Answer This! The Rookie Invasion

Nikita Kucherov is one of many outstanding rookies playing a major role with the Lightning this season. - Mike Carlson

The Tampa Bay Lightning are absolutely stacked with terrific first year NHLers this season. Who is catching your eye? Who is going to be the best of the bunch? The Raw Charge crew and special guests think it over.

I was involved in a twitter chat a few weeks ago with a few other Lightning fans (and one former Lightning owner) about how completely the Bolts' roster has been rebuilt since the beginning of Steve Yzerman's tenure as General Manager. The veterans from the previous regime are few: count Martin St-Louis, Ryan Malone, Teddy Purcell, and Nate Thompson. This wasn't counting recent high picks Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, or the virtually-retired Matthias Ohlund.

One of Yzerman's priorities when he took over Tampa Bay's hockey operations was rebuilding organizational depth. As a graduate of the Detroit Red Wings organization, Yzerman recognized the value of developing your own players, and we've seen the success of his efforts, with the Norfolk and Syracuse farm teams making consecutive runs to the AHL's Calder Cup, with Norfolk winning it in 2012.

The idea was to stack the farm clubs with good prospects, let them develop under a good coach, and then start feeding the main club. Of course, this is the idea every NHL team has, but it's not often you see it done so well. And it's very, very rare that you see it happening so well ALL AT ONCE.

A lot of the players who were with the Norfolk/Syracuse teams have proven themselves ready to make the leap to the Show. Add in some young new faces, and you have an astonishing cast of rookies making legitimate contributions to the Lightning this year. Not even counting Alex Killorn, who is not an official rookie but is playing in his first full NHL season, the Bolts have EIGHT ROOKIES playing roles.

Let's do the count: Tyler Johnson (third in the rookie scoring race), Ondrej Palat (who had an eight game point streak and is currently +15), human cannonball Radko Gudas, Alex Killorn, Richard Panik, the electrifyingly talented Nikita Kucherov, towering Andrej Sustr, J.T. Brown, and Mark Barberio. In addition to this group, we also saw a guest appearance by defender Dmitry Korobov. [Editors Note: Richard Panik and Alex Killorn aren't rookies this season having played 25 games or more in 2013]

Holy crap, right? Almost half the Lightning roster are first year NHLers, and the team is competing for top spot in the East. Makes you hopeful for the future, huh?

But at Raw Charge it's not enough to just say, wow, they're great. We have to talk, talk, talk. We have to ask questions, such as Which of these players is best equipped to be a long-lasting, high-impact contributor in his role?

Let's take a look at what the Raw Chargers had to say. You can have YOUR SAY in the poll and in the comments below.

Clark Brooks, Staff writer, Ridiculously Inconsistent Trickle of Consciousness, @clarkbrooks.

Boy, it sure is nice to have to agonize over a question like this, when there have been years in the not-so-distant past when it would have been a case of seeing who could scoff the hardest. Since I'm totally on the Ondrej Palat bandwagon, I'll say him. As I think I've mentioned before, I can't put my finger on one thing but he just seems like he belongs out there. Just his confidence and comfort level, I guess.

John Fontana, El Generalissmo Supremo de Raw Charge, @Johnny_fonts.

That’s a tough question when I think about it because we’re only seeing the start of these guys careers at the NHL level… Some of them, Raw Charge regulars and Lightning fans who pay attention to the whole system, we’ve known for a while and have seen how they can play the game and contribute. But then there’s the other aspect worth noting: offense as to defense.

Really, it’s dependent on how players get pigeonholed going forward. If he’s left up to his own devices and abilities without the NHL judging him by size – I think Tyler Johnson could go far in this league. He’s contributed and performed at every level so far, and he’s doing so at the NHL level now.

Yet if Johnson gets labeled "too small" at any point in time and gees cast out in Tampa, the safer choice is actually defenseman Radko Gudas: A hard hitting defenseman, a positive attitude in the locker room, a hockey beard at all times, and the ability to play big minutes. Yeah, Gudas will go far in this league.

Cassie McClellan, Senior Writer, @dagmar27.

This is a difficult question, because you’re mixing apples with oranges. Defensemen tend to stick around for longer, and have more of an impact for longer because of that, but they also often take longer to develop. While forwards often make an impact early on in their careers, but by the time they hit their early 30s, they’re usually getting into diminished roles.

So, keeping that in mind….

I think, of the forwards (since scoring gets all the love), the one with the most staying power will probably be Tyler Johnson. His skills set is the most diverse right now of the three forwards listed, and that’s probably a good indicator of longevity. He won’t have as many problems trying to redefine himself later on in his career, since he won’t have to try to develop skills he doesn’t already have. He’s probably the most well-rounded rookie of the group so far.

Kyle Alexander, Staff Writer, Associate Editor of Bolt Statistics, @kalexanderRC.

