Lightning-HF staff members Pete Choquette and Chad Schnarr, as well as the infamous "Bolthed" bring their opinions to the table.
1. Biron or Kudroc for the top defensive call-up?
In this case, neither player really fits the bill of what the team needs most: a left-handed offensive defenseman. Having to choose between the two, as the Lightning will likely have to in the case of an injury or suspension of one of their NHL defensemen, I tend to side with Kudroc. Kristian Kudroc is the epitome of the new Lightning defensive philosophy of physically engaging and eliminating opposing forwards in and around the slot area. Under the old philosophy John Tortorella and Craig Ramsey endorsed most of last year, the softer Biron may have fit the team’s need for a more mobile defenseman adept at keeping the play in front of him and using his poke check. But now that the emphasis is back on punishing the other team’s players in front of the net, as GM Jay Feaster wants, Kudroc should regain the upper hand on the depth chart.
Tough call. There are expectations another NHL blueliner will be brought in, perhaps from the waiver draft (which could also see the Lightning jettison Stan Neckar). Either way, there is little sentiment for either Biron or Kudroc making the team out of the gate. Like Pete I favor Kudroc for his punishing style of play. His size and reach give him a Zdeno Chara-esque ability to make up for some poor skating habits, and don’t ya just love seeing an official hit registered when an opposing forward incidentally bounces off of “The Rock?” Despite my opinion however, I feel Biron will be the first call-up because of his advanced technique and skating (relative to Kudroc). What’s easier to teach – skill or heart? We’ll find out with these two. I suspect both will see a similar amount of NHL ice in 2002-03, but these two really do still have much to show in the minors.
I think the organization is higher on Kudroc in terms of future use, but the current state of the team and farm will mean Biron gets the first plane ticket, in my opinion. I will be the first to recognize Biron doesn’t bring much offense (lackluster AHL numbers), lacks grit and though he’s a smooth skater for a guy six-foot-six, his balance, or lack thereof, gives the impression he’s worse than he actually is. However, he does have 110 games of NHL experience (to Kudroc’s 24) and is familiar with the system, which won’t be drastically changed. He’s also, overall, not any worse than Kudroc would be in the position. Kudroc may hit harder, but his skating and understanding of the game is inferior to Biron. Biron is a decent passer, uses his reach well, and is better positionally. I think they develop Kudroc in Springfield with Coach McSorley and give Biron 7-9 minutes on the third pair as an emergency call-up. Though he doesn’t fit Feaster’s mold near as well as Kudroc, his serviceability as a temporary call-up puts him above Kudroc right now.
2. Who will have the biggest impact on the NHL club this season: Sheldon Keefe, Nikita Alexeev or Alexander Svitov?
Jay Feaster has publicly stated on local radio that the Tampa Bay Lightning is a better team with Sheldon Keefe than without, and there’s a simple reason why. Sheldon Keefe changes the whole tone of the game when he hops over the boards because he brings shear force of will, intensity, and attitude every shift. Keefe is a pure agitator the likes of which haven’t been seen in Tampa since Darcy Tucker wore the lightning bolt, and is a throwback to the 1995-1996 playoff team, which was filled with agitating, high-energy players like Rob Zamuner and Shawn Burr. On top of that, he has shown he could have the upside of a scoring line player, especially down the stretch of last season when he had five goals and 10 points in the month of March. It shouldn’t be a surprise, as Keefe has won an OHL scoring title and has shown good scoring touch with 30 points in 37 games at the IHL and AHL levels. The two Russian first rounders may get more hype, but the truth is Svitov will be rusty and has only played a handful of games in the last year, and Keefe put up two more goals and five more points in 39 games with Tampa last season than Alexeev could manage in 44. Keefe has the disposition, the talent, and the motivation in a contract season that I believe will allow him to make a greater impact than Alexeev and Svitov if John Tortorella gives him the chance.
Ah, a fun question. The simple answer is indeed Sheldon Keefe, based on what he showed late last season. His energy and fearlessness have a clear effect on the team concept, and Keefe’s expanding skill-set makes him a player to be watched for sure. Alexeev is more of a darkhorse in this race because his expanding skill-set is behind that of Keefe. But ‘Lil Nikita has that eye-popping size/speed ratio, which few in the world can match. Finally, Svitov is an intriguing wildcard based solely on a reputation that has preceeded even his first NHL minute. His impact is immeasurable at this time because, similar to Keefe but with even more potential in this area, Svitov’s presence alone could significantly alter the team concept. The safe choice is Keefe.
Although Keefe is indeed the safe choice and Alexeev, in terms of potential and flash, may be the “sexy” pick, I’m going with Alexander Svitov. The part of the question I’m keying on is “this season.” Not, “this fall,” or “the first half of the year.” I’d definitely have to go with Keefe if that were the case. I do agree Svitov will have to work off the rust, however, we could be talking mid-November, not April or next October when that rust is finally knocked off. It didn’t take Peca, Yashin or Khabibulin long to knock off their rust, and though Svitov is no where near the high level of those three players, I think they’ve proven the effect of missed game-time is somewhat overrated. Svitov has experience in arguably the second best men’s league in the world and is big enough, strong enough and smart enough to make the transition … and gosh darn it, I like him above the other two in terms of impact this season. Keefe missed 14 games last year due to a shoulder injury. The way he plays the game is to be admired, and definitely puts a jolt into the team in terms of energy, but I’m not convinced he has the body (5’11” 185, but has stated he lost weight this summer in an effort to get faster) to withstand that kind of punishment for a full year. He’s not crashing into teenagers anymore. Though Keefe will have a significant impact on the club this year, I think there’s a strong possibility he’ll miss a good chunk of time. Also, with the faster-face-off rule coming into effect, a lot of the agitating players like Keefe and Tucker like to do after the whistle will now be erased. How will that affect his game? Tampa is in dire need of a big, physical, shut-down center who is strong defensively and on face-offs. Though not as offensively-minded, though capable, Svitov is more mature defensively than the other two and can make a big impact as a 4th line center and should be entrenched as the team’s main checking center by year’s end.