Lightning 2008 training camp preview

By Vic Alvira

The total reconstruction of the Tampa Bay Lightning during the 2007-08 offseason has made their training camp one to watch. The departure of Dan Boyle, Filip Kuba, Brad Lukowich and Alexander Picard present a heated battle for the eager defensemen prospects in the organization. The Lightning signed and acquired in trades numerous forwards in the 2007-08 offseason. It seems unlikely any rookie forward, besides highly-touted prospect Steven Stamkos, has a shot to make the club.

Forwards

Seen Stamkos? That’s the slogan that has been paraded around the Tampa Bay area all offseason. People will be seeing plenty of Stamkos for the Lightning in the 2008-09 season. He is a sure bet to be on the team and will probably fill their second line center void left by Brad Richards.

Beyond Stamkos, no other forward prospects are expected to crack the Tampa Bay lineup for the start of the 2008-09 season. Still, there are a few interesting names to keep an eye on during Tampa Bay’s training camp, like Blair Jones and Radek Smolenak. They will likely spend the 2008-09 season in Norfolk of the AHL. Both could earn call-ups to the Lightning during the season if injuries occur. Jones has seen NHL action before in both the 2006-07 and 2007-08 seasons. The gritty center has held his own in his 24 NHL games. Smolenak improved immensely in the 2007-08 season. If he can continue that success into the 2008-09 season for Norfolk, he could increase his chances to get a taste of the NHL down the line.

Defense

Tampa Bay completely overhauled its defensive corps during the 2007-08 offseason. This leaves an opportunity for many defensive prospects to have a chance to make the big club. With the departure of Kuba and Picard in the Andrej Meszaros deal, two spots now remain up for grabs.
Lightning rookies battling for those two spots include Matt Smaby, Vladimir Mihalik, Andy Rogers and Ty Wishart. They will also receive competition from other defensemen in the Lightning organization. That list includes recent Lightning prospect graduate Mike Lundin as well as Janne Niskala and Andrew Hutchinson. Lundin could take one of the defensive spots away from the competing rookies due to playing in 81 games in the 2007-08 season for Tampa Bay. Since he was only 22 when signing his contract, Lundin could have avoided waivers if he played less than 70 games. Tampa Bay could risk losing him on waivers if they were to send him down to the minors at this point.

The rookie frontrunners to claim the bottom pairing defensive spots are Smaby and Mihalik. Smaby made the Lightning out of camp in the 2007-08 season, but only lasted four games before being sent to Norfolk. The hard hitting defenseman saw success at the end of the 2007-08 campaign for the Bolts upon his recall. His NHL experience should give him the upper hand in grabbing a spot on the Lightning. Mihalik is starting to come into his own after a successful season for Norfolk in 2007-08. He logged major minutes for the Admirals and has progressed nicely throughout his career.  With a strong showing in camp, Mihalik could leapfrog Smaby and be inserted into the Tampa Bay lineup. If not, he will return to Norfolk for further seasoning.

Rogers could be a dark horse to find his way into the Tampa Bay defensive mix. If Rogers can bring that same play to Tampa Bay’s training camp, the former 2004 first rounder might surprise everyone and claim a spot on the team. Wishart will have a chance to battle for a spot in training camp. The newly-acquired defenseman is a long shot to make the Lightning for the 2008-09 season, so he is probably destined for Norfolk.

Goalies

The goaltending tandem is in place for the 2008-09 season. Mike Smith will be the starter, with veteran Olaf Kolzig as the backup. Karri Ramo will start the year in Norfolk, but will certainly be called upon in case of injury or if the current tandem does not pan out. Ramo played with the Lightning for 22 games in the 2007-08 season. He gained valuable experience and noticeable improvement from game to game. Another goaltending prospect to keep an eye on is Riku Helenius. Helenius will be battling heavily at camp to showcase he is worthy to earn a spot in Norfolk, after spending last season with Seattle of the WHL.