The Tampa Bay Lightning hit the ice at the start of the 2007-08 NHL regular season with two first-year players in their line-up. By the end of the season, four rookies would see action for the Lightning. One of the rookies to make the squad out of camp was a poised young physical defenseman who almost made the team the season before, and was expected to make the squad as a sixth or seventh defenseman this time around. The other rookie was a college graduate the previous spring, and it was expected that he would start his professional career in the minor leagues, to ease the transition to the big leagues.
One must not underestimate what one strong, consistent training camp can do in the world of professional hockey.
There were two spots up for grabs on the Lightning blue line at the start of the season, after the departure of Cory Sarich in the off-season. Mike Lundin graduated from the Maine Black Bears in the spring of 2007, having signed an entry-level deal with the shortly thereafter.
He was not expected to be in the running for one of those roster spots.
It was expected that the Lightning would ease Lundin into the professional game, largely due to the fact that there was a large number of defensive prospects already in their system, most of whom had also spent time with the Lightning minor league affiliates in the 2006-07 season. Defensemen Matt Smaby, Andy Rogers, and Vladimir Mihalik were anticipated to be likely candidates to secure sixth or seventh defenseman duty for the Lightning entering camp. The Lightning had also stocked their farm system with a cadre of dependable veterans, such as Dan Jancevski, Jay Leach, Bryce Lampman and David Schneider.
Space for Lundin with the new AHL affiliate in Norfolk, let alone with Tampa Bay, was expected to be scant.
Playing without pressure, Lundin impressed early on, bringing to the ice a safe, responsible game, getting involved at both ends of the rink. While making few mistakes of his own, Lundin benefited from his competition not really differentiating themselves from the competition. Doug Janik started strong, but faltered late. Lampman was hit or miss most of the time. Smaby did not take the anticipated next step forward. When the smoke cleared, Lundin had made the Lightning, to the surprise of many.
Lundin appeared in 81 games for the Lightning, averaging just over 13 minutes a game, generally seeing duty of the team’s sixth defenseman. He continued to play the way he played in camp – and the same way he played in college – choosing to make the safe play, and not over-committing himself in the defensive end of the ice. Lundin notched six assists for the Lightning (and was the only rookie Lightning skater to register a point), and posted a very respectable +3 rating for a team that finished dead last in the NHL.
His skill set is still a bit raw, and he could stand to improve his toughness, but Lundin looks like he could develop into a very capable fourth defenseman for the Lightning down the road. He has shown in the past to have a decent offensive game, and given an increase of experience at the NHL level, perhaps Lundin will be given more of a chance to display those other aspects of his game.
Another rookie defenseman made the Lightning out of training camp. Matt Smaby was a very late cut by the Lightning in the 2006-07 training camp, and spent his first professional season as one of the more reliable blueliners on the mediocre Springfield Falcons squad last season. Smaby had improved his decision-making and tightened up his physical game over the course of the previous campaign, and was the odds-on favorite to earn a roster spot. He did not stand out in camp, but still made it onto the opening day roster. After a handful of underwhelming games, Smaby was sent down to Norfolk for more seasoning.
After a confident season with Norfolk wherein the hulking blue-liner worked on improving his play in his own end, Smaby was recalled to the Lightning near the end of the season, and looked a completely different player – playing a safe and resourceful game. Smaby went pointless in 14 games, averaging just over 12 minutes per game on the ice.
If Smaby can bring the same kind of responsible play that he showed in his latter stint with the Lightning, there will be little doubt that he will make the team next season, with an increased role on Tampa Bay.
Perhaps the rookie with the brightest future to join the Lightning this past season was Finnish goaltender Karri Ramo. Dubbed the top prospect for the Lightning by Hockey’s Future in the past several incarnations of the team’s top 20 prospects list, Rämo has been on the cusp of joining the Lightning full-time since he began his professional career in North America two years ago. Rämo compiled a very impressive season in his rookie campaign for the abysmal Springfield Falcons – a season in which he stole many games, helping to make the Falcons’ record better than it should have been (and warranting a couple of short-term call-ups to the Lightning in an emergency role in the process).
Rämo was in a heated battle in training camp with veteran netminders Marc Denis and Johan Holmqvist for playing time with the Lightning at the start of the season. The coaching staff decided that Rämo would be better served seeing big minutes manning the crease for Norfolk, and ran with Denis and Holmqvist at the end of camp. The pressure at the NHL level proved to be too much for Denis, and management was left with little option than to promote Rämo to the NHL in place of Denis.
Rämo had missed the bulk of the first half of the 2007-08 regular season for Norfolk with a nagging ankle injury, and had been limited to six games. Still, he had proven that perhaps he was a goaltender who was already above and beyond the AHL level already. Rämo was recalled to serve as Holmqvist’s backup about midway through the season, with the struggling Denis being demoted to Norfolk.
The situation changed at the trade deadline; when Holmqvist was moved in the deal that also sent long-time star forward Brad Richards to the Dallas Stars. This did not alleviate the crease controversy, as returning from the Stars was young goaltender Mike Smith. Smith had been behind veteran Marty Turco, and like Rämo, had not yet been given the opportunity to prove himself at the NHL level. Smith and Rämo proceeded to split starts down the stretch for the Lightning, with neither goaltender showing himself to be better than his competition, likely leading to another battle between goaltenders for the starter’s job next season. Rämo finished the season with a record of 7-11-3, posting a goals against average of 3.03 and a save percentage of .899, for the last-place Lightning.
A fourth Lightning rookie, forward Blair Jones, who had appeared in 20 games during the middle point of the 2006-07 season, saw another short call-up with Tampa Bay. Jones went pointless in four games, and played sparingly, averaging less than two minutes of ice-time a game. Jones still has some work to do on his consistency and his all-around game, and is still a little ways away from the coaching staff entrusting him with full-time duty.
One more rookie was recalled to the Lightning late in the season, but did not see any in-game action. Veteran minor-league goaltender Jonathan Boutin was recalled to Tampa Bay in late March on an emergency basis to serve as the backup for one game after Mike Smith tweaked his knee. Boutin was sent back to Norfolk once Denis cleared re-entry waivers.