Young players, prospects give Lightning scoring punch for future

Ondrej Palat had 23 goals and a plus-32 rating in his first professional season.

John E. Sokolowski

Can the Tampa Bay Lightning find another gem in the rough?

After 13 seasons of having an Art Ross Trophy winner Martin St. Louis sit atop the depth chart, the Lightning find themselves having to fill the role of a potential Hall of Famer.

St. Louis, an undrafted free agent who struggled in five pro seasons before a breakout campaign in 2002-03, registered 11 seasons with at least 60 points and 10 with at least 20 goals.

Unlike St. Louis, however, Tampa Bay boasts a number of young players and prospects who enter the fold with a higher pedigree than the former captain. Ondrej Palat finished as Tampa Bay’s leading scorer and second among NHL rookies with 59 points. The Bolts also have top prospects Jonathan Drouin and Nikita Kucherov in position to contribute sooner than later.

Can any of them, as individuals, match St. Louis’ resume?  Probably not. But as a collective group, they could match those efforts while giving the Bolts incredible depth. And for a franchise that is looking more like the elite Detroit Red Wings teams GM Steve Yzerman once captained, that may not be such a bad thing.

UNDER CONTRACT

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Ondrej Palat, 23: Tampa Bay’s seventh-round pick (208th overall) in 2011, Palat exceeded expectations in his first professional season. He led Tampa Bay in points (59) and ranked third in goals (23). Those marks earned him a nod as a Calder Trophy finalist. What is most impressive, though, was his plus-32 rating, especially when considering only 14 of his points came on the power play. Palat displayed his well-rounded abilities, notching two shorthanded goals and four shorthanded points. The winger represented the Czech Republic at the 2014 Winter Olympics, but was held scoreless. Palat is creative with the puck, but also defensively sound. His effort could earn him a promotion to Tampa Bay’s top line, but given how well he clicked with Tyler Johnson, it may be tough for coach Jon Cooper to break up the productive combination.

Ryan Malone, 34: The veteran is a candidate for an amnesty buyout, especially given his off-ice troubles. Malone, who has one year left on his deal worth $4.5 million, was arrested and charged with cocaine possession and DUI in April. Personal issues aside, his production has dropped drastically. Since putting up 20 goals and 48 points in 2011-12, Malone has just 23 points combined in the two subsequent seasons.

Teddy Purcell, 28: Purcell, one of Tampa Bay’s most consistent producers delivered again, this time alongside newcomer Valtteri Filppula. Although his 42 points were a low in a full 82-game season with Tampa Bay, he has yet to drop below the 35-point plateau as a member of the Bolts. Being able to play on either side should help him retain the second-line minutes he earned last season, especially with new blood joining the Lightning. He’s extremely durable, having missed only three games over the past four seasons. If he can add more physicality to his game, he could easily fill the void Malone has left.

B.J. Crombeen, 28: The Denver, Colorado native is a grinder who uses his size well, but also takes his share of penalties. Though he provided the Bolts with a physical presence, Crombeen also has difficulty cracking the lineup at times. With a year left on his contract and Tampa Bay trending younger, his playing time could become more limited.

IN THE SYSTEM

Jonathan Drouin, 19: The third overall pick in 2013, Drouin had the skill set to join the NHL as a teenager. But an unimpressive training camp and Tampa Bay’s desire to not rush prospects led to another season in Halifax (QMJHL). He flourished as expected, with 108 points in an injury-shortened 46 games. Those numbers suggest he probably would have been okay with being fast-tracked to the NHL. But with the loss of Steven Stamkos and turmoil involving the St. Louis deal, Drouin may have been better off not having to deal with such adversity in what could have been his rookie season. He’ll end up stepping into a fresh situation in Tampa Bay, one in which he is a key part of the future. If Drouin does not land on the first line with Stamkos, expect to see him alongside the veteran Filppula whose two-way game could open up opportunities for the youngster.

Nikita Kucherov, 21: Kucherov has displayed the ability to adjust quickly to each level of hockey, whether it be from Russia’s junior leagues and Kontinental Hockey League to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and the American Hockey League. The scoring winger registered 24 points in 17 games with Syracuse (AHL) before earning a call up in November. Kucherov earned third-line minutes and still managed 18 points with the Lightning. He’s an explosive offensive talent who should make Tampa Bay’s opening roster barring a poor training camp.

Adam Erne, 19: Tampa Bay’s second-round pick (33rd overall) in 2013, Erne is a slightly smaller version of Malone. He grinds well in the corner, can provide traffic in front of the net and has some offensive upside. Erne is not afraid to get physical — as he showed this past season when he landed a brutal hit on fellow Bolts prospect Drouin. Signed to a three-year deal in April, Erne will see significant playing time in Syracuse before he becomes part of the NHL conversation.

FREE AGENTS

Ryan Callahan, 29 (UFA): The biggest questions involving Tampa Bay’s offseason decisions involve Callahan. Acquired at the trade deadline from the New York Rangers for St. Louis, the versatile forward registered six goals and five assists in 20 regular-season games with the Bolts. He was held scoreless in four postseason contests. A two-time Olympian for Team USA, Callahan is highly regarded for his grit, work ethic and leadership qualities — all assets the young Lightning would benefit from. But at what cost? In trying to strike a deal with the Rangers before the trade deadline, Callahan lowered his contract demands to a six-year deal in the range of $37 million to $39 million and a no-trade clause. Committing an average of $6.5 million for a player whose output is half of what Steven Stamkos (who makes $7.5 million a year) seems excessive. If Callahan does not re-sign with Tampa Bay, the Bolts will not surrender their second-round pick in 2015 to New York.

Brett Connolly, 22 (RFA): It has been two seasons since the sixth overall pick in 2010 played in a full campaign for Tampa Bay. The highly touted winger appeared in 68 games for Tampa Bay in 2011-12, but struggled in making the jump from juniors to the NHL. Rather than rush Connolly, the Lightning opted to have him spend more time in the minors. Connolly responded well, especially last season when he led Syracuse with 57 points in 66 games. The question involving Connolly is whether next year will be the one in which he returns to the NHL full-time. And with the emergence of Kucherov and presumed addition of Drouin, will he be able to earn enough ice time on one of the top two lines?

Richard Panik, 23 (RFA): A steady producer at the minor-league level, Panik didn’t put up the kind of numbers fellow rookies Palat and Johnson did. But as a third- to fourth-line winger, Panik gave a consistent effort. He earned an invite to play for Slovakia at the 2014 Winter Games and also participated in this year’s World Championship. Panik may not be able to surpass some of Tampa Bay’s more prolific talent, but with some defensive improvement, the winger could become a steady two-way player that adds offensive depth.

Alex Killorn, 24 (RFA): A solid two-way forward, Killorn benefitted from playing alongside Filppula and posted a career-high 17 goals and 24 assists. Killorn a versatile asset in that he can play wing or center. Like Panik, it may be difficult for the winger to maintain his minutes with younger talent coming into the fold. The key will be finding ways to contribute at both ends of the ice or on special teams.

J.T. Brown, 23 (RFA): A strong start in Syracuse and Stamkos’ injury led to Brown seeing significant action in Tampa Bay last season. He boasts a varied skill set which gives him the ability to fill in on any line, log big minutes or step in as a checking-line winger. Next year is likely to be spent as a proving ground for Brown — at either the NHL or AHL level — that he is the long-term solution in such a versatile role.

You can follow Erin Brown on Twitter @rinkside or email her at erinbrownfla@gmail.com.