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This Week's Question: Top Crunch Prospect
With the Syracuse Crunch reaching the AHL Calder Cup Finals and several future Bolts gaining valuable playoff experience, we asked the round table of bloggers which member of that Crunch team do they think will have the biggest impact in a Lightning jersey next season?
This is both a great question, and a difficult question to answer. There are so many talented young players on the Syracuse roster that could make a big impact with the Lightning; choosing just one is nearly impossible. Still, in my opinion, the guy to watch is Brett Connolly.
Simply put, Connolly flourished under Jon Cooper in Syracuse. His play with the Crunch, in both the regular season and playoffs, was consistent and inspiring. With Cooper now at the helm in Tampa, Connolly will enter next season's training camp with a sense of familiarity and comfort. His size, hands, and willingness to make things happen should all be welcomed additions to the Lightning roster.
Early in Norfolk's championship season now Lightning coach Jon Cooper called Richard Panik the Lightning's prospect with the highest upside. Panik brings size, skill, skating, and an agitating style that will compliment the Lightning's current roster perfectly. Panik was already trending up before Syracuse's Calder Finals run, but after his effectiveness on and off the scoresheet, his trending arrow is bigger than ever.
It's hard to say because roster spots aren't assured for all but one player (Radko Gudas). I think Ondrej Palat's potential contribution may the biggest for the Lightning. He's a two way forward with a scoring touch. While I don't expect him to be a league-leader offensively (as he was in the 2013 AHL playoffs), I do think he has the ability to play responsibly as well as chip in on the score sheet.
There are quite a few directions you could go here in terms of which Syracuse player could have success in Tampa in 2013, but one of the things I like to look at is previous experience. Forward Tyler Johnson had six points in 14 games with the big team in 2013, and contributed 21 points in 18 games during the Syracuse Crunch's playoff run that just concluded. He appears to be poised to have a breakout season in 2013. Watching Johnson in his time with the Lightning last season, he always was in the right spot to contribute offensively, and just had high hockey I.Q., which should help pave the way to success in 2013.
I've watched Richard Panik closely during the last two training camps and been very impressed. He did well in his relatively brief stint with the Lightning last season, but now he's coming off an incredible run in the AHL playoffs for Syracuse. I have to believe he's going to show up at camp highly motivated and hungry, especially since the Crunch fell short in their quest for the Calder Cup, and is going to be even more impressive than he was the last two years. I expect him to be the breakout rookie in camp and make immediate contributions to the Lightning when the season begins.
Radko Gudas. Several young forwards (Brett Connolly, Tyler Johnson, Richard Panik, Ondrej Palat) and perhaps another defenseman (Mark Barberio), all of whom saw big league action last season, have the greatest chance of upstaging the affable Czech native but I expect Gudas will build off the invaluable experience he gained over the course of 22 games after earning his first-ever NHL call-up in March. Gudas, who registered 2 goals and 3 assists in that span, played regularly at even-strength (paired most often with Keith Aulie, then Matt Carle) and got some work in killing penalties, too. The 23-year-old made quite the impression before being returned to the Crunch for their playoff run, so much so the Lightning rewarded him with a 3-year, one-way contract in May. Gudas was poised with the puck, which he often moved efficiently in his own end and creatively on the attack, and tenacious (there's probably already enough video to make a highlight reel of his hits at the NHL level) without it. I suspect there will be opportunities for him to cement an even greater role with the club as soon as next season.