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Top Offseason Stories To Watch: AHL Leaders

by Clune Walsh / Tampa Bay Lightning

The Los Angeles Kings hoisting the Stanley Cup Monday night can only mean two things.

First, that the 2011-12 NHL season is officially over, and second, that the 2012-13 season is rapidly approaching.

What some in the hockey world might not know is that while the New Jersey Devils were just beginning to make the Stanley Cup Final appear interesting in Game 5, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s top affiliate in the American Hockey League were putting the finishing touches on their 6-1 Game 4 victory over the Toronto Marlies to capture the Calder Cup championship.

The result was a culmination of all the dedication several Lightning prospects put in this past season, developing one step further in order to make the jump to the NHL next season.

This past season for the AHL prospects was, in many ways, indeed a memorable one.

The team consisted of mostly rookies; rookies that didn’t just play well above expectations, but led the team through the 2012 AHL Calder Cup Playoffs. The youthful squad finished the regular season on an unprecedented 28-game winning streak and continued its success during the postseason, winning their final 10 consecutive games as a prelude to a championship.

That said, the Lightning organization is more than excited with the success of their minor leaguers, and they very-well should be.

Forwards Ondrej Palat, Richard Panik, and Alexander Killorn as well as defenseman Mark Barberio were all instrumental in the championship run, while the tandem of goaltenders Dustin Tokarski and Jaroslav Janus was more than solid in net combining for a 1.61 goals against average in the playoffs.

Coming off their recent success, a select few of these players are now showing signs of perhaps being ready to make the jump to the NHL for the upcoming 2012-13 season.

Barberio, for instance, served as the example of premier defensive talent in the AHL this past season. Drafted as the 152nd overall pick in 2008 by the Bolts, Barberio led all AHL defensemen in scoring and was named the 2012 AHL Defensive Player of the Year Award in just his second professional season.

With the success of the farm club, the Lightning front office has proved it has a keen eye for young talent, including those that, believe it or not, were overlooked by all 30 NHL clubs.

Trevor Smith, Cory Conacher, Tyler Johnson and Pierre- Cedric Labrie were all nothing short of sensational during not only the regular season, but the postseason as well. All were also undrafted.

Smith finished with the second-most points on the team with 69 in total. He spent his first five AHL seasons with three different teams while having relatively moderate success. This past season, though, was by far his best, as he reached career-high totals in not only points, but also in plus/minus, with which he led the league with a final rating of +34.

Smith, however, isn’t the only Lightning prospect beginning to reach his potential.

Labrie was also a staple for the Lightning affiliate this past season. The daunting 6-foot-2 winger was called up to play in 14 games for the Bolts during a stretch in January and then again during the playoff push in March. Labrie posted solid numbers in the AHL, finishing the regular season with 14 goals and 35 points.

While Smith and Labrie were impressive, but it was another Lightning prospect that stood out most during the past AHL season.

Conacher, 22, led the AHL in goals scored with 39. He also notched 41 assists, giving him a team-leading 80 points for the regular season. Just for good measure, Conacher was named both AHL Rookie of the Year and AHL MVP.

Often overlooked because of his 5-foot-8 stature, Conacher made his presence known rather quickly this past fall in Lightning training camp, according to Lightning Player Development Coach Steve Thomas, Conacher has all the tools to play in the NHL.

Thomas, like Conacher, was also not given much attention in his respective draft due to his below-average height, but went on to play 20 years in the NHL and finished with 933 career points.

With the plethora of thriving prospects, the Lightning have to be thankful for the sudden youthful streak that has emerged within the organization.

Now, however, it’s up to these young, up-and-coming hopefuls to shape the future of the team.

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