Prior to the 2010-11 season, the Lightning organization cleaned house, re-shaping their management and on-ice approach in the process. Nowhere was the effect more evident than in Norfolk, where the Admirals had a tremendous bounceback season under first-year coach Jon Cooper.
Cooper’s Admirals played a much more exciting brand of hockey, and it was effective as the team finished tied for second in the AHL in goals scored. Building on the momentum of last season, the Lightning bolstered their prospect depth through several key free agent signings, and will ice an even deeper team in Norfolk this year as a result.
As the new pieces gel, the Admirals could develop into an even more potent offensive team.
Unlike many other AHL teams, the Admirals will rely heavily on their youngsters, including some promising prospects playing their first full season of professional hockey. A trio of the Lightning’s top prospects should provide the bulk of the scoring punch. Carter Ashton has moved on from the Tri-City Americans of the WHL, and is expected to provide great scoring and net front presence. Free-agent signee Tyler Johnson, who was one of the most dynamic scorers in the WHL last season, has the ability to be a great all-around center for the Admirals. Finally, Slovakian Richard Panik should add a high level of skill to the mix in his first full professional season.
Veterans Michel Ouellet, Matt Fornataro and Alexandre Picard will be expected to provide leadership in addition to strong secondary scoring. Former Penguin, Oullet has 190 games of NHL experience under his belt, including a 48 point season. Fornataro is the second leading returning scorer from last year’s team, coming off a season in which he totaled 42 points. A former 8th overall draft, Picard has been unable to break through at the NHL level, but did pile up 46 points last year for the San Antonio Rampage, including a team high 24 goals.
Other players of importance to this team are Dana Tyrell, James Wright, and Cory Conacher. Conacher, a four-year player at Canisius College, was a training camp invitee, and played well enough to secure a position with the Admirals. Tyrell played all of last season with Tampa Bay, and proved useful in his third line role. He should provide excellent depth scoring for the Admirals this season. Wright is the Admiral’s leading returning scorer with 47 points. Wright blossomed offensively after spending the prior season playing NHL hockey.
Trevor Smith, Mike Angelidis, Pierre-Cedric Labrie, and J.T. Wyman also provide the team with a wealth of minor league experience. Labrie is one of the rougher forwards on the team, who, along with Angelidis, are expected to drop the gloves to stand up for their teammates.
Other players of interest are Ondrej Palat and Philip-Michael Devos. Both will presumably make their debuts with the Admirals at some point this season. These players each had over 96 points playing the QMJHL league last season. With the incredible wealth of scoring ability in Norfolk, expect strong internal competition throughout the season, as players seek to take full advantage of their opportunities to play.
At 29-years-old Richard Petiot is by far the elder statesman amongst the blueliners. Counted on as both as stabilizing presence and a veteran leader, Petiot will be a linchpin in the Admirals lineup.
The two most exciting defensemen, 21-year-old youngters, Radko Gudas and Mark Barberio, draw fans out of their seats for very different reasons. Gudas has already developed a reputation as one of the best open-ice hitters in the league and Barberio has emerged as the de facto powerplay quarterback.
Of the remaining blueliners, Mike Vernace has been the most productive. The mercurial Kevin Quick appears to be getting another shot after again having an up and down season. Jeff Dimmen, a standout at the University of Maine, will begin his first full year of professional hockey and can pick up some of the slack offensively if called upon. A free-agent signee out of the QMJHL, Charles Landry has good offensive instincts for a blueliner, but will miss the early part of the season with an injury. Rounding out the defensive corps, Trevor Ludwig comes over from the Dallas Stars system where he was a contributor in a depth role last season.
On paper, the Admirals defensive corps is not as strong as the forward group. The success of the blue line this year will depend heavily on the progression of the youngsters, and continued contribution from the older players.
It appears that Dustin Tokarski will again begin the season as the Admirals go-to netminder. Tokarski struggled in the early going last season, but recovered with a strong second half. Should he struggle to begin the season, Jaroslav Janus will need to take on a larger role. Janus did not have a stellar year last year, spending most of his time playing with the Everblades in the ECHL.
If the top two goaltending options under-perform, Ferris State product Pat Nagle is waiting in Florida.
After going through three coaches in 2009-10, Cooper proved a steady leader for the team last season. Cooper was adept at implementing the up-tempo, high-paced system installed by Guy Boucher with Tampa Bay.
Cooper has coached in several international competitions, something that helps maximize the abilities of highly-skilled European forwards. Kevin Quick was a player many pundits expected to blossom under Cooper, but instead it has been the forwards that have really thrived in his system. Expect this trend to continue this year, as the Admirals are once again very deep up front.
The Lightning have moved several of their key prospects up to Norfolk this season, which may place a heavy emphasis on Cooper to do more teaching than winning. But, if he is successful in developing the young talent, winning should soon follow.
A system that has been devoid of talent for a long period of time, the Lightning have slowly worked their way towards respectability by not rushing draft picks to the NHL and making several timely free agent signings.
Brett Connolly had a particularly strong camp with the Lightning and will start the season with the big club. Connolly has put on a lot of muscle in the past year and is expected to stick with Tampa Bay through the season. The former sixth overall pick is an extremely talented offensive player, but may struggle to break into the Lightning’s top six forwards this year due to their excellent depth.