Cory Conacher is just one player that Tampa Bay Lightning bloggers think people should keep an eye on in 2012-13. (image courtesy Tampa Bay Lightning)
The long, hot summer is waning and heading toward the exit. Fall is forthcoming and (supposedly) a hockey season as well. At least for most every other ice hockey league in the world.
Yes, the sport is awakening from hibernation; the junior leagues are in the midst of their pre-season, the KHL and other European Leagues have resumed... You know about the little complication that may obstruct the beginning of the National Hockey League season, but two other professional North American leagues (the AHL and ECHL) will be cranking back up shortly.
Hockey resumes. And as fans,w e resume with it.
Instead of focusing on the black cloud hanging over the 2012-13 season, our question of the week (the first one in many months) focuses on things ahead.
Thinking directly about the Tampa Bay Lightning system (at all levels), who do you think is the player to watch this season?
We opened up the question to members of the Tampa Bay Lightning blogosphere (aka the Boltosphere) to see just what everyone is thinking. Some answers overlap, and others have unique perspectives on who to watch and why. Many thanks to all participants.
Alexis Boucher - Sons of Andreychuk
I'm going off the beaten path with this one. My choice isn't necessarily the most highly touted player in the system, but I'm very interested to see his transition from a very successful college career to the pro ranks. That's why Alex Killorn is one to watch for me.
The center saw limited playing time towards the end of the regular season with the Norfolk Admirals and continued success in their playoff run. In 17 post season games he notched 3 goals and 9 assists. Impressive given it was such a small sample size.
During his 4 years at Harvard, his numbers increased each season. He was Harvard's first 100 point scorer since 2005 and the first 50 goal scorer since 2004. He was also one of the players nominated for the 2012 Hobey Baker award.
I'm not expecting him to make the big club right out of camp. He may spend quite a bit more time in the AHL, but what we saw from him was exciting and I want to see more.
WB Philp -- Hockey Independent and The Checking Line
My one to watch is defenseman Mark Barberio. Although the defensive ranks look full at the NHL level, Barberio will push to make the team. He led all AHL defensemen in assists and points and was voted the leagues Most Outstanding Defenseman. He is the best power play defenseman in the Bolts' system.
At just 22 years old, Barberio's meteoric rise up the ranks was unexpected. He is an AHL All-Star who plays well in the defensive zone as his +28 ranking attests to. Barberio is a true "offensive defenseman" with great puck skills and a low, booming shot, perfect for the power play.
Barberio may not make the NHL squad this season, but he will make all Bolts defensemen better in camp. The Lightning organization can be proud of developing a sixth round pick into a solid NHL defenseman.
Cassie McClellan - Asst. Managing Editor
I think that Brett Connolly is the guy to watch. This is an important year for him - should the NHL get around to playing, that is. As a first round pick - 6th overall, no less - he had a less than stellar rookie season getting only four goals and 11 assists (15 total points) in 68 games. The four goals that he did score all came in the month of November last season, in fact. There were long stretches where he was struggling or invisible on the ice. His ice time in January and February dwindled below 10 minutes a game, and got down to as little as 3:52 in one game in February. If he wants to establish himself as a first or second line guy in the NHL, as his draft position suggests he should be, then he needs to do that fairly soon. While he may not be playing many first or second line minutes consistently at for a couple of seasons, he definitely needs to prove that he belongs there.
Chad Schnarr - Bolt Prospects
Lightning fans in the Tampa Bay area won't have to leave the area to see the "player to watch" this year - assuming there's a season. The player primed for a breakout - and possibly the most important player in the organization - is fourth-year pro Victor Hedman. While it seems like he's been around forever, he's really just coming off his entry level contract. He's younger than both prized defensive prospects Mark Barberio and Radko Gudas. But he has more than 200 games played at the NHL level, and is a season away from hitting the magical 300-game mark when you can officially call a defenseman "mature."
The Lightning didn't draft Hedman second overall to be a 20-something scorer and average 1:08 on the power play. Coach Guy Boucher seems to have purposely held him back offensively as he learns the defensive side of the game. Hedman doesn't pinch or join the rush much, though when he does his hockey I.Q. is plain to see. Toward the end of last season, Boucher put up a green light and Hedman responded with eight points in his last nine games. He can be a 40-point defenseman - but he has to earn more power play time than Brendan Mikkelson (no offense, Brendan). Evan Oberg had roughly the same amount of average power play time per game as Hedman.
For the Lightning to become an elite team, they need a clear No.1 two-way defenseman. That player is already on their roster, but he just has to blossom into it. It's that time for Victor Hedman. Just watch.
Clare Austin - staff writer
I honestly don't have one player to watch. Being the goalie freak around here, I'm very interested in how four players do--Anders Lindback, Dustin Tokarski, Riku Helenius, and Jaroslav Janus. For the first time in--well, ever--the Lightning have depth at the goaltending position. What they don't have is certainty. So the future is murky for all of these guys, and for the franchise as well. I'm intensely interested to see how each of these players develop over the next year, and I hope that some kind of certainty will be found as well.
If you twisted my arm and forced me to choose just one of them, I'd have to go with Helenius. We simply know more about the other three. Helenius, for all his grand performance with JYP last season, is a cipher. And if he doesn't make a good (second) first impression, it could be hard to recover the confidence of management. To some extent this is more of a make-or-break season for him than the other goalies, who have a little bit more of a cushion.
In terms of non-goalie players, though, I'm really cheering for Tyler Johnson this season. But that's another story.
Clark Brooks - staff writer
The player everyone will want to watch is Anders Lindback, based on a commonly held perception that goaltending is the Lightning's biggest (only?) problem, but in my opinion, the player to watch is Victor Hedman.
