Last year at this time, center was a big question mark for
the Bolts. Only two centers, Vincent
Lecavalier and Brian Holzinger, had achieved even moderate success
at the NHL level. Wayne Primeau,
Ryan Johnson and Steve Martins were being counted on to shoulder
a good part of the load, but had limited experience. By the 2001 entry draft, only Lecavalier and Holzinger
remained in the organization. Nobody
knew how much to expect from Brad Richards last year at this time.
How things have changed.
This season, Lecavalier (pending a contract) and Holzinger
return from last year’s Tier One group to join 2000-01 rookie-star Brad
Richards and a handful of others capable of playing both the pivot and
The organizational depth chart at center can be broken down
into four tiers of impact talent:
Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards, Brian Holzinger, Vaclav Prospal, Juha Ylonen, Tim Taylor.
Leading the group of middle-men that will occupy the Ice
Palace this year is the somewhat enigmatic center Vincent Lecavalier. That is, if and only if he signs his name on
a new contract. Until he does, the
number one center spot will be occupied by his best friend and the team’s best
passer — Brad Richards. Richards
can move to either wing if needed, but his game is more fitted for center. Holzinger
may enter some games as the #2 center, the #4 center, any wing position, or he
could be serving buttered popcorn in the pressbox. This nomad-like positioning is a reflection of both his
versatility and inconsistency. Coach
John Tortorella was more comfortable with Holzinger at center last
season, so expect Holzinger to start there on the fourth line. Holzinger must improve his face-offs
if he is to remain at center.
Speaking of face-offs, GM Rick Dudley thinks he’s found an
answer to one of the team’s most glaring problem spots last season. An early off-season trade for Tim “The
Tool Man” Taylor should solve the Bolts’ late game problems in their own
zone. Taylor may only have a few
tools left in the old toolbox, but they’re needed for this young club. Face-offs and his presence in the young
locker room are needed the most. He’s
already been given an “A” for the corner of his sweater.
Dudley dealt for two other centers – Vaclav Prospal
from Florida, and Juha Ylonen from Tampa’s latest favorite trading
partner, Phoenix. Both are natural
centers, although Ylonen is expected to make his contributions on a
checking wing. Both have showed good
numbers when thrust on scoring lines (Prospal 55 points two years ago, Ylonen
led the 2001 World Championships in scoring), but little offense on checking
lines. Prospal is ineffective
below the second line, as his playmaking and offense-first game serves a
secondary purpose. Ylonen’s
speed and defensive smarts are an asset to the team and he has proven to be an
effective defensive forward on any line if needed.
Martin Cibak, Thomas Ziegler, Alexander Svitov
The second tier is made up of candidates who may commute
back and forth from AHL Springfield to NHL Tampa.
Ziegler had a tiny cup of coffee with the big club
last winter, mainly due to his ability to play the defensive side of the
game. His upside is that of a 4th
line pivot, but is more likely to spend the year contributing in
Springfield. He may ultimately end up
back in Switzerland in the next few years if his game does not develop as
expected. A good checker, Ziegler
failed to show a lot of offense after his fine 1999 World Championship showing. He managed only 8 goals in the IHL last year
and was silent at the 2000 Championships.
Cibak started the year on fire, but quickly cooled
when his teammates began dropping off and dropping out of the
organization. He excelled on a line
with Dmitry Afanasenkov and Nils Ekman, but when Ekman
left for the NHL Cibak’s game took a slight step backwards. A fine playmaker, Cibak will be the
first call-up option at center barring any more additions to the organization.
As for Alexander Svitov, the team’s first pick in the
2001 Entry draft could be playing in Tampa, in Russia, in Springfield, or he
could be playing soldier in the Russian Army.
Where he ends up, nobody knows.
Hopefully, he finds his way to Tampa this year, and not in 2003 when his
sudden commitment to the military service is complete. He’s placed in this grouping because if the
NHL/Lightning win a legal battle to bring him over now, he’ll end up with a
Bolt on his jersey one way or another.
Tier Three is made up of those players who will spend the
year in the North American minor leagues below the AHL level, hoping to receive
recognition while developing their games.
With the Lightning only assigning ten players to
Springfield, there should be a center or two to assign to the ECHL Pensacola
Ice Pilots. However, after Jan Sulc
was given his walking papers, there are no natural centers under contract to
fit in this tier. Thomas Ziegler
could find himself in Pensacola if another center is added to Springfield via
waivers or Russia (Svitov).
Johan Hagglund, Alexander Polushin, Jean-François Soucy
Tier Four is made up of the Bolts’ junior and European
After trading up to grab Hagglund in the 2000 draft,
the Lightning were pleased to see him have a fine Hull Rookie Tourney last
summer. He returned to the prestigious
MoDo Hockey program in Sweden, were he competed on the junior level. This season, he will return to Sweden, where
it’s been rumored MoDo will loan him to Orebro of the Swedish All-Svenskan League.
Alexander Polushin was a gift in the second round of
the 2001 draft, especially after Tampa had him ranked in their top-10. He will be playing in the Russian Super
League this season for Dynamo, and will be counted on to be a leader for the
Russian junior squads. Dynamo is a
favorite in the RSL, and Polushin will be fighting for every bit of
ice-time he can get.
Soucy will return to Quebec to develop with the
Montreal Rocket. With great size and
excellent wheels, Soucy should excel on the Rocket’s big ice surface and
wide open QMJHL.