It's time for year-end grades, and we've been working our way through the roster bit by bit. You can find the team review here and Brett Kaylor's review of the first group of wingers here. This is the final group of wingers, those who played fewer games (between 10 and 52, as it turns out), in alphabetical order. Tune in on Monday when we begin our look at the centers.
Ryan Callahan - Right Wing
What we thought would happen: Callahan joined the Lightning in the trade that sent Martin St. Louis to the New York Rangers. We expected to see a gritty player with heart and some goal-scoring ability. We expected someone who could be what Ryan Malone wasn't anymore. Here's what New York Rangers blogger Mike Murphy, a.k.a "Dig Deep," wrote in March.
Callahan will never be the biggest, fastest, strongest, or most talented player on the ice but he will almost certainly be the player that works the hardest and does what is necessary to get his team two points on any given night. He shows some flashes of skill and a good ability to finish but most of his goal scoring comes from around the net with screens, deflections, and garbage goals.
The Lightning were looking for a guy who could play in tough minutes in all situations and do it with enthusiasm.
What really happened: Callahan met those expectations, scoring 6 goals and 5 assists in twenty games. He also won over the hearts of fans who were looking for something good to come out of the heartbreak of the Martin St. Louis's rejection. At the same time, Callahan had some help from Jon Cooper, who played him in the offensive zone more than any other regular player, and from Valtteri Filppula who helped tilt the ice for him. And his line scored at a much, much higher rate than expected. It's tough to get a good grasp on a player with only twenty games, especially when there's so much noise surrounding him, but Callahan was pretty much as advertised.
What might happen next season: The Lightning announced on Wednesday that Callahan was signed to a six-year extension with an AAV of $5.8M. If he stays healthy he should provide a bit of offense and a bit of work ethic, playing in all situations. He will, however, need the right linemates (such as Filppula) and a similar kind of usage to what he saw this past season to be successful
Brett Connolly - Right Wing
What we thought would happen: A former sixth overall draft pick (2010), Connolly's development path has taken some strange turns, but he was voted #7 by Raw Charge writers in our Top 25 Under 25 series. In the latest bump in Connolly's road, he was returned to Syracuse despite a stellar training camp. The team wanted to keep the "Top Gun Line" of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Richard Panik together, which would have seen Connolly getting only fourth line minutes in Tampa. "I want him playing a lot of minutes," Yzerman explained. "He's got to go (to Syracuse) and be our top guy, be a leader and carry the team, if need be. That's another step for him. There's no plan to leave him there for any period of time."
What really happened: Still, he only made it into 11 NHL games this past year, and scored only 1 goal in those games. He did, however, make waves in the AHL. Eventually. He led the team in points with 57 (21 goals, 36 assists) and fared well according to other measures as well, especially after connecting with deadline pickup Jonathan Audie-Marchessault. As our Syracuse Crunch contributor Alex Ackerman wrote, "much of his latter play in Syracuse seemed to have been more on par with what was originally expected of him. Connolly was an alternate captain with the Crunch, so the coaching staff clearly believed in his leadership ability." Still, the big step forward at the NHL level that the team has been looking for has not yet happened.
What might happen next season: Connolly has been given a qualifying offer by the team and Yzerman is working on getting a deal done with the Restricted Free Agent. He will be given every chance to compete for a spot on the NHL roster but there are a lot of other players who will be in the running for those spots as well. Next season, like the ones before it, might see Connolly the victim of a numbers game. It's largely for this reason that his name gets so often linked with trade speculation. He's a player with some value in a position that the Lightning have great depth. Time will tell if Connolly will find his way into the NHL through the Tampa Bay system or with another franchise. He's sure to get there eventually, however. If he does make the Lightning roster, look for him to get sheltered minutes so as to juice his offensive output, at least initially.
