were each averaging more than two points per game, and as of right now, Palat has 17 points and Johnson has 15 points (8 of them goals) in 10 games.
Johnson and Palat are two of the three focal points of this article. And they are shining examples of the Lightning’s bright future. Following in Corey Conacher’s footsteps, Johnson has been named this season’s AHL MVP, not to mention he led the league in goals (37), and this despite missing a chunk of the season to play with the Lightning in the NHL. Comparisons will likely be made between Conacher and Johnson for at least the next couple of years. The Lightning, when trading Conacher, whether they meant to or not, sent a very clear signal that Johnson was the prospect in whom they stored the most faith. In reality, the trade was probably an expression of faith in their entire core of prospects. (Johnson, let’s be clear, might only be the current most prominent prospect in the system – there are plenty of guys coming down the pipe that might yet prove even better.)
Palat has been a little more under the radar than his league MVP counterpart. His 14 games in the NHL this season yielded solid but less than stellar results. But make no mistake – Palat might well wind up being the best of the bunch. He is, at the very least, in the conversation.
In this article, I will grade Lightning prospects that meet my chosen criteria (played more than 10, fewer than 20 NHL games) on their NHL performance, and I will also speculate on what their future might look like. Three players meet that criteria: Johnson, Palat, and Pierre-Cedric Labrie. Labrie is an unrestricted free agent heading into this off-season.
But there are plenty of other prospects to talk about. Brett Connolly, for instance, will fight to regain his spot on the Bolts’ roster next season after spending a full year in the AHL. Mark Barberio has built a strong body of work in the AHL over the last few seasons and it’s hard to imagine him not being part of the Bolts’ 23-man roster. Another blueliner, Matt Taormina, has also made the best of his NHL experience (just two games) and has returned to the AHL a seemingly different player, scoring 8 points and racking up a +11 rating in 10 games.
Further down the pipe, the future looks even brighter. There’s a slight chance that Nikita Kucherov will develop into a star player. Kucherov is a late bloomer as prospects go. The Bolts brought him over from Russia after selecting him 58th overall in 2011. He’s now playing in the QMJHL where he’s blowing back the eyelids of all the teams that passed him over (29 of them, some of them twice). Kucherov scored 63 points in 33 QMJHL games this season, and had 26 goals in the 27 games after he was acquired by the Rouyn-Naranda Huskies. He’s probably still a few years away from an NHL gig, but it’s looking more and more like the Lightning have found a real gem in him.
Perhaps the prospect that leaves Lightning brass feeling most sick to their nervous stomach for all the ingested fingernails is Andrei Vasilevski(y). The Bolts have high hopes that Vasilevsky is an elite goaltender. And so far, Vasilevski has done nothing to prove them wrong. At just 19, he’s already often referred to as the best goaltender outside the NHL. Now that the Lightning have Ben Bishop on board, there’s no doubt they will take their time with Vasilevski. The transition will happen in increments, first from the KHL to the AHL, where he’ll have every opportunity to prove himself (it’s my belief that trading Dustin Tokarski for the older, more battle-worn Cedrick Dejardins, is to make some room for Vasilevski when he’s brought over in the next year or two).
With all that said, let’s take a look at how the three hopefuls did in their taste of NHL action this season. Remember, the grades are based on how well they met their expectations.
#63 Tyler Johnson
(GP)14 (G)3 (A)3 (PTS)6 (+/-)3 (PIM)4 (ATOI)13:04
Johnson arrived on the scene in March and you could call his 6 points in his first 5 games “making a splash” had he not gone about it so quietly. But he did go about it quietly, which appears to be a positive in Johnson’s game. He’s a solid, responsible player that’s good on faceoffs and can excel in a number of roles. His versatility is what makes him valuable to the team at this point, but as he ages, I would imagine he’ll be used in more and more offensive situations. He went scoreless in his last 9 games with the Lightning, but did not look at all like he was a detriment to the team.
