The new affiliate of the Tampa Bay Lighting kicked off its season with less than a bang, and ended 2007 with a whimper. In mid-November, the Norfolk Admirals seemed to find some chemistry by stringing together a four-game winning streak. They played well despite losing veteran center Craig MacDonald to the parent club. Center Blair Jones stepped it up and joined the first two lines. He played remarkably well with wingers Norm Milley and Karl Stewart during that winning period.
However, after losing defenseman Vladimir Mihalik for a month with an injury, and starting goalie Karri Ramo to Tampa Bay, Norfolk (10-21-1-2) broke a franchise record losing eight in a row. Goalie Jonathan Boutin has stepped into Ramo’s place. After returning from the ECHL, he has continued to struggle in net. Many of his losses are from allowing unnecessary goals and being unable to bounce back from costly errors. He has lost his last nine appearances this season.
Special teams have not fared well either. The team is near the bottom in penalty killing, ranked 21st in the league. However, they are slightly better on the power play, and find themselves 16th in the league. Although it sounds bleak for the squad, many prospects are making strides.
Jones (6 goals, 13 assists) has become coach Steve Stirling’s top center; he will continue to be the go-to guy and play 25 minutes per game. With 75 games of AHL experience, Jones has adjusted very well to pressure situations. He was recalled to the Lightning last this month, but played only sparingly. The exposure to practicing with players at the NHL level will help prepare him for his next visit. With that said, Stirling believes that Jones is one of his best players and will put him into even more pressure situations for the duration of the season. It might have been different altogether if center Craig MacDonald and winger Mathieu Darche remained, Jones would have been deeper on the depth chart. He would have been gradually exposed to circumstances that are only reserved for veterans and junior players. But as it is, he will be used in situations that are more critical during the game such as winning key face offs and first power-play units.
Left winger Justin Keller never fully recovered from his ankle injury he suffered last year with Springfield. Prior to his injury, he was playing solidly with the Falcons. He was sixth on the team in goals and had 24 points in 60 games. This season he has been inconsistent, but is coming back. He only notched one point in October, but recorded six points in November and eight points in December. Stirling pointed out that Keller has to work on his speed and physical strength in order to battle better down low and along the wall. Another key to Keller’s success is his work ethic. He is the type of player that a coach will never question on effort.
Matt Smaby‘s two-month stint with big club has really helped his confidence. Separating Smaby from the pack is his ability to admit mistakes and correct them. If he gets more ice time and improves on penalty killing, he should earn his way back. Smaby has some offensive game; last season, he recorded 16 points, but has just four this season. Expect to seem him in a bigger role in the second half for Norfolk.
Meanwhile, second-year pro Andy Rogers is vying for a spot. He had a good camp this year, but there was enough depth in defense to keep him on the bench. He was sent to the ECHL affiliate, Mississippi Sea Wolves for four games. Stirling emphasized that like Smaby, Rogers needs more ice time and to get more touches. After being recalled, Rogers has returned as the seventh defenseman. Since his return, he has played five of the last seven games.
Vladimir Mihalik had played very well in his first 22 games until he was sidelined with a groin injury for a month. He was playing every night, taking a regular shift and was killing half of every penalty. He struggled with decisions with the puck, which will come with more experience and maturity. The 20-year-old returned to the line-up in late December.
New addition Mario Scalzo has struggled since he was traded from Dallas for Bryce Lampman in November. He is still finding his place. With Iowa this season, he played 15 games and notched 9 points, versus 6 points in 17 games with the Admirals. He is an offensive player, he can skate, but he needs to work on becoming a better defensive player. He is getting a regular shift and seeing half of every power play.
"The Norfolk Admirals will never see Karri Ramo again," said Stirling. "Because he’s good, he is where he belongs."
For the butterfly goalie, that location is Tampa Bay. Until his call-up, the netminder was playing well. He bounced back from an eight-week absence with a sprained ankle. When he returned, his performance over the next for games proved solid. In six games with Norfolk, he was 2-4 with a GAA of 3.33. Last year, Ramo spent time with the parent club and believed that he should remain there. As a rookie last season, he backed Johan Holmqvist in the first game of the playoffs because of Marc Denis’ dismal start. With the veteran finally out of the picture, and clearing waivers, Ramo should remain in Tampa.
Jonathan Boutin will take Ramo’s starting role in Norfolk. He has lost his last nine starts (GAA 3.51). Besides inheriting a slumping team, his lack of focus following a goal shakes him and he usually cannot recover. Stirling says he shows signs of brilliance. The coach is not giving up on Boutin, and will continue to work on his confidence and giving him needed ice time to build him up.
Rookie Ryan Munce has also seen time in net for Norfolk, posting the best GAA and save percentage among the six goaltenders they’ve used. Munce had a 2.99 GAA and .901 save percentage in nine games before being reassigned to Mississippi.