Similar to their parent club, the Norfolk Admirals endured a facelift going into the 2008-09 season. But just like the Lightning, the Admirals are not seeing much success from their lineup. The Admirals currently sit at 13-18-1-4, in last place in the East Division.
A bright spot offensively for Norfolk has been the play of their top line consisting of Radek Smolenak, Paul Szczechura and Brandon Segal. The strong play of Szczechura and Smolenak has earned them recalls to the Lightning.
Smolenak, Tampa’s 2005 third-round pick, struggled in his AHL career up until the end of the 2007-08 season. Since that time, he has been revitalized and become quite a force for the Admirals. Smolenak put together eight goals and 10 assists in 23 games for Norfolk before his recall to Tampa Bay on December 1. While in Tampa Bay, Smolenak posted one assist and 10 penalty minutes in six games. His new hard-nosed play and superb ability to protect the puck along the boards earned him respectable minutes with Tampa Bay. Smolenak was reassigned to Norfolk on December 14 due to the return of Lightning center Jeff Halpern. The reassignment has not slowed the big prospect down, as he has put together four goals in his first three games since returning to the Admirals. He now has 23 points in 29 games and 98 penalty minutes.
Szczechura, signed by Tampa Bay as an unrestricted free agent in 2008, has been phenomenal. He is an extremely intelligent player who brings a high-energy attitude to a team with his speed and tenacious forechecking and backchecking. He also has a knack for making the players around him better. Szczechura has accumulated 11 goals and 13 assists in 23 games for Norfolk. He earned a recall to Tampa Bay on December 1 where he has been an excellent checking line forward, putting up two goals and four points in his 14 games in the NHL.
Steve Downie and Blair Jones are having respectable 2008-09 seasons. Downie, who was acquired from Philadelphia along with Steve Eminger and a 2009 fourth-round pick for Matt Carle and a 2009 third-round draft pick, has been a valuable asset to the Admirals. He produced six assists in his first six games with Norfolk until being recalled to Tampa Bay on November 27. While with the Lightning, Downie put up one goal in eight contests before being reassigned back to Norfolk on December 12. Besides a three-game suspension on November 21, Downie has kept his hot-tempered nature in check and has provided a much needed offensive spark to the Admirals. He now has 19 points in 14 games on the season in the AHL.
Jones struggled at the beginning of the season for the Admirals. The center was only able to put up one goal and eight points in his first 17 games. He has hit a nice stride since that time — five goals and 15 points in his next 19 games. The physical center is steadily developing, and could afford to show some more consistent play as the 2008-09 season progresses.
Justin Keller and Juraj Simek round out the Tampa Bay forward prospects playing in Norfolk. Keller continues to struggle at the professional level. He has only put up four goals and seven points in his 19 games while with the Admirals. He turned it on in December, where all four of his goals and six of his seven points were accumulated. Simek, who was acquired from the Vancouver Canucks, has had trouble at the professional level as well. He has posted four goals and nine points in 28 games for the Admirals. Both players need considerable time in the AHL.
The defensive corps in Norfolk has had a tough time. The Lightning brought in veterans Jamie Heward and Andrew Hutchinson to help groom the young defensemen in Norfolk. They have ended up playing the bulk of the minutes in the early parts of the season. Heward has since been recalled to Tampa where he was injured, and Hutchinson traded to the Dallas Stars for Lauri Tukonen. As a result of these moves, the bulk of the workload has been handed down to the younger players on defense.
Ty Wishart and Matt Smaby have been steady for the Admirals. In his first full year in the AHL, Wishart is not lighting up the scoreboard as he did in juniors, but is playing sound defense and improving steadily throughout the season. Wishart currently sits at one goal and three points in 31 games. He also possesses a +2 rating, which is good enough for second among defensemen who have played at least 20 games with Norfolk. Wishart was called up to Tampa today on an emergency basis.
Smaby brings a strong physical presence to the Admirals, playing a smart defensive game. Smaby has been strong on the puck and has not been afraid to use his size in throwing hits against the opposition. He has seen five games for the Lightning this season, putting up one assist. While with Norfolk, he has six points, and a -2 rating in 25 games. Smaby plays a simple game, and with his confidence growing is beginning to make smarter decisions while playing. He eventually should be a mainstay in Tampa Bay’s top six.
Vladimir Mihalik, Andy Rogers, Scott Jackon and Kevin Quick are the other defensive prospects playing for Norfolk right now. Mihalik started his season with the Lightning, but after two games found himself reassigned to the Admirals. In his second professional season, the former 2005 first round pick is showing steady improvement. Mihalik gets caught periodically in bad positioning and tends to be too passive when facing the opposition. He does make quick decisions with the puck as well as posses a huge shot. When he uses his big frame to his advantage, the young prospect is quite a weapon for the Admirals. Mihalik currently has two goals and eight points, and is a -6 in 28 games for Norfolk.
Rogers has had his fair share of struggles in his professional career, mostly with injuries. Fortunately, Rogers has not run into any significant injury concerns up to this point of the current season for the Admirals. His play on the other hand has been average so far. Rogers has put up only two assists in 30 games. Granted, he is not an offensive minded defenseman, but his -9 rating is a cause for concern.
Jackson has returned from a three-game stint in the ECHL to get more ice time and confidence. He had played sparingly for the Admirals up to that point. He has one point in 18 games.
Quick played most of the year with the ECL Augusta Lynx, but has stayed with Norfolk since Augusta folded. He has no points in 10 games.
Karri Ramo has had a very disappointing season up to this point for the Admirals. After having previous seasons of success at the AHL level, he is seeing his fair share of struggles. The defense in front of him is doing Ramo little favors, which accounts for some of the problem for the young Finnish goaltender. Previously when Ramo has been behind a mediocre defense, he has still found a way to steal games. He has not done that regularly this year. Ramo still gives up rather large rebounds, but is increasingly controlling them and improving on that aspect of his game. He has appeared in one NHL game for Tampa Bay this season in relief, and gave up two goals in 28 minutes played. For his season in Norfolk, Ramo stands at a 7-11-4 record with a 3.62 GAA and a .887 save percentage.