Lightning-HF staff members Chad Schnarr, Pete Choquette and guest contributer Joe Lastra bring their opinions to the table.
Topic: Prospects will not be invited to training camp this year.
On the table: In previous years, Lightning prospects and rookies participated in the Hull, Quebec rookie tournament before attending training camp. Last year, the Lightning pulled out of the Hull camp and just divided the NHL preseason camp in two — an “A” (NHL caliber players) camp and “B” (Prospects and minor leaguers) camp. This year, there be no “B” camp. Instead, Tampa GM Jay Feaster has announced there will only be one camp involving about 45 players. No prospects. “We only want to work with players that were with us last year, players that have a chance to be a part of the team next year,” Feaster said. The exceptions will be newly acquired NHL players and the recently signed Alexander Svitov. “This is a critical year for us, and we need to make the playoffs, or it won’t be a successful season,” Feaster told the Tampa Tribune. “We know who the core of our team is. It will be a privilege to come to camp this year.”
Chad Schnarr: Well, apparently a big reason the Lightning failed to make the playoffs once again last year wasn’t widespread inconsistency, lack of depth, lack of contributing veterans, being at the bottom of the NHL in goals-for, or a ridiculously low budget ironically set by an owner who’s a multi-billionaire. Nope, it was all the attention those darn kids got in training camp.
While that is indeed hyperbolic, the act of eliminating the participation of prospects in camp adds to the growing suspicion GM Jay Feaster will not be giving prospects anything more than a passing glance. He already has sliced the scouting budget in half, watched respected skills instructor Paul Vincent leave for Miami, undervalued a prime draft pick in a highly-criticized trade, dumped the underrated Josef Boumedienne for a late round pick (Fredrik Norrena) wasted by not signing the Finnish overage goalie, and now he’s eliminated prospect participation in the preseason camp. In an effort to give them some attention, however, he said a select group of prospects will be invited to Tampa in August for an informal session with strength and conditioning coach Eric Lawson. Whoopee. Meanwhile, other NHL clubs (most of whom seem to have no problem making the playoffs while giving attention to prospects) are wrapping up organized prospect camps and getting ready for rookie tournament play. Nashville is a fellow non-playoff club entering a make-or-break season. Craig Leipold, the Predators’ owner, has even guaranteed his season ticket holders a refund of their ticket price increase if the Preds don’t make the playoffs. Yet, there was Scottie Upshall and five other 2002 draftees in Nashville this past weekend with a host of other Predator prospects for the conclusion of a 10-day organized camp. They will also be returning to the Traverse City, Michigan rookie tournament later this summer.
Unlike last year, we won’t see any prospects separating themselves from their peers this September in Tampa. Where would Swedish defenseman Henrik Bergfors be in the organization’s eye today if he hadn’t had the opportunity he took advantage of last year to impress the Lightning brass with his surprisingly mature defensive play and aggressive physical game? Where would Sheldon Keefe have received the opportunity to put his past behind him and impress with his leadership skills by visibly taking then-recently drafted Evgeny Artukhin under his wing in the “B” camp? Bergfors, Artukhin and Martin Cibak impressed so much last year they were “awarded” with participation in NHL exhibition games. What about Jimmie Olvestad? He was invited to make the trek over the big pond from Sweden and proudly earned himself a season-long spot on Tampa’s checking-line. It’s not going to happen this year. Instead, players like 2002 second rounder Adam Henrich will enter his season in the OHL forced to listen to other draftees comment on their NHL camp experience with wide-eyes and excited voices. Few expect these prospects to steal NHL jobs, but at least give them some exposure to NHL life. After all, where do you think “A” Campers or NHL caliber players come from? There’s no All-Star tree in Upper-Canada. I’ve looked. They have to be developed and guided properly — or at least given more than a passing glance and indirectly told they’re like a younger brother who’s just going to get in the way of the big kids. All I can say is I sincerely hope this is an aberration, and not an indication of what the future holds (or doesn’t hold, as the case may be) for Lightning prospects each year.
Pete Choquette: I’m going to lay blame for this latest indignity at the feet of two entities who, whether by serendipity or design, are seemingly strongly allied on keeping the team’s youth out of camp: Lightning Ownership (Palace Sports and Entertainment), and Coach John Tortorella.
