The future is on the ice for Tampa in another lost season. After winning 6 of their first 7 games the bottom fell out for the Lightning, losing 16 of the next 24, to bring the end of Guy Boucher’s tenure. His replacement, Jon Cooper, brings an impressive resume of winning at all levels he has coached. The Syracuse Crunch was in first place when he took the Lightning job. Last season he led the Norfolk Admirals (Tampa’s AHL affiliate in 2011-12) and manufactured a miraculous, record breaking, 28 game winning streak to make the playoffs and go on to win the Calder cup. His success in the organization made him stand out, but his familiarity with many of the Lightning’s near-term building blocks, cinched Yzerman’s decision. He has a deep familiarity with Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson, Richard Panik, Brett Connolly, Ondrej Palat, Radko Gudas, and Dana Tyrrell, all now part of the NHL line-up. Their development is critical to the Lightning’s chances next year and Cooper has proven he can win with them.
With a Lecavalier buy out likely this summer, there will be a reshuffling of the top six in Tampa. Stamkos turns 24 next year, and with St. Louis, provides elite level scoring. Lining up with them is an opportunity for one or two of these players to take a meaningful step forward next year into a scoring role.
They have just re-assigned Johnson and Connolly to Syracuse to take part in the playoff run. They will be given every opportunity to fill an offensive role next season and this time in the AHL will only benefit both their development.
The Lightning had a spirited showing against Washington rebounding from a 5 to 1 deficit on Saturday, with Panik producing a remarkable 3 point effort and some grit. Fatigue showed in a flat effort against Buffalo the next night, but it is clear the trust coach Cooper has in his AHL contingent in the ice time he is providing them. For example, Gudas is playing 16 minutes a game in key situations, Johnson playing 13 minutes on a regular shift and Panik is averaging over 12 minutes in April.
Here are some quick notes on the three young prospects that could seize this opportunity with Panik making a case to be included with each strong NHL start.
Cooper has shown tremendous confidence in Alex Killorn, 32-7-11-18, who has averaged over 17 minutes a game this season and watched it jump to over 20 minutes a game under his new coach. He is seeing regular time with St. Louis and Stamkos, averaging 2 minutes a game on the power play, and 1 minute on the penalty kill. He is responsible defensively and aggressive in the offensive zone, drawing penalties on occasion, and providing a complementary role to the two superstars. 23 years old, he joined Norfolk and Cooper for the playoffs in 2012, after 4 years at Harvard. He started this season with Syracuse and was a likely candidate for the all-rookie team in the AHL after scoring 40 points in 44 games before his NHL call up. Killorn will also appear on some long lists for top rookie in the NHL. He has made his case for a top six role and should be a good late round fantasy pick next season.
Brett Connolly has seen limited action this season and will benefit from time spent in Syracuse, whom he is tied for the team lead in scoring, 68-30-30-60. After disappointing season in the NHL in 2011-12, but a strong performance at the World Juniors that season, Tampa felt more development time was needed. The former 6th overall pick in 2010 has star potential and a good playoff in the AHL should see him receive the invitation to the Lightning training camp in the fall he did not get this year. His role will be top 6, or he will see more time in the AHL, but a scoring role in the NHL is coming sooner rather than later.
Tyler Johnson, is a small dynamic winger, that went undrafted, similar to Cory Conacher. Conacher's departure to Ottawa opens up a golden opportunity for Johnson. Currrently tied with Connolly for the team scoring lead in Syracuse, 60-33-27-60, he was also an important contributor in the 2012 playoffs for Cooper and the Norfolk Admirals with 14 points in 14 games. Winning championships together forges trust. His enthusiasm for his new coach is evident in this quote from an article by Damian Cristodero of the Tampa Bay Times shortly after Cooper was hired.
"It's going to be fast-paced hockey, quick transitions, aggressive in the offensive and even in the defensive zones and create as much speed as possible," Johnson said. "I really enjoy playing for him. He gives you a lot of room to make the skill plays you need to make and he creates a lot of speed. It's awesome to play under him."
When a 24 year old talent like Stamkos, with the ability to win a scoring championship, is the building block of your franchise then a quick turnaround is always a possibility. Keep an eye on this team for some potential break out candidates in 2013-14.