While it's true that good defense starts with good goaltending, it's one of those weird quirks you find in sports that the best goalies in the world go through stretches when they can't stop anything while scrubs will sometimes find themselves utterly unbeatable. It's just one of those things you have to accept and hope you've got a team that's good enough overall to carry you through those periods.
Defensemen don't have that luxury. If you're going to have any real success at all, you've got to be able to count on those guys (at least the top four) being consistently good. Last year we saw Hedman take major steps toward getting to that level and it's crucial to the future of this team that we see continued development this year.
Ultimately, if Lindback is a Marc Denis-like bust, we can express disappointment and go back to the drawing board while waiting for prospects to mature. But if Hedman plateaus or regresses, it'll be a major setback for the Lightning.
Dolly Reynolds-Dolce - Bolts by the Bay
Cory Conacher. Undrafted invitees have proven to be a force to be reckoned with. (Marty St. Louis) They have to fight harder to prove themselves. Cory blew a lot of people away in camp last year. Having no idea who he was, I was asking 'who is this kid?' and ... just wow. He has proven himself to me. He knew that he was not going to make the big boys' team this year, and yet he still kicked it hard throughout the entire season. I believe that Cory Conacher will be a key part of the Lightning organization, and sooner, rather than later.
Kyle Alexander Abeny - Lightning 101
I thought a while on this one, and under different circumstances I would have almost certainly selected a Tampa Bay Lightning player. But with a lockout looming, I, like many others, have shifted my focus to the prospect levels -- players who we are 100% sure will be on the ice in 2012-2013. That said the player to watch for me this year is goaltender Riku Helenius.
After being pushed right off the depth chart by another Lightning prospect - Jaroslav Janus - Helenius went to Europe to continue his development. In 2011-2012 he landed with JYP of the Finnish SM-liiga and finished the year with a 1.64 GAA and a .936 save percentage, spectacular numbers he actually improved on in the playoffs. He collected the Finnish league's equivalent of the Vezina and Stanley Cup in what was truly a spectacular season. He's also still only 24, mere months older than Anders Lindback.
Steve Yzerman likes him enough to ship Janus off to Europe and to sign him to a 2-year deal with the second year on a one-way contract, which means the organization thinks he is very close to full-time NHL ready. This year in Syracuse splitting time with Dustin Tokarski will demonstrate whether he will adapt back to the North American game and if the Lightning's goaltending woes are truly solved (and not the way you expected).
Justin Godfrey - The Hockey Writers
For me THE player to watch in the upcoming season is going to be Paul Ysebaert. He's primed for a breakout season....wait, what it's not 1994? Guess I got my lockouts confused again.
So for 2012-13 my player to watch is going to be Martin St. Louis. My reasons are threefold.
1. It means NHL hockey is being played and I don't have to convince myself that going to Chicago Wolves games is just like the big leagues at half the cost!
2. He makes his teammates better when he's on the ice.
3. We'll see if last year was an aberration or if it marked the beginning of a decline in production for him.
Even though he is one of the fittest players in the league St. Louis is 37-years-old. Father Time eventually catches up to all players no matter how much they try and prevent it. Last season saw him post his lowest goal and point numbers since 2005-06. While he did miss some time due to his broken face, a 25-point drop-off is pretty steep.
It could be just an off-year for him, after the 61 point season in 2005-06 he bounced back with a career best 104 points, or it might be the sign that the first shadows of twilight for his playing days are appearing.
Jason Haas - Sons of Andreychuk
The Lightning's top D pairing seems set for several years with Matt Carle and Victor Hedman under long term deals. However, when you look at the stable of second pair caliber guys - Salo, Brewer, Ohlund (if he returns) - there will be a need there as soon as two seasons from now, probably sooner given Ohlund's health. Lee is a former 9th overall pick by Ottawa who never really got going. He plays a two-way game and is a coveted right handed shot from the point. He seemed to find his stride after the deadline, notching eight assists in 20 games with Tampa.
I don't see him becoming anything more than a solid second pair defenseman, but if he fulfills that potential it will be tremendous for the Lightning's cap situation. Lee's current deal expires when he is 27 years old. If he has elevated his play to the aforementioned level, it's a perfect time to sign a player in his prime to a 3-5 year contract for somewhere between $3-4 million per season. Along with Carle's $5.5 million cap hit and Hedman's $4 million cap hit, this number and term would give the team the flexibility to pursue another top tier defenseman or a couple of mid tier guys. Brewer would have one year left on his deal and, as far as Ohlund, I just can't imagine he'll be in the mix (he'd have two years left if he does make it back).
The combination of talent and cap space would be rarified air- now it's up to Lee to flourish.
Nolan Whyte - Frozen Sheets of Hockey
Ah, so many interesting questions about key players. Is Anders Lindback ready to be a starter? Will Sami Salo play twenty games without injury? Will Vincent Lecavalier and Ryan Malone be as healthy and productive as we all wish they could be?
Or how about this: will Victor Hedman complete his development and start to be the dominant defenceman he was touted to be in his draft year?
Hedman, a second-overall pick, has no been a disappointment. We all know it takes a while for a young player, especially on the blueline, to find his game in the NHL. But young Victor has a few seasons under his belt now, and it wouldn't it be great if this year he justified the high expectations placed on him? Wouldn't it be great if he became really awesome this year? If every other team worried about how to get by him?
The Lightning could really use that. Because even after adding Salo and Matt Carle, their blueline is still made of paper.
What do you think? Did we leave anyone out? Any other perspectives that wren't stated? Let us know in comments.