A look down the list of AHL scoring leaders as November gives way to December features a lot of familiar names. There are a bunch of guys with NHL experienceJordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Brayden Schenn, and Nino Niederreiter among them. Justin Schultz became famous as a highly sought after free agent in the summer.
And then there's Tampa Bay's Tyler Johnson, a player of significantly different pedigree.
As of November 30, Johnson was in the top five in total points scored and the league leader in goals with 13 through 17 contests. He was never a highly-touted prospect; in fact, he was never even drafted. And he's one of several low-profile, undrafted free agents excelling for the Tampa Bay Lightning's farm team in Syracuse.
The most famous of these players is Cory Conacher. The diminutive Conacherlisted at 5'8", 179 poundssurprised many last year by leading the AHL in goals and winning the league's MVP award as a rookie professional. Conacher had spent his amateur career with little-known Canisius College and at the end of 2010-11 got a little bit of professional experience, picking up six points in seven games between the AHL affiliates of Buffalo and Nashville. That brief run wasn't enough to secure a roster spotConacher had to settle that summer for a training camp invitation with Tampa Bay.
The Lightning did not sign Conacher out of training camp, but they did assign him to their AHL affiliate in Norfolk, where he played under a two-way contract. By March, with 30 goals and 64 points through 57 contests, Tampa Bay made the decision to sign him to two-year entry-level contract.
In some ways, there are echoes of Conacher in Johnson. Like last year's AHL MVP, Johnson's size has always worked against him in professional hockeythe AHL lists him at 5'10", 183 pounds, while other sites suggest he's an inch shorter and 10 pounds lighter. He was never drafted. Unlike Conacher, Johnson went the WHL route, playing four seasons with his hometown Spokane Chiefs. He was a late bloomer, with decent numbers over his career but nothing exceptional until 2010-11, when he recorded 53 goals and 115 points through 71 contests.
The Lightning signed Johnson to a three-year entry-level deal in March of that year. While Conacher's stunning performance took the lion's share of the attention in 2011-12, Johnson too had a memorable debut, scoring 31 times and finishing with 68 points in 75 games. He would play a key role in the playoffs as well, scoring at a point-per-game pace for Norfolk.
Individual successes, such as those of Conacher and Johnson, were strong stories but very much the subplot to Norfolk's 2011-12 season. Most of the attention was on the Admirals' successes at the team level. In 2011-12, the club set a professional hockey record with 28 consecutive victories, and unsurprisingly went on win the league championship in the spring. Tampa Bay changed their affiliation from Norfolk to Syracuse over the summer, and the early results have been impressive there, too: a 12-3-1-1 start to the season, and the second-most points in the league through November 30.
Conacher, Johnson, and a trio of Lightning draft picksBrett Connolly, Richard Panik, and Ondrej Palatlead the team in scoring, but other undrafted free agents play important roles with the club.
J.T. Brown, the son of former NFL running back Ted Brown, was a highly-prized college free agent last March and earned five games with Tampa Bay. An undersized scorer with great wheels, Brown appeared in five NHL contests with the Lightning to close out 2011-12. He has 10 points through 13 AHL contests in his first full professional season, but other areas of his game have also impressed head coach Jon Cooper:
"He's a tough, gritty kid. I didn't know how gritty he is. He won't bow out of an altercation in the corner. He lays out and blocks shots."
Another Lightning signee is a very different sort of player. Defenseman Dmitry Korobov stands 6'2" and weighs 236 pounds. The 23-year-old agreed to terms with Tampa Bay in August after playing the previous two seasons in the KHL; despite his youth, he has also twice represented Belarus at the World Championships. His +12 plus/minus is the best number on the team and he adds a physical element to the blue line. Cooper sees the benefits of Korobov's professional experience, complimenting the "discreet, savvy plays" that he makes.
Danick Gauthier has been somewhat less successful; he has just a lone goal over his six AHL games this season, but even so, he was an interesting gamble for the Lightning. Another late bloomer, Gauthier spent most of his career in a checking line role in the QMJHL before emerging as a scorer last season. The 6'2" forward outscored high-end prospects like Jonathan Huberdeau, Zack Phillips, and Tomas Jurco for the Saint John Sea Dogs in 2011-12, leading the team with both 47 goals and 86 points. Like the others, Tampa Bay picked him up for nothing over the summer. On a stacked team in a stacked AHL, Gauthier has not yet been able to have a major impact but he still has plenty of time.
For many years, the Lightning's amateur procurement department was a disaster. Before the Stamkos selection in 2008, the team's last really successful draft was 1998; they've been through multiple owners, general managers, and scouting chiefs since then. The most recent iteration of the club's front office appears to have things back on track: Corey Pronman ranked the team as having the league's seventh-best group of prospects over the summer, and as we've seen the club has been aggressive in procurement areas outside the draft. Their AHL affiliate not only seems to be doing a good job developing prospects but has been phenomenally successful in the "wins" column, too.
Reasons for optimism go beyond the level of talent in the system or the success of the farm club, however. The team's management has shown a willingness to do smart, unconventional things. Eventually, that's the sort of thing that should pay off at the NHL level.
Jonathan Willis is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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