No Minor Problem: The Lightning’s Quest To Find a Full AHL Affiliate

By Pete Choquette

This week, in Rochester, New York, far from the summer shores of Tampa Bay, a decision is expected to be made which will help shape the future of the Tampa Bay Lightning. After a long relationship with the Buffalo Sabres, the AHL‘s Rochester Americans will decide whether or not to exercise an out clause in their agreement with the parent club, triggered by the Sabres change in ownership. If the Amerks do indeed choose to go this path, it is expected the Lightning, whose ties to the Americans organization are found behind the bench with current Lightning coach and former Amerk’s Calder Cup champion coach John Tortorella, will step in quickly to secure Rochester as its full affiliate. The stakes are high with many 2001 Lightning picks, as well as a number of overaged 2002 picks, ready to sign with the club and in need of a place to play.

Unlikely? Yes, admittedly. But for a Lightning organization which has stumbled aimlessly since 1996 to provide an adequate developmental apparatus for its prospects, perhaps they are due.

A Brief History of Lightning Affiliates

1992-1996 Atlanta Knights (IHL)

In terms of player development at the minor league level, it was the best of times. After securing an NHL franchise for the city of Tampa in the early 90′s, Phil Esposito turned to friend and business acquaintance David Berkman (coincidentally now the CEO of the Lightning’s ECHL affiliate, the Pensacola Ice Pilots), a real estate developer and avid hockey fan who launched the Atlanta Knights of the International Hockey League in 1992. For four years the Lightning enjoyed a stable partnership with the Knights, supplying the team star veterans like Stan Drulia as well as talented youngsters like Cory Cross and Aaron Gavey. In 1993-94 the Knights conquered the IHL, winning the Turner Cup championship. Only once in the four years did the club have a sub-.500 record.

Three prospects who saw significant time in the Lightning minor league system during that time would go on to play 200 or more game in the NHL. Tops on the list is 1992 Supplemental Draft Selection Cory Cross, who played 118 games in a Knights jersey and has since gone on to play 535 games in the NHL. Fourth round draft pick Aaron Gavey played 66 games with the Atlanta Knights before embarking on his NHL career with the Lightning, which to date has included 355 NHL games. And, finally, from the same Sault Ste. Marie pipeline as Gavey, Jeff Toms, who was a 9th round selection of the Devils and was later acquired by Phil Esposito. Toms spent 145 games total in the Lightning farm system and has had a long journeyman career in the NHL, compiling 236 games in the league. None were high draft picks. All benefited from the time they spent in a stable full affiliate, and one wonders if they would have had NHL careers without one.

Unfortunately for the Lightning, financial problems in Atlanta led the club to move to Quebec City for the 1996-97 season. The club has been struggling just to tread water ever since.

1996-1998 Adirondack Red Wings (AHL)

With the Knights move out of Atlanta, the Lightning front office sought a new affiliate, and the Lightning’s spend thrift ownership at Kokusai sought ways to curb costs. As a result, the Lightning entered into its first split affiliation agreement in the summer of 1996 with the Adirondack Red Wings of the AHL. The Lightning would supply half the talent, and the Detroit Red Wings would supply the other half, as well as the coaching staff. And therein laid the problem. The coaching staff in Adirondack was always happy to use veteran talent supplied by the Lightning like Paul Brousseau, but was loathe to use the Lightning’s youngest prospects (those in most need of development).

By the end of the Lightning’s second season in Adirondack (1997-1998), the relationship between the Lightning and the Red Wings was strained beyond repair and the Lightning began to pull some of its better prospects off the team. In two years in Adirondack, the Lightning only developed one player of any consequence: current Lightning rearguard Pavel Kubina, a former 7th round selection. Since his 61 games in the Lightning minor league system Kubina has gone on to play 374 games in the NHL. Most other Lightning prospects weren’t as lucky to receive the 55 games of action Kubina played in the 1997-98 campaign.

1997-1999 Cleveland Lumberjacks (IHL)

The 1997-98 season not only marked the final one for the Lightning and the Adirondack organization, but it marked the first for Rick Patterson, who remains in the organization as a pro scout for the Lightning. That year he was hired to serve as an assistant coach behind Terry Crisp after serving as the head coach for the Cleveland Lumberjacks for a handful of seasons prior. When the situation deteriorated in Adirondack, Patterson’s ties with his old friends in the Lumberjacks organization were called upon. Subsequently, center Vadim Epanchintsev and goaltender Derek Wilkinson would join the club along with newly-acquired prospects Steve Kelly and Jason Bonsignore. Ironically, they were teammates of an undrafted and then unknown Martin St. Louis that season in Cleveland. In any event, it was the beginning of a relationship which would endure only as long as the short-lived Art Williams ownership era in Tampa.

The very next season, after the Pittsburgh Penguins pulled out of Cleveland, the Lightning operated the Lumberjacks as their own affiliate. Times were lean though at all levels of the organization, and years of Kokusai’s tightfisted control over the team’s scouting and development budget finally took its full toll on the Lightning system. None of the prospects who played more than a half a season with the Lumberjacks ever saw much more than a cup of coffee in the NHL, like those received by center Xavier Delisle. With a painful 24-47-7 record, the Lightning’s era in Cleveland came to close.

