The Admirals finished fourth in the East Division of the Eastern conference last season with a 39-35-3-3 record. They finished two points behind the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, missing the playoffs for the third straight season.
Significant personnel and management changes should provide the team the team a fresh start and a new outlook this season, hoping to build on last season’s late success under coach Jim Johnson.
The Admirals have a lot of new faces this year, but one key returning player is Juraj Simek, who was tied for second on the team last season with 21 goals. Simek, only 22 years of age, will be expected to increase his production even more this season, and shoulder much of the load offensively. Fellow returning forwards Mitch Fadden, Mitch Fritz, Blair Jones and Paul Szczechura are all expected to assume important roles this year. Fadden is explosive with the puck on his stick, and will be one of the players expected to assume an increased role, filling the void left by the departure of veteran scorer Brandon Bochenski.
While the Admirals do expect to ice a much deeper lineup this season, AHL rookies Alex Hutchings, Niklas Persson and James Wright should add significant scoring punch to the lineup. Wright surprised a lot of people last season when he made the Lightning straight out of Juniors as 19 year old. Nevertheless, he will begin this season in the AHL where he will get the chance to more fully develop offensively. Persson should bring an interesting offensive dynamic to this team. At age 31, Persson is a veteran of the Swedish Elite League and also had success in the KHL last season scoring 37 points in 55 games. Hutchings, a promising 19-year-old from the OHL, registered 47 goals last season, good for fourth in the league.
Newcomers Mike Angelidis, Alex Berry, and Stefano Giliati are expected to fill depth roles with the Admirals. Angelidis was quite versatile for the Albany River Rats last season, showing limited scoring ability in addition to a willingness to play an aggressive, physical style. Berry and Giliati both come over from the Toronto Marlies, where they also served depth roles. Giliati had great success in a brief stint in the ECHL, but has yet to translate that to the AHL level. Berry, a former UMass-Amherst Minuteman, should slide in nicely to a checking line role. The UMass-Amherst graduate has good size, and a demonstrated willingness to mix it up with his opponents.
It will remain to be seen whether forwards Chris Durno, Johan Harju or Nate Thompson will be able to stick with the Lightning out of camp this year. All three of these players would provide a significant boost to the Admirals scoring punch. Harju, in his first year of North American hockey is particularly interesting, given his combination of size and ability.
Despite their collective youth, the Admirals defensemen possess a lot of interesting attributes. Former first-rounder Ty Wishart continues to blossom offensively, but must work this year to become better in the defensive zone.
Vladimir Mihalik and Scott Jackson will both be back in Norfolk, continuing to provide a physical presence on the backend. In the past, both defensemen struggled with their skating, and need to either improve in this area, or become better with their anticipation and positioning.
The Admirals will have some interesting new faces on the blue line. Mark Barberio and Radko Gudas both had very productive junior careers. Gudas, despite being only 5’11, has a reputation of being very difficult to play against, and is a very sturdy 192 pounds. Barberio, a productive offensive defenseman from QMJHL, should be able to step in a contribute right away on the powerplay.
Kevin Quick and Mike Vernace have struggled with anything more than a depth role. Quick showed up to camp this year in subpar shape and is in danger of being demoted to the ECHL. Vernace has struggled in the preseason, too often getting beat defensively.
The Admirals return both of their 20-year-old goalies from last season. Dustin Tokarski is the presumed starter and will look to build on a solid 2009-10 rookie season, where he posted a 27-25-3 record in 55 starts. Jaroslav Janus will look to improve his consistency as he will try to wrench the starting job away from Tokarksi. Cedric Desjardins, a four-year veteran of the AHL, is still in camp while Lightning starter Mike Smith is out with a broken finger. Desjardins had a very solid season last year for the Hamilton Bulldogs, but may ultimately end up behind Tokarski on the depth chart.
The Admirals will have their fourth coach in less than a year. However, the Lightning’s new management fully expects new head coach Jon Cooper to continue his coaching success at the AHL level. Cooper posted an impressive 84-27-9 record over two seasons as the head coach of the Green Bay Gamblers in the USHL, good for consecutive regular season championships.
Former Admiral Mike Flanagan will be the assistant coach. Flanagan most recently was coaching the Wichita Falls Wildcats of the NAHL.
Top prospects in camp this season, for the most part, performed very well. Brett Connolly, Carter Ashton, Dan Tyrell, Richard Panik, Dustin Tokarski, and Ty Wishart were the youngsters looking to make an impression in camp this year.
Connolly, an 18-year-old who played only 16 games in junior last year because of injury, showed his advanced hockey instincts throughout the preseason. He was particularly impressive during the team’s inter-squad scrimmage on a line with Steven Stamkos and Marty St. Louis. The fact he played only 16 games will probably be the determining factor in him being returned to the Prince George Cougars of the WHL.
Connolly’s fellow junior prospects Carter Ashton and Richard Panik were also sent back to junior. Ashton impressed management with his size and speed, but without a promise of consistent minutes, it was important that Ashton return to the Regina Pats to continue working towards becoming an elite power forward. Panik was provided some glimpses of scoring ability in camp playing on a line with Adam Hall and James Wright. The Slovakian forward created several chances for himself, including a two-goal game in the Black-White scrimmage.
Dana Tyrell, a former second-round pick, came into camp looking to improve on his first season of professional hockey. He has impressed management and is still with the team. His gritty, mature game should provide the Lightning with a quality third-line wing with the potential to contribute solid secondary scoring.
Tokarski and Wishart have both been sent back to Norfolk. Wishart is expected to continue working on his defensive instincts. Had it not been for a crowded blue line in Tampa, there was a good chance Wishart would have cracked the big club’s roster this season. Tokarski has looked sharp in the preseason but nevertheless, the additions of Dan Ellis and Cedric Desjardins make it unlikely the 20-year-old netminder would be anywhere but Norfolk to start the season.
Article was written by John Henry Schroeder.