By Gareth Bush
When Steven Stamkos broke his tibia in November, all but a few wrote off Tampa Bay’s chances in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Apart from the now-departed Martin St-Louis, the Lightning were left with depth forwards and a cluster of middle-tier prospects with little to no NHL experience.
Tampa was consistently dressing six rookies and all were asked to step up. None of Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson, J.T. Brown, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Mark Barberio and Radko Gudas were ever “can’t-miss” prospects. At best, they were B-listers in past editions of Future Watch. None of them ever made the top 50. But every once in a while it’s important to be reminded projections are just that: projections.
Last year’s edition of Future Watch rated Tampa Bay’s draft performance over the past four years as the second-worst in the league. Aside from the consecutive lottery picks of Stamkos (first overall in 2008) and Victor Hedman (second in 2009), the team has only had four players in our annual top-50 prospect list the past four years, with an average rank of 32.25.
Not only is Tampa’s group of six playing beyond expectation, it’s been an integral part of the team remaining an East contender.
“It’s surprising a lot of people in this league,” says Dave Andreychuk, who won a Stanley Cup with the Bolts in 2004 and now works for them in a management role. “You have to look internally at what they’ve done in the past, those young kids, and the success they had in the minors. But has the progression and the maturity been a little quicker than we thought? Absolutely.”
Johnson, Palat, Barberio and Gudas credit their progression to two factors. The first is their American League success in 2011-12 playing for Calder Cup-champion Norfolk, which won a record 28 straight games.
The second is the coach of that team, Jon Cooper, now mans the bench in Tampa Bay. Since reuniting at the NHL level, they’ve performed beyond expectations laid upon them by scouts and fans alike. The only one not surprised is Cooper.
“I’m a true believer that a team that plays together and wins together can have a lot of success,” Cooper says. “It’s not that one or two guys are in the lineup and squeezing the stick tight every night. The fact that we brought so many rookies in at the same time has helped.”
Leading the way is Johnson, who has planted himself into Calder consideration as a 5-foot-9, 182-pound undrafted free agent signing.
“It’s easier when all of us are going through the same situations and can talk to one another and help each other out,” Johnson says. “I’m playing with guys who have helped me all year and without them there’s no way I could be doing what I’m doing.”
Barberio, recognized as the AHL’s 2011-12 top defenseman, and Gudas have been welcome additions to the blueline. Palat has excelled alongside Johnson, while Kucherov and Brown have helped stabilize the bottom six. Considering the group’s AHL success and early NHL performance, it’s safe to conclude there’s been a lack of respect for their worth since Day 1. And that’s just fine with them.
“I don’t think we pay much attention to the reports and stuff like that,” says Barberio, who ranked 10th, fourth and sixth in Tampa’s top 10 prospects list the past three editions of Future Watch. “From the AHL level on, we’ve been lucky to have an organization like Tampa that puts a lot of effort into their young guys and gives us the tools to succeed.”
Another element to analyzing player upside is how each franchise manages its prospects. Detroit has long been revered for its development, particularly the patience shown in the maturation of each player, regardless of draft rank. When Steve Yzerman was hired as Lightning GM in 2010, he brought a lot of what he learned in Detroit with him.
“He believes in developing young players at the AHL level,” Barberio says. “He’s very honest with the prospects and just wants us to succeed.”
Let this Lightning youth movement be a reminder rookies’ success isn’t always correlated with how highly they rank on paper. And who doesn’t love a good underdog?