Friday night marks the beginning of the AHL playoffs for the Norfolk Admirals, which puts the Tampa Bay Lightning's top minor-league affiliate on display... Well, more-so. It's not like people weren't paying attention when the Ads notched their 28th consecutive victory to close out the AHL season.
But let's not get lost in the affiliate contention. There are individual reasons why the thought of tomorrow brings optimism to some Lightning fans: it's because the young talents are there to propel the club forward next season and beyond.
That leads to the question of the week: With the Lightning season over, fans start looking at the bigger picture of organizational talent. Who do you currently think is the top prospect in the Tampa Bay Lightning organization and why? Do you think that player has a shot at making the Lightning roster next season?
We passed the question along to several members of the Tampa Bay Boltosophere along with the usual suspects from the Raw Charge staff.
Pete Choquette / Chad Schnarr - Bolt Prospects
Editors Note: Pete and Chad are preparing their year-end organizational rankings at Bolt Prospects and abstained from the QOTW. Stay tuned for Bolt Prospects ranking of Tampa Bay Lightning prospect talent in the near future.
WB Philp - Hockey Independent
I will defer to the experts at Bolt Prospects and agree with their ranking center Alex Killorn as Tampa Bay's top prospect, but he may be a long way from playing in the NHL if he continues to pursue his studies at Harvard.
I am excited about one of Tampa Bay's newest players, defenseman Keith Aulie. His acquisition addressed the Lightning's most glaring organizational need...an NHL ready defenseman that will contribute immediately. In watching him for the short time he has been with the Lightning, he possesses the special combination of size (6'6", 217 lbs.) and skating ability. While he will never be a big offensive threat, he may well become the Bolts shutdown defenseman. The 22 year old is a solid puck mover, with great vision and he will learn to be more physical as he matures.
Aulie will not only make the team next season, he will be a major contributor on the Lightning blueline.
Justin Godfrey - The Hockey Writers
What a nice change of pace that this question actually gives me pause before coming up with an answer - and not the type of pause where I'm trying to convince myself that Xavier Delisle is a legitimate prospect. The Lightning actually has a few contenders for the "top prospect" spot, but I'm going to have to go with J.T. Brown.
Brown, who surprised some by signing with the Lightning in March, appeared in five games for Tampa Bay and didn't disappoint. During what amounted to 5-game mini-tryout, he may have only logged one point (an assist on the last day of the season), but he showed excellent instincts in the offensive zone and with a little luck might have had two goals.
Just as important, he actually played fairly well in the other zone as well, hustling to back-check or breakup passing lanes in the defensive zone. He's fast, physical and willing to take punishment in front of the net, traits that should help him carry his college success into the NHL.
With the clock running on his two-year deal (one is already in the books) I think there is a magnificent chance that he makes the team next year. Not only that, it wouldn't be shocking to see him battling to stay on the Lecavalier/Purcell line.
Clare Austin - Staff Writer
It's really hard for me to pick one guy, but if you forced me to, I'd probably go with Cory Conacher. I was honestly surprised at the beginning of the 2011-12 campaign that Brett Connolly was kept up and Conacher wasn't, though I get it from an organizational standpoint. Conacher's year in the AHL seems to have agreed with him. He's certainly got little left to prove there, and I thought he was close to ready this preseason.
As far as making the Lightning roster, I'm not about to come down with any predictions here. I'm at a real disadvantage in that I never get to actually watch these guys play unless they're on a call-up or to a small extent in preseason. Everything I've heard says that Conacher is the most likely to get a shot directly out of camp, but anything can happen and we'll have to wait and see what happens after the offseason. I'd say that Conacher being a winger gives him an edge over Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn, even if everything else is equal.
I'd like to see Dustin Tokarski get a few call-ups next season, though I don't think he's quite ready for NHL action on a regular basis. Maybe by the second half of next year? I don't want to see a Garon-Tokarski duo to start the season. I want to see a solid, number one starting goalie in the net, with either Gumby or Tokarski as a backup. Give Tik a year or so to show whether he's going to become what people have thought he would be.
Cassie McClellan - Managing Editor
I think Jaroslav Janus is probably their best prospect right now. He kept the team in the W column while Tokarski was up with the Lightning during their streak, and actually has a longer personal winning streak then Tokarski does because of it. Janus wasn't expected to be anything but Tokarski's backup all season, and he proved that he can be an AHL starter - and possibly an NHL starter, down the road. So, goaltending is a bit deeper in Norfolk than people might think.
Clark Brooks - Staff Writer
Well, prior to this season I probably would have said Richard Panik because I thought he had good showings in the past two pre-season training camps. But now, I've got to say it's Cory Conacher. Besides the fact that he's been lights-out all season, he's got a compelling back story that makes him someone you want to root for. Everybody loves an undersized overachiever. And while it's waaaay too soon and definitely unfair to be throwing around phrases like "The Next Martin St. Louis", well...
Unless something happens over the summer and he has just an awful training camp, I don't see how he doesn't make the Lightning next year.
Matt Amos - Staff Writer / Don't Trade Vinny
I don't think there's any doubt that Cory Conacher is the Bolts top prospect right now. He somewhat flirted with a roster spot during training camp for this season, then went on to post 35G-40A-75P in 72GP on way to becoming the AHL's MVP.
Combine that with the fact that he'll be turning that ripe age of 23 in December, and I think you've got your top prospect.
With Steve Yzerman's approach and insistence on building from within, and with the success he showed this season and in training camp, I think there's no doubt Conacher will make the roster next season. Perhaps he's the next young gun to line up next to Vinny?
Tina Robinson - Staff Writer
Right now, I'd have to say hands down, it's Cory Conacher. I won't say the kid came out of nowhere because he did have a good training camp last year and wasn't an unknown quality going into this AHL season, but he has just exploded this year. AHL MVP, one of the leading goal scorers, undersized with a big heart and feisty attitude. Now, who does that sound like? Yes, yes, I know it's too early by far to start comparisons to MSL, but I'm sure it won't be long before that happens, especially if he has a good year with the big club this upcoming season. Unless something goes very wrong in camp in September, I fully expect him to be on the Lightning roster in October (or whenever the season starts, as dictated by those pesky upcoming CBA negotiations).
I would also expect Richard Panik to get a long look as well for the forwards and possibly Mark Barberio because the Bolts need soooooo much help on the blue line, but as we've all repeatedly said, D-men take longer to mature into NHL quality than forwards, he may get another season in Norfolk for the experience factor but I would not be totally surprised if he didn't get a long look by the coaching staff as well.