Note: This is our first foray into rankings of any kind. Future installments are planned, at this point, for the start, middle and end of each season. To be (hopefully) clear, these rankings are not an assessment of the overall pool of prospects and may be a bit unconventional since only those already under contract (or RFA) are considered and ranked based on a combination of perceived NHL-readiness, potential and recent performance. For comprehensive rankings, see BoltProspects and Hockey’s Future. Let the debate begin!

The Tampa Bay Lightning’s Top-10 Prospects #1-5

1 F J.T. Brown A late-season acquisition, Brown was widely considered the top college free-agent available when he signed. The Lightning were eager to get a look at him before the season ended and so he made his debut, burning off a year on his newly-minted deal.

Brown may have only managed 1 point (an assist) in the brief stint but given the speed, awareness and hustle he displayed as well as the offensive chances he helped create, it would be a shock to learn anybody in the organization was disappointed with what they saw, especially given he finished with 13 SOG, 0 PIM and a +2 rating with steady (even if controlled) ice-time in 5 GP.

He may not be a lock to start next season with the Lightning but it’s very probable he will given the terms of his contract (he’s an RFA after 2012-2013).

2 D Keith Aulie His play was erratic after the Lightning traded Carter Ashton to the Maple Leafs for him but he has been steady, if unspectacular, for Norfolk in the playoffs.

Heading into the Calder Cup Finals, Aulie has played in all the games so far (1 G, 2 A, +5) and hasn’t looked out of place. Barring a disappointing camp or severe struggles early in the season, Aulie should be a fixture on the Lightning blue line next season.

3 D Mark Barberio Barberio had a phenomenal regular season (61 PTS in 74 GP, +28) and has continued producing (2 G, 6 A) during Norfolk’s Calder Cup run.

One might question his ceiling at the next level but it’s not hard to imagine Barberio manning the point for the Lightning in the near future and he looks like a logical choice to replace Marc-Andre Bergeron.

4 G Dustin Tokarski Although Tokarski couldn’t lock down the Lightning’s starting gig when the opportunity presented itself in March, it’s hard to get down on a young goalie who struggles when thrown to the wolves. More telling is how Tokarski has responded since returning to the Ads.

After helping Norfolk close out the regular season on a historic undefeated streak with gaudy numbers in all 5 of his starts, he’s been even more impressive in the playoffs during which he’s been a rock and the difference-maker (8-2, 1.65 GAA and .939 SV%). Tokarski may not be the answer now but he’s giving plenty of reason to believe he will be in the future.

5 F Cory Conacher It has been quite the breakout season (39G, 41A in 75GP) full of praise and accolades for the undrafted forward out of Canisius College, a quick ascension from AHL nobody to MVP and ROY award-winner.

Pint-sized and with the heart of a lion, it is no surprise Conacher has drawn comparisons to Martin St. Louis. So far in the playoffs, he’s only scored once but that isn’t for a lack of opportunities (he’s the team leader in shots-on-goal) and his 8 assists attest to his continued effectiveness.

He’ll have to curb the retaliatory penalties and stay out of the box more at the next level, but you’ve got to admire his feisty, spirited approach. He’s got a warrior mentality and that bodes well for his future, which, right now, looks very bright with this organization. Expect the young forward to get a long look at training camp come fall.

Written by Michael Gallimore

Michael was born, raised and still lives in the Tampa area. His coverage of the Tampa Bay Lightning, the NHL and hockey in general appears at Bolt Statistics (which he founded) and Bolt Prospects (as a staff writer). His analysis and opinions have also been featured at Raw Charge and as part of a “Blogger Roundtable” on the Lightning’s official site.

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