What the future holds: Big things. Don’t get me wrong – Johnson is unlikely to be another Steven Stamkos. But he could be a very solid 60+ point second line center within the next few years. If he’s used in a third line role, which he’s very capable of playing, he’ll be defensively responsible while providing some excellent offense. The Lightning have plenty of youngsters coming through the system that are capable of playing a variety of different roles, and they’ll all be fighting for the limited scoring roles. Johnson is a frontrunner to take over such a role. In the AHL this season, he scored 37 goals and 65 points in 62 games, good for MVP honors and most goals in the league. On top of that he was a +26, tied for best (with Palat) among Crunch forwards. AHL success does not always translate to NHL success, but it’s a good sign that Johnson didn’t look at all out of place in his stint with the Bolts. It’s also important to remember he’s a late bloomer and developing rapidly. No one’s quite sure what the Lightning have in Johnson just yet – perhaps not even Johnson himself. The limit on his potential has yet to be determined.
#74 Ondrej Palat
(GP)14 (G)2 (A)2 (PTS)4 (+/-)5 (PIM)0 (ATOI) 11:44
The most under-the-radar of the Lightning’s talent-heavy prospects that made an NHL appearance this season is probably Ondrej Palat. While Palat was a dominant force with the Syracuse Crunch, he was never more than quietly
good with the Bolts. That said, after returning to the Crunch, Palat has been scoring like a ball of fire, leading Syracuse in post-season points at the time of this writing. I’m inclined to think that his 14 games playing against the best in the world pushed Palat to a new stage in his development.
What the future holds: Like many Lightning forwards, Palat’s future is largely unknown. He appears to have all the talent needed to be a top-six forward in the NHL, but he’s going to have a lot of competition for that role. The Lightning are almost sure to get another top-six candidate in this year’s NHL Entry Draft, which muddies the future even more. But that’s a good problem to have. All that said, like Johnson, Palat is likely to excel in a bottom-six role as well. As a third line left winger, he would come with a scoring bonus that very few other teams could boast from that point in their depth chart. In the AHL this season, Palat had 52 points in 56, which is pretty outstanding (you have to remember, the top AHL scorers score at a slightly lower clip than their NHL counterparts). Keep in mind Palat was a 7th round selection in 2011. The Bolts are making a good habit out of getting solid returns with their later round picks, and Palat is a shining example of that.
#76 Pierre-Cedric Labrie
(GP)19 (G)2 (A)1 (PTS)3 (+/-)2 (PIM)30 (ATOI)8:33
P.C. Labrie didn’t really find his rhythm with the Lightning this year until he took over heavyweight fighting duties from B.J. Crombeen near the end of the season. Before that point, Labrie had physical, energetic shifts, but he also
seemed prone to giveaways and poor decision-making. Whether the relationship between his play and his fights (and quality of fights) is an illusion, coincidental, or a real relationship, is anyone’s guess. But the concrete fact is Labrie was playing far better by season’s end than he was at the season’s beginning. He scored both of his career goals in April, and by that point was getting over 10 minutes of icetime per game.
What the future holds: It’s uncertain at this time if Labrie will return with the Lightning for the 2013/2014 season. There is going to be heated competition for the 12 full time forward spots on the team and there’s no question that Labrie doesn’t bring the same skill nor pack the same scoring punch as many of the other would-be Bolts vying for a job. But Labrie is big (bigger than he’s listed, 220 pounds, at least in spirit if not in mass), strong, physical, and energetic, which makes him unique among Lightning prospects. He might be retained, and win a spot, simply because he provides a package that is a nice piece to any puzzle. That said, roster spots next year will be at a premium, and it’ll be hard to send more skilled players back to the AHL in Labrie’s favor. He should land on his feet with another NHL team, or at worst score an AHL contract. Whether or not he plays for the Bolts next year is a coin flip in my mind.
If you don’t think the future’s bright, you’re not paying attention.