For me, the answer here is obvious -- it's the player we've got the largest sample on (64 total NHL games played), and while that's still not yet a full season's worth of games it's enough to start making fair and accurate projections for the player's career. I've selected Radko Gudas, for a few reasons. First, he plays defense, and defensemen have shown to hang around in the NHL remaining effective and relevant for a few years longer than forwards do (immortal Finns notwithstanding). Secondly, his game is not, has not, and will not ever be defined by his offensive contributions or his fluid skating ability. Gudas is defensively sound because he is physical on the puck-carrier and smart with his positioning. He can lead a break out because he makes good decisions with the puck. These are not qualities that erode with age, so remaining a high-impact NHL contributor in the long-term should be easier than most of the other Lightning rookies. Furthermore, while he's currently a top-4 defenseman for the Lightning and fitting in well with his 20:05 of time on ice per game, he's the type of player that will, in the later stages of his career, likely transition flawlessly down the depth chart as a depth defensemen and penalty killer capable of stepping in and out of an NHL lineup and giving you 14 minutes of solid play even at age 35 or older.

Michael StuartHockey Buzz, ‎@HB_MikeStuart

It’s been a great season for Tampa Bay Lightning rookies. The 2013-14 Bolts roster is loaded with young talent that is poised to make an impact at the NHL level for years to come. Seeing as I absolutely believe that each of the six players mentioned in the first question has a future in the NHL, it’s difficult for me to say that one has a better shot at being a long-term, impact player than the others.

I’ll go with my gut instinct, though, and select Ondrej Palat. It’s easy to look at Palat’s point totals over the years and be impressed. He’s produced in Junior, in the American league, and now in the NHL. His 22 points through 47 games with Tampa this season put him ninth in the rookie scoring race. Not half bad for a guy who was selected in the 7th round of the 2011 entry draft. As nice as the offensive output is, it’s not what sets Palat apart from the other rookies mentioned.

Perhaps the greatest attribute that Palat brings to the Lightning is the fact that he’s still an incredibly valuable player even when he’s not generating points. While impossible to quantifiably measure, his willingness to battle along the boards, go into corners, and take on opposing players without fear is noticeable on a nightly basis. To use an old sports cliché, he gives it 110% every time he steps out on the ice. When the chips are down, Palat can be counted on to step up. We saw it in last year’s American league playoffs, and we’ve seen it at times this season with the Lightning. This player is built to win.

In addition to all that, Palat has also been one of the Lightning’s better possession players this season. I don’t fully understand the realm of fancy stats yet, but I’m versed enough to know that Palat’s numbers are good. As he continues to develop under a coach who knows and trusts him, Palat’s potential is limitless. He’ll be around these parts for a very, very long time.

Thanks for taking part, Mike! Just for laughs, I also asked everybody who they thought was the best Lightning rookie (in Kanye voice) OF ALL TIME! Here's what John and Mike had to say:

John:

Offensively, it was Alexander Selivanov in 1995-1996: 21 goals, 21 assists, a plus-3. He was a big part of the Lightning’s NHL Playoff debut season.

Defensively, and this is subjective / opinion: Paul Ranger, 2005-06. The story goes that guys like Andy Rogers and Timo Helbling had the inside track to make the Bolts roster as the 6th defenseman… Head coach John Tortorella was impressed with Rogers but wasn’t thrilled with the idea of starting a junior-aged player on defense. Rogers was cut and returned to juniors (that was the closest he got to making the NHL), Helbling made the club, and the Bolts sent him down to Springfield in a matter of games. They took a shot on then-21 year old Ranger. He was never optioned back to Springfield, playing 76 games with Tampa and recording a goal and 17 assists, playing an average of 17 minutes a night and a plus-minus of plus-5.

To get a random shot and become a mainstay, that’s one hell of a rookie year. 2005-06 had that from three players (Ranger, Ryan Craig and Evgeny Artyukhin), but Ranger’s performance was the biggest.

Mike:

Who had the greatest individual rookie season in Lightning history? Brad Richards. Back in the 2000-01 season, Richards debuted as a Lightning rookie and set the league on fire. Through 82 games, he tallied 21 goals and 42 assists for a whopping 62 points. That total, unsurprisingly, was good enough to make him the league’s leading rookie scorer that year. To compare, consider that the second place finisher (Shane Willis) only notched 44 points during the campaign.

I’ve always been a huge Brad Richards fan, so maybe I’m a little bit biased. Either way, I’m of the opinion that what he did back at the turn of the millennium was pretty incredible stuff. Few players in Lightning history have left a mark on the franchise quite like Richards did. It all started back in that 2000-01 season.

As I said, we want to know who you think is the best of this year's bunch. Also, tell us your best memories of a Lightning rookie. Let's talk, baby!


Nolan Whyte is just insufferable. He blogs Lightning hockey at Frozen Sheets Hockey and has a fiction & art project going on at Jerry the Bird. Like everyone else, he's on twitter, at @nolanwhyte.

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