2013-14 Tampa Bay Lightning year-end review, pt 4: Centers
The Raw Charge staff continues our review of the 2013-14 Lightning season with a look at what went right and what went wrong for the players. In this segment we look at the Lightning's first group of centers.
The year-end grades continue -- check the previous entries in the series here, here, and here -- and make sure to check back on Wednesday when we'll get to the second batch of centermen not reviewed below.
Alex Killorn - Center/Left Wing
What we thought would happen: After playing center in the NCAA, the Lightning have been content to play Killorn primarily on left wing in his professional career, a position that has suited him well in his time in the organization. After a successful stint on the top line alongside Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis, another look there seemed possible. We rated him 3rd overall in last season's Top 25 Under 25 and expected him to build off of a good half-season spent playing with Tampa Bay's top players.
What really happened: As a versatile and defensively responsible forward, Killorn projected as the type of guy who could slide up and down the line-up as needed in 2013-14, and that's exactly what happened. With a career scoring rate of just about 0.5 PPG, he's not exactly a top-line player. So the fact that he ended up as part of a solid two-way line that helped tilt the ice in Tampa's favor alongside Valtteri Filppula and Teddy Purcell (eventually, Ryan Callahan) makes sense and overall is probably the role he's best suited for. As a middle six forward that can help drive possession, score a little, and win battles against the middle of opposing teams' lineups, he's excelled -- earning himself a two year deal as an RFA this summer.
What might happen next season: The expectation is for Killorn to continue to provide utility value and secondary scoring up and down the lineup for the Bolts -- a sort of jack-of-all trades forward whose permanent home will likely continue to be alongside Valtteri Filppula and Ryan Callahan on the "second line". Exposing that experienced unit to tougher minutes and more defensive assignments might be in the cards with so many young players expected to remain in the NHL lineup this fall.
Tyler Johnson - Center
What we thought would happen: Prior to the Valtteri Filppula signing and after the Vincent Lecavalier buy out, it looked like former AHL MVP and WHL standout Tyler Johnson might be slotting into the lineup as the second-line center as a rookie. Many astute viewers pointed out that probably wasn't such a good idea, and the Filppula signing assuaged those fears. By the time training camp rolled around, the so-called "Top Gun" line of Richard Panik, Tyler Johnson, and Ondrej Palat was rolling along, fresh off a fantastic season in the AHL and into the Calder Cup Finals against the Grand Rapids Griffins, affiliate of the Detroit Red Wings. That good year saw Johnson finish 6th in our Top 25 Under 25 rankings from last year. As an AHL unit moving up together, playing together seemed like a sure bet in a sheltered, third line role where they could be eased into the NHL.
What really happened: The Stamkos injury happened. Forget sheltering your line of rookies -- with a major hole at the top of the lineup, Jon Cooper and Steve Yzerman needed to do something. Rather than moving Filppula up to the top line, they moved Johnson -- and eventually, Ondrej Palat came with him. There was no shelter for the pair of rookies, skating big minutes against tough opposition with Martin St. Louis, nearly twice their age, as the third member of their trio. Johnson finished with 24 goals and 26 assists for 50 points in 82 games in part due to the increased usage on the top line. His performance also earned him a Calder Trophy nomination, though he (and the rest of the Bolts) went home empty-handed. Johnson earned a 3 year, 10 million dollar contract extension as an RFA this summer.
What might happen next season: It's unclear exactly where he'll slot into the lineup -- he finished the year playing some center on the top line with a still-not-quite-100% Steven Stamkos on the right wing -- but the best bet is at center behind Stamkos and Filppula. As a third liner and second-year player, Johnson might get more defensive assignments than last year, but his good defensive instincts and experience as a penalty killer should help him in that regard. He should continue to be a two-way threat for the Bolts capable of playing in many situations and could improve on his 50 point season with a bit of increased ice-time.
Nate Thompson - Center
What we thought would happen: After signing a 4-year extension in March of 2013, it seemed like Thompson was locked into his role for a long time: 4th line, defensive center, a veteran forward to play mostly defensive minutes and be part of the leadership group for the Bolts. There was little reason to expect Thompson to do anything but what he'd already been doing for three years in a Lightning sweater -- anchoring a capable, physical, hard-working 4th forward unit.
What really happened: The year went as expected, though head coach Jon Cooper didn't use him nearly as extremely as Guy Boucher, who liked to bury his bottom line in the defensive zone. Thompson's zone-start rate went from 34.0% and 35.6% under Boucher to 44.4% under Cooper, which helped his possession numbers, but he still only scored 16 points in 81 games. He won most of his faceoffs, he killed penalties, and by all accounts he was good in the room, part of the veteran leadership group along with guys like Eric Brewer and Matt Carle.
What might happen next season: He'll be killing penalties and proving a little bit of speed and grit to the Anaheim Ducks' bottom-6 after being traded for a 4th round pick and a 7th round pick in 2015.