Nikita Kucherov - Right Wing
What we thought would happen: Known for two-way play, excellent vision, and puck handling skills, Kucherov came in at #15 in the Top 25 Under 25. He began the 2013-14 season in the AHL as a young player needing playing time. In 17 games with the Crunch Kucherov had 13 goals and 12 assists for 24 points. In late November he was called up to the Lightning to fill a hole left by an injured Ryan Malone. (One month later, Kucherov's 24 points still led the Crunch in scoring.) He was expected to develop in the AHL for most of the season with possible call-ups throughout the year. It is hard to say what was expected of Kucherov at the time of his call-up beyond bringing an offensive-minded energy to the third line. Vladislav Namestnikov had been injured shortly before this, and it was likely that had he been available the call would have gone to him. Still Kucherov was hardly a step down, as both players are known as great puck handlers with energy to spare.
What really happened:People learned that watching Nikita Kucherov is fun. In January, Nolan Whyte called him "electrifying" and a poll of Raw Charge readers voted him most likely to have an impact at the NHL level, over both Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat. Unfortunately, for all the electricity, he only generated 18 points in 52 games. Surely some of this was due to being moved around the lineup as much as he was, but he did seem to have trouble adjusting to the faster, stronger, and smarter NHL defenses. While he met most expectations, those expectations were not all that high. He wasn't even expected to stick for the rest of the season, but he did. While Kucherov was a bundle of energy wherever he played, he struggled to turn that into production.
What might happen next season: Kucherov will have a leg up on the competition in training camp, and there's no reason at this point to think that he'll start the season anywhere but on the Lightning. That's assuming, of course, he isn't used in a trade, a situation that is increasingly being discussed around the Boltosphere. I believe he has every opportunity to improve his game and score more regularly as he grows into the NHL game.
Pierre-Cedric Labrie - Left Wing
What we thought would happen: P.-C. "Nacho" Labrie is one of those guys you love to love, a true fan favorite with an infectious attitude, unending enthusiasm for the game, and a willingness to drop the gloves. He made the Lightning roster out of training camp in part because sending him to Syracuse would require exposing him to waivers. It was hoped he could generate a little offense even while playing on the fourth line, but ...
What really happened: ...he had only 2 shots and no points in his 13 games with the Lightning. He was sent to Syracuse midseason to bolster a faltering and chaotic Crunch team. That didn't happen, either. Labrie ended the AHL season with only 2 goals and 4 assists in 38 games.
What might happen next season: Labrie will not be offered an NHL contract, the team has announced. It is still possible that he might strike an AHL-level deal with the Crunch, but that seems rather unlikely as well.
Richard Panik - Right Wing
What we thought would happen: After making a splash with his hard, physical play in the 2012-13 Calder Cup Playoffs, Richard Panik was voted fifth in Raw Charge's Top 25 Under 25, and seemed set to be one of the top rookies for the Tampa Bay Lightning. He made the NHL roster straight out of training camp over players such as Nikita Kucherov and Brett Connolly, at least partly in an attempt to capture the magic of the Crunch's "Top Gun Line" that linked him with Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat. Panik was expected to be a guy who could bring physicality and scoring to a second or third line, but he ended up in neither role.
What really happened: The Top Gun Line was broken up fairly soon and Panik bounced around the lineup for a while, even spending time as a healthy scratch. He did play more than 50% of his 5v5 minutes with Johnson and Palat, yet still only managed 3 goals and 10 assists in 50 games. In the process he built himself a reputation as being "enigmatic" and hard to motivate. Expectations were fairly high for Panik and he didn't really meet them, frustrating many fans.
What might happen next season: There is some reason to think that Panik's struggles were made worse by the randomness inherent in hockey. Pucks simply were not going in for him and his linemates like one would expect. That could very well improve over time, but he'll have to work his way off of a fourth line with Nate Thompson and BJ Crombeen, and the forward ranks are, as noted before very crowded. The fact remains that there were other concerns with Panik. Opponents simply got more shots and chances than you want to see with a strong checking player and he will need to show the team much more of what he can do in the upcoming season.