It was thought last season after Grant Ledyard was signed, Adrian Aucoin was acquired from Vancouver, and Paul Mara was dealt to Phoenix, Tampa GM Rick Dudley would let the defense rest. Not so. Aucoin was dealt with winger Alexander Kharitonov for a bigger, younger defenseman (Mathieu Biron) and a second round pick (Andreas Holmqvist).
Gone was the experience of Ledyard and Aucoin, and the Lightning was back to having a young, underdeveloped back line.
Help was again brought in, however, as Ledyard found his way back to the Bay and Nolan Pratt was acquired from Colorado. Instead of Zyuzin paired with another offense-first defenseman in Aucoin, Nolan Pratt will try to bring a defensive-first presence to the pair. Pavel Kubina, Zyuzin and forward Brad Richards look to lead the PP from the point in Aucoin’s absence.
Here’s a look at the Lightning’s organizational defensive corps. Size and speed are the main ingredients for a player with a Bolt on his uniform, and the list proves it. Fortunately, a secondary ingredient includes at least a little, albeit not much, NHL experience this year.
The future looks big and bright on the Tampa blue-line. The present is quite blurry.
Pavel Kubina, Jassen Cullimore, Andrei Zyuzin, Nolan Pratt, Petr Svoboda, Cory Sarich, Stan Neckar, Grant Ledyard
Tier One is made up of those defenseman who will make their stay in the NHL this season. The group is headed by the mystery that is Pavel Kubina, who many pick to surpass 40 points this season. The astute Jassen Cullimore, who resurrected his game from the dead last season, will be assuming his stay-at-home role next to Martina Hingus’ ex-boyfriend once again.
A good step or two behind the first two is everyone else. Andrei Zyuzin must live up to the hype this year, or he may be heaved out of town. He’s spent the off-season training in Colorado and hopes to finally break through. With Khabibulin in net, Zyuzin has been given a huge green light to play his game. Look for him all over the ice and hopefully on the score sheet. Nolan Pratt was “rescued” from the Stanley Cup Champs to add a defense presence. He was “rescued” only in the sense that he can find playing time in Tampa, he won’t in Colorado. Pratt must return to his early-career form and provide a solid, simple defensive presence.
Lightning fans have probably seen the last of 1998 Czech Republic Olympic hero Petr Svoboda. Due to lingering concussion symptoms, Svoboda’s storied career has likely come to an end. There is a glimmer of hope he could make a late-season appearance.
Sarich is filled with potential and desire, but must learn to develop at a realistic pace and play within himself. Neckar proved more than a throw-in in the Khabibulin deal. He plays like a mobile fire hydrant, which is a compliment. He’s a smallish, solid piece of iron who’s most effective along the boards and in front of the net.
Ledyard will do the majority of his work in the locker room and at practice. With the vision of Ledyard knocking the Sabre’s Vaclav Varada on his back still fresh in fans’ minds, Ledyard will be expected to bring mental and physical toughness.
Kristian Kudroc, Mathieu Biron, Mike Jones
If Stan Neckar is a fire hydrant, Kristian Kudroc is the fire truck. He’s called “The Rock” for a reason. If his hockey career fails, he could always be used to replace Dolph Lundgren in a remake of Rocky IV.
Another former first rounder, Mathieu Biron, is as big as Kudroc, but not as physical. He has better mobility and a better offensive game, however. He has a very high upside, but he must continue to develop his all-around defensive and physical game. He will be a fine call-up.
Mike Jones was a surprise last year. An undrafted free agent, Jones played his way to a new contract and an invite to the Lightning’s A camp. Hairline fractures in both heels kept him out of the entire training camp, however. He plays a good two-way game, but must work on his shot and overall hockey sense. How he overcomes these injuries will go a long way to determining where he starts and finishes the year.
Marek Priechodsky, Kyle Kos, Jeremy Van Hoof
These four players will likely split the year between the ECHL and AHL.
Priechodsky is spending his first year in North America and looks to make an impact with his fine skating and overall good, but underdeveloped skill.
Kyle Kos will be playing for a new contract this season. He’s found himself buried among a hoard of promising defensive prospects and was left available in the wavier draft. He must over-achieve to keep himself on the up-and-up.
A former second-round pick of the Penguins, Van Hoof is a stay-at-home defenseman who must be signed before being assigned to a minor league club.
Andreas Holmqvist, Aaron Gionet, Paul Lynch, Art Femenella, Henrik Bergfors
Holmqvist and Lynch head a promising group of blueliners who are a few years away from NHL impact. The highly touted Holmqvist will enter the Swedish Elite League with Hammarby, and Lynch starts his freshman year with the famed University of Maine hockey program – the same program that has turned out the Kariyas and Mike Dunham. Here’s hoping Paul gets a reputation for hitting like his Tampa Bay football counterpart and namesake, John. Give him number 47 and a green light to hit any guy named, “Moss.”
Two potential defensive enforcers, Gionet and Femenella will return to their respective teams. Gionet goes back to Kamloops of the WHL, Femenella back to Sioux City of the USHL. Both will toss the Coopers without reservation.
The last pick of the 2001 draft, the hulking Bergfors returns to Sweden to continue a long journey he hopes will end with an NHL career. His work ethic and play in camp this year was noted by Dudley and the coaching staff. He was given some ice-time against Ottawa in a recent exhibition game.