The Tampa Bay Lightning’s primary minor league affiliate in Norfolk, Virginia missed the playoffs once again last season. It was the seventh time in the span of eight seasons that the AHL-level affiliate of Tampa Bay missed the playoffs, however, it was apparent towards the end of the season that the system was moving in a positive direction.
With many of the regulars within the system returning, as well as there having been an influx of reliable minor-league veteran talent into the Admirals, the chances of Norfolk reasserting the successes they have experienced with other pro affiliates is higher than in past seasons. The Admirals should be able to fight their way into the playoffs.
Returning to the Admirals fold this season is Karri Rämo. Rämo is in his third professional season in the Lightning organization, and in the previous two years of his career, he has shown himself to be an asset. In his rookie campaign, many was the game that the Finnish netminder stole for the underachieving Springfield Falcons. While his sophomore season may have gotten off to a mediocre start, as a result of Rämo running into injury trouble, he was given the opportunity to prove himself at the top level, backing up fellow youngster Mike Smith, who was acquired from Dallas in the Brad Richards deal. The Lightning would prefer that their Finnish prospect sees as much playing time as possible, and while he has already proven much at the AHL level, playing time is of utmost importance for his development.
Two formidable opponents, in long-time veteran goaltender Mike McKenna, who spent this past season with the Anaheim affiliate in Portland, and with former Lightning first-round draft pick Riku Helenius, who has suffered through two relatively inconsistent seasons since he was drafted into the Lightning organization, will challenge Rämo for playing time in the Admirals crease. McKenna posted solid numbers with the Pirates last season, and the Lightning management would like to see a big step forward from Helenius, who has suffered through injury and inconsistency in the past two seasons. While Helenius may start in the ECHL for the sake of giving him plenty of playing time, chances are he will be given an opportunity with Norfolk before the season ends.
It was not expected, upon entering Tampa Bay’s training camp, that Matt Smaby would be returning to the Lightning’s minor league affiliate, however, the University of North Dakota product was once again sent down to Norfolk, and will spend at least the early part of the season with Admirals. Smaby was beaten out for a job by former teammate Vladimir Mihalik for a job with the Lightning out of camp, and while he will likely see a couple of call-ups over the course of the season, he will at least start the year with Norfolk. The physical stay-at-homer was a valuable presence on the Norfolk point in the past season, and will play an integral role in the first half of the season.
Ty Wishart, acquired from the San Jose Sharks in the Dan Boyle trade, will be a valuable new addition to the Admirals blue line. Wishart had a breakout offensive season last year with the Prince George Cougars. While the AHL is a definite step up from the Canadian Hockey League, the big-bodied blue-liner should be ready to make a big impact with the Admirals.
Three other Lightning prospects will be in contention for playing time with the Admirals defensive unit. Former top prospect Andy Rogers, who is in the final year of his entry-level contract, will be looking to put together a healthy 2008-09 regular season. The stay-at-homer has been plagued with injuries and inconsistency in his first two professional seasons, and a healthy season where the former Prince George Cougar can bring his brand of safe, physical play to the ice game in, game out, would be beneficial in his warranting another contract in the off-season. Offensive defenseman Kevin Quick, who has had legal troubles since his NCAA ouster, will look to earn a third-pairing role despite still having a raw skill set. Newly-signed defenseman Scott Jackson (a former St. Louis Blues draft pick) will look to add a physical tint to the Admirals blue line.
As far as veterans are concerned, versatile long-time AHLer Jay Rosehill will look to earn some playing time bringing a hard-nosed game to the ice on the back end, while veteran returnees Darryl Boyle and Justin Fletcher will look to earn regular duty,
Blair Jones is in the final year of his entry-level contract for the Lightning. Jones entered the professional ranks having posted an 85-point season in his final year of junior hockey. Despite having appeared in 24 games at the NHL level, Jones has had difficulty establishing himself at the professional level, having difficulty embracing the team aspect of the game that is so inherent in hockey. There is no denying Jones skill set, it is just a matter as to whether he is willing to do all that is necessary to be a well-balanced professional forward. Jones will likely be thrust into a top-six role for the Admirals this season, and he will have to make better use of his line-mates if he is to see his stock rise within the Lightning organization.
Jones will have plenty of veteran help within the Admirals line-up. Tampa Bay and Norfolk have added veteran offensive threats Zenon Konopka and Brandon Bochenski to the offensive mix, both of whom bring a high energy level and excellent drive to the net to the rink every shift. They will be joined by fellow veterans Bracken Kearns and Wyatt Smith up front, bringing improved offensive awareness to the Admirals line-up.
As far as Lightning prospects in the Admirals forward unit are concerned, Justin Keller, who like Blair Jones is in the final year of his entry-level contract, will look to take the next step. Keller has posted a modest 61 points in his first two professional seasons, but will have to display his sniper instincts if he is to warrant another year within the Lightning system next year. He showed in junior that he has excellent drive to the net, and with the likes of Jones, Konopka, and Paul Szczechura setting him up, he will have ample opportunity to fill the net.
As far as the pivot Szczechura is concerned, the pint-sized centerman was given a contract with Tampa Bay in the off-season based largely upon his impressive showing after his mid-season acquisition from the Iowa Stars. Szczechura will bring a hard-nosed, dynamic offensive presence to the table once again for Norfolk, however, the chances of his being lost in the mix this season are increased.
Chris Lawrence, who muddled through an injury-plagued rookie season, will look to establish himself as a regular threat with the Admirals this season. While the gritty, talented forward will likely be reduced to third and fourth line duty (at least early in the season), the OHL product has shown that he can be a potent offensive threat in the past. So long as he remembers his role with the organization, maintains his composure, and keeps things simple, Lawrence can take a strong step forward in this his sophomore season.
Radek Smolenak took a big step forward for the Admirals in the second half of the season, playing alongside Szczechura on the Admirals’ top line. Smolenak had suffered through a year and a half of mendacity, and he will have to show that he has learned how to play at the professional level this year. He will likely be given ample opportunity to re-assume his offensive role. If he flounders yet again, it is quite possible that he could once again see time in the ECHL. However, if he shows the flashes of brilliance like he displayed in the second half of last season, it will be difficult for coach Darren Rumble to keep in buried deep in the line-up. Smolenak took the biggest strides in the organization in the second half of the season, and he will look to build upon his sizable strides.
After having missed the playoffs in seven of the past eight seasons, the Lightning minor league affiliates have suffered through a lengthy dry spell. With a talented netminder, a potent offense, a burgeoning defensive unit, and a couple of teams ahead of them losing much of their top-end talent, the Admirals should be in line for a 75 to 85-point season. Darren Rumble has inherited a talented – if relatively raw – squad, and if he can get the best of the 2007-08 season out of his returnees, and can see his veteran acquisitions produce up to the level they have in past seasons, the Admirals should be able to sneak into the playoffs.