Each week ESPN Florida will highlight three prospects in the Tampa Bay Lightning organization making an impact for their respective teams. This week’s stars come from three different countries and play in three different leagues.
This week’s three stars go to:
Riku Helenius, Goaltender, JYP, SM-liiga (Finland)
A somewhat forgotten prospect for the Lightning, Helenius left North America and the AHL’s Norfolk Admirals midway through the 2009-2010 season when the Bolts reassigned him to Sodertalje of the Swedish Elite League. At the time the former 2006 first round pick had fallen to No.3 on the Norfolk depth chart behind Dustin Tokarski and Jaroslav Janus. Helenius spent the season previous to that with five North American teams, including three ECHL clubs and a one-game appearance with the Lightning. It should be noted that Helenius did not allow a goal in that brief appearance with Tampa Bay, meaning he currently leads all Lightning goaltenders in the history of the organization with a save percentage of 1.000.
Last year Helenius struggled with Sodertalje, though he played well in the Kvalserien ES at the end of the year. He frequently battled to get starting time, reminiscent of his one year in the Western Hockey League with Seattle (2007-2008).
Moving to his native Finland this season, he started out in the same situation with JYP before making the most of his opportunities and exploding with three shutouts, two of which were back-to-back last week.
On Friday he shut out TPS in a 2-0 JYP win, stopping 20 shots. He beat former goaltender Marek Schwartz in the match in a battle of former NHL first rounders. Schwartz was the top pick of the St. Louis Blues in 2004.
The next night Helenius stopped 36 shots as JYP snuck by Pori Assat 2-0 with the help of ex-Bolt Eric Perrin, who set up Jani Tuppurainen for the eventual game winner.
For the season, Helenius has a goals against average of 1.65 and a save percentage of .931. He is currently third in the league in GAA and eighth in save percentage.
The Lightning still own his rights and the 6-foot-3 goaltender could play himself into a camp appearance with the Bolts next season if he keeps this up. The key for Helenius will be improving his mental approach to each game and his rebound control.
Mark Barberio, Defenseman, Norfolk, AHL
When Lightning Head Coach Guy Boucher was asked during training camp what part of the organization lacked depth, he quickly responded “defensemen.” Backing up this opinion is the Bolts have signed prospect free agents Charles Landry and Daniel Milan the last two training camps, respectively.
While depth may be an issue, the two top defensemen on the Lightning farm, Mark Barberio and Radko Gudas, are making an impact this season.
Barberio, the former finalist for the defenseman of the year award in the QMJHL with Moncton, has taken off in this, his second professional season with the Admirals. He is leading the AHL in scoring among blueliners with two goals and 10 points in 10 games. He had 31 points (nine goals) in 68 games in his first pro season with Norfolk.
Gudas is tied for eighth among defensemen in the AHL with six points in 10 games.
Last week Barberio had a goal and three assists in three games. All of his assists came in a shootout win over Adirondak against the Phantoms.
In training camp Norfolk Head Coach Jon Cooper praised both Barberio and Gudas, but was quick to point out both have a long way to go before being NHL-ready. It’s clear – at least statistically – that Barberio is on the right path.
The former sixth round pick (2008) has improved his skating and has decent size at 6-foot-1. With Boucher prioritizing puck retrieval over size, he certainly has a chance to make a future impact with the Bolts and could be a point machine when that happens.
Nikita Kucherov, Right Wing, CSKA, MHL (Russia)
Kucherov’s draft stock skyrocketed last year when he scored 21 points (11 goals) in seven games for Russia at the U-18 World Championships. The Lightning grabbed him in the second round of the 2011 draft and was satisfied with his projected development path in Russia’s top league, the KHL.
Kucherov started the season with CSKA’s KHL club, but after scoring just one assist and seeing his ice time decrease, he started making the trip between juniors (MHL) and the big club. That continued for a few games before CSKA decided to leave him in juniors where he’d get ample ice time.
In addition to that increased ice time, he’s also getting ample points.
Kucherov is averaging two points per game with the junior club, and is nearly on a goal-per-game pace. He has 24 points (11 goals) in a dozen games, proving his U-18 performance was no fluke.
This past week he had seven points in three games, starting with a one goal one assist game against Stupino on Tuesday. He followed that up with another one-and-one game Thursday against Khabarovsk Jr. Those two teams played again Friday and Kucherov didn’t score, but set up three goals. In the two-game set against Khabarovsk Jr. he had five points, 10 shots, and a plus-5 rating.
The slick Russian has elite-level scoring skills, but has to put muscle on his 5-foot-11 frame before making the trek to North America. If there’s a worry, it’s if Kucherov will be “too good” to come over for a reasonable price when he’s ready. That, and developing an efficient two-way game outside of North America.
Vladislav Namestnikov, Center, London, OHL (Canada)
The Lightning’s top pick in the 2011 draft, Namestnikov is off to a great start with nine goals and 10 assists in 16 games. He had a three game multi-point streak broken on Sunday against Sarnia. Namestnikov had seven points in four games last week to move up to 18th in the league scoring race.
With the talent around Namestnikov in London – the Knights are the Canadian Hockey League’s top ranked team – he’s sure to be on the ESPN Florida three star prospect list soon.
For more Lightning prospect information and daily updates, see ESPN Florida partner Bolt Prospects at www.boltprospects.com.