Empty Net… Goalies Wanted

By Pete Choquette

The heartwarming tale of a needle in a haystack UHL find coming to Tampa Bay to make
good as the Lightning’s backup to Nikolai Khabibulin ended with a thud as another
season came and went at the Ice Palace. Despite posting a very respectable 21-20-1 record
with the Springfield Falcons with a 2.67 GAA and a .910 save percentage, and winning
that teams’ MVP award, Dieter Kochan flopped in his late season attempt to cement
himself as the Bulin Wall’s backup next season with a horrific 4.05 GAA and an equally
terrifying .876 save percentage in 5 games at the NHL level after Kevin Weekes departed
in the Shane Willis trade. With a 1-10-1 record in 20 NHL games over the last years,
General Manager Jay Feaster vowed to cut Kochan loose to unrestricted free agency this

And while the Lightning will likely find a veteran journeyman backup to fill the team’s
number two spot for next year, even more emphasis has now been placed on the Lightning
to groom an heir to Khabibulin‘s throne from within their system, for he himself will
become an unrestricted free agent in three years. Unfortunately for the Lightning, they
have no clear cut goaltender of the future, leaving them a quandary between the pipes the
team may definitely need to address at the draft in June.

The closest thing the Lightning have may very well be highly touted Russian Evgeny
. Undoubtedly, Konstantinov has all the tools, as evidenced by his
invitation to the Russian Olympic team’s pre-camp earlier this year. Highly athletic and
lightning quick, if you’ll pardon the pun, he was openly compared to then Phoenix Coyote
Khabibulin when he was selected in the 3rd round with the 67th overall pick of the 1999
draft. Unfortunately for the team, Konstantinov‘s adjustment to North America and
professional hockey has been a Herculean struggle. Last season, in his first full season
against men, he lost his confidence behind a woefully undermanned Detroit Vipers IHL
team, and was eventually loaned to the Louisiana Ice Gators of the ECHL for the playoffs.
The trick seemed to work, as Konstantinov posted a save percentage of .901 during a 12
game playoff run with Louisiana. However, despite the Lightning’s best attempt to unload
Kochan in the waiver draft and free a spot for Evgeny at the AHL level, he found himself
relegated to Pensacola of the ECHL at the start of the 2001-2002. Konstantinov pouted,
and struggled, with a sub .900 save percentage for much of the first half before going on
the shelf with a midseason knee injury. When he returned, Konstantinov‘s outlook
improved, and as Kochan was promoted to Tampa, Konstantinov moved up to the job in
Springfield he had coveted all year and put up an impressive 1.69 GAA with a .926 save
percentage in three late season contests for the Falcons. The Lightning will likely give
Evgeny the job in Springfield for next season, hoping he thrives at the AHL level, but
what the tribulations of Konstantinov over the last two seasons have shown is that he is no
sure thing, and that his maturity level must improve by leaps and bounds if he is ever to
live up to his potential at the NHL level.

And that’s the good news, because beyond Konstantinov, the Lightning have a twisted
gaggle of players who will likely be career minor leaguers mixed with a dose of intrigue
and the bizarre. Czech goaltender Michal Lanicek will likely slide into the vacated spot in
Pensacola next year. Lanicek isn’t a particularly polished mechanically goaltender, rather
he is a battler and a competitor. At times in training camp, Lanicek looked awful but
under game conditions he rises to the occasion, as he was actually beating Konstantinov
for the Ice Pilots starting job at the start of 2001-2002 before being loaned out to the
Muskegeon Fury of the UHL where he served as a backup goaltender. The UHL proved
little match for Lanicek, who had already played a professional season in the Czech
Republic’s second tier league, as he went an impressive 10-4-1 with a 1.98 GAA with the
Fury. If Lanicek‘s mechanics and positioning can improve, he does have something
reminiscent of Thrashers goaltender Milan Hnilicka in his game, and could develop into
an NHL backup some day.

The Lightning will have to make a decision on graduating Brown senior Brian Eklund
this summer. An imposing goaltender standing at 6’5″ and over 200 pounds, the Lightning,
after selecting him in the 7th round of the 2000 draft, had hoped Eklund could build on an
impressive 1999-2000 campaign in which he had a 2.95 GAA and a .915 save percentage
for the notoriously awful Brown program. But Brian’s GAA and save percentage have
gone steadily downward in the two years since and this year he lost his starting job to
Freshman sensation Yann Danis. Goalie consultant Jeff Reese has raved about Eklund‘s
size and athleticism, but his poor performance this year may leave him out in the cold. If
he signed though, he could find himself either backing up Lanicek in Pensacola or loaned
out to another ECHL or UHL team.

The Lightning understood the shakiness of their minor league goaltender situation and
tried to sign Brandon Wheat Kings goaltender Robert McVicar before the season.
However, under the advice of his agent, McVicar chose to spend another season in junior
and try to get drafted in the middle rounds, perhaps to make more money. McVicar ended
up 28th in the season’s final Central Scouting Bureau rankings, and the Lightning find
themselves still in search of competent help between the pipes. The Lightning also did
sign, but promptly watched disappear, Russian goaltender Alexander Polukeyev. The
athletic late round selection of the 2000 draft had already run away from an NAHL spot
the Lightning had tried to help secure for him in 2000-2001 and after signing a minor
league contract for the 2001-2002 season, Polukeyev once again ran back to Russia,
presumably never to be seen again.

So with all of this in mind, and only three years left until Nikolai Khabibulin‘s contract is
up, could the Lightning take highly coveted Jokerit goaltender Kari Lehtonen with their
first round pick? It’s possible, although the team seems to be leaning more towards
selecting a skater at this juncture. Beyond the first round, the Lightning currently do not
hold a pick until the fourth, which could be extremely problematic in the Lightning finding
a player they can be one hundred percent competent will fill the hole. But make no
mistake, the Lightning almost certainly will take a goaltender at some point, for they
simply can’t afford not to.