Put simply, prospect camps, skating camps, and more bodies in training camp means Palace Sports and Entertainment has to spend money — something they’ve always seemed grossly allergic to in their three-plus years on the Tampa sports scene. Plane tickets from Scandinavia, ice time at power skating clinics in New England, even red jerseys and hockey tape for scrimmage games in Brandon — these all require the Lightning to back up their words of commitment with dollars. And, true to form, they’ve shrunken from that commitment once again, much to the dismay of long suffering fans who haven’t seen anything resembling a competitive team in Tampa since the first half of 1997. With a payroll $6-8 million dollars less than even small market clubs like Ottawa and Carolina, Jay Feaster is being forced to sacrifice the organization’s future in aspirations of, dare I say, mediocrity in the present.
PS&E’s accomplice in this latest crime against the fans appears to be none other than John Tortorella. Tortorella’s already legendary inflexibility has led to a season and a half of well publicized turmoil with the team’s young franchise player, Vincent Lecavalier, and it rears its head again here in his apparent vitriolic dislike of rookies and other young players (which is ironic considering the organization ranks as one of the youngest in average age every season). The rationale largely rests in the coach seemingly not wanting young players, who don’t generally have fully developed defensive skills, within a 10-mile radius of his training camps. As was reported last season, then GM Rick Dudley had to practically hold Tortorella at gunpoint to get the coach to accept European prospect Jimmie Olvestad (who was among the team’s leaders with a respectable +3 last season) into the team’s “A” camp. This year, by eliminating “B” camp and curbing the inclusion of new rookies almost altogether, the result will be a team whose youth, like Adam Henrich, will miss some of the one-on-one developmental time with veterans like Dave Andreychuk — something every other team in the league recognizes as invaluable in the grooming of 18 and 19 year-olds to some day play in the ranks of professional hockey.
The solutions are clear, as I enumerate them in what I call my “Prospect’s Bill of Rights”:
1) All prospects should have the right to participate in a prospect tournament against their counterparts on other NHL teams.
2) All prospects should have the right to skating and other instructional off-season camps at the organization’s expense. Though some prospects may not be allowed such professional financial support (NCAA athletes), the option to attend an organized camp should be established.
3) All prospects should have the right to a training camp structure which allows them the possibility of earning a spot on the NHL team if their play merits it.
4) All prospects should have the right to a full AHL affiliation agreement where their ice time is regulated by a coach hired by the Lightning, operating in the interests of the Lightning.
5) All prospects should have the right to the highest level of coaching and training staff at all levels.
Joe Lastra: With former GM Rick Dudley scrapped in favor of up-and-comer Jay Feaster, there’s a dynamic philosophical shift going on at the Ice Palace. Building for the future is out. Winning now is in.
Which leaves the rest of us scratching our heads and wondering, “Are the two mutually exclusive?”
Feaster apparently thinks so. Since grabbing the reins in February, he’s slashed the team’s scouting staff in half, passed on Joni Pitkanen (or Joffrey Lupul) in the entry draft in favor of vaguely more established talent, and told junior and European prospects not to bother showing up for camp.
The Lightning still don’t have their own minor league affiliate and haven’t participated in an organized rookie camp since Dudley pulled the team off the ice in Hull, Quebec, two years ago.
So, is this it? Is the youth movement over? Did it work?
After stringing along the fans for three years with promises of future success, the Bolts seem to be indicating that the payoff is right around the corner. The fans’ response should be simple: Put up or shut up.
After all, there’s a reason every other NHL team holds a prospects camp. And it’s not because they haven’t figured out who the core of their team is.
Don’t be fooled. This move, like everything else Palace Sports & Entertainment does, was motivated by one thing and one thing only: money.
That’s unpardonable. But if Feaster wants to save face, he has an out. In February he said money saved in other areas of hockey operations would be channeled into player salaries.
If he takes the sack of cash designated for prospects’ flights and room-and-board and turns it into, say, Derek Morris or Theo Fleury, all will be forgiven.
Well, maybe not all. But it’s a start.