1999-2001 Detroit Vipers (IHL)

In the summer of 1999, Bill Davidson and Palace Sports and Entertainment bought the Tampa Bay Lightning and the then Ice Palace from Art Williams. The Lightning was PS&E’s third prominent professional sports franchise, along with the Detroit Pistons of the NBA and the successful independent franchise the Detroit Vipers of the IHL. The Vipers and the Lightning seemed a match made in heaven. By having in-house ownership of the minor league club, the team could have full quality control over the development of its prospects, teaching them the Lightning system and allowing them to more seamlessly adapt to the team when called up.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work that way. Fans of the Vipers, long a maverick independent club accustomed to hoisting Turner Cups, were not ready for the sudden shift to becoming an affiliated development team. They inherited the Lightning’s lack of quality prospects from Cleveland, and to add injury to insult, lost top players like old Lightning friend Stan Drulia, who was signed to the big league team. Two consecutive 50-loss seasons saw support dry up at the ticket booth, and the Vipers, along with the IHL as a whole, could no longer function economically under the conditions. In the summer of 2001, the Vipers and the IHL folded and the Lightning was once again left wandering after another short two-year tenure with an affiliate.

Still, it’s important to point out that developmentally a high degree of good came out of the Vipers experience. Ben Clymer, a former 2nd round pick with the Bruins who signed with the Lightning after escaping through the Mike Van Ryn clause, has translated 72 games of development time with the Vipers into 229 NHL games in his still young career. Current Lightning prospects like Martin Cibak, Dimitry Afanasenkov, and Kristian Kudroc all enjoyed their best seasons as pros while in a Vipers jersey. Unfortunately, their development has since stagnated or regressed, in part because the Lightning once again entered into another split affiliation agreement.

2001-2003 Springfield Falcons (AHL)

For the past two seasons the Lightning has shared the Springfield Falcons of the AHL with the Phoenix Coyotes organization. Just as with Adirondack, the supplying of coaches by the partner organization served to strain relations between the Lightning and the Falcons. The straw that likely broke the camel’s back was the handling of Russian prospects Nikita Alexeev and Alex Svitov by head coach, and Coyotes employee, Marty McSorley. His disdain for the Lightning’s Russian prospects rather evident, the team pulled them up to the NHL full time for the second half of the season in part to protect them from any potential damage.

For Dimitry Afanasenkov, a former 3rd round pick who was loaned to Grand Rapids part of the previous season for similar reasons, it was too late. He was loaned to a club in Switzerland after two disastrous seasons with Springfield, possibly never to return. Martin Cibak, a 9th round pick, has failed to even come close to the offensive promise of his 38-point rookie season with the Vipers while in a Falcons jersey. And finally, the mammoth Kristian Kudroc, who hasn’t scored a goal in the last two years, has been plagued both by injuries and lack of direction since joining the Falcons. He too was loaned out, to the Philadelphia Phantoms, for similar reasons during the latter part of the 2001-2002 campaign. The former 1st round selection of the Islanders, who appeared on the cusp of being an NHLer in 22 games with the Lightning in 2000-2001, has clearly regressed, in part because of the dysfunctional developmental apparatus that has been the Lightning’s joint affiliation agreement with Springfield. In fact, of all the young prospects entrusted to Springfield, only the gritty sparkplug Sheldon Keefe has managed to thrive statistically in the hostile environment that has been Springfield.

Less than three weeks ago, with the Lightning’s joint affiliation agreement with Springfield expired, the Coyotes made the Falcons their full AHL affiliate, leaving the Lightning to wander the desert looking for yet another minor league club. This time though, the stakes may be a bit higher.

The Future is Now

After two years of junior hockey, the bulk of the crop of the talented 2001 draft for the Lightning is ready to be signed and developed starting this summer. Titanic Russian right winger Evgeni Artukhin (3rd round) headlines a list of mandatory signings that includes Guelph Storm left winger Aaron Lobb (4th round) and Montreal Rocket left winger Jean-Francois Soucy (7th round). Also, a number of overage 2002 draftees will see their junior eligibility expire next season and will also require placement in the Lightning system. Talented offensive defenseman Gerard Dicaire (5th round), center Ryan Craig (7th round), and tough-guy winger Darren Reid (8th round), all need a minor league home as well. Throw in 2001 2nd round pick defenseman Andreas Holmqvist and you have the recipe for a very talented group of prospects, or for disaster if they aren’t developed properly.

Learning From Our Past

It is likely very true to say that high 1st round selections like the Lightning have traditionally had don’t require much, or any, AHL development. However, the development of Cory Cross and Aaron Gavey weighed against the stagnation of the Matt Elichs and Dimitry Afanasenkovs reveals something about players who aren’t top picks. These players, many of whom are athletically gifted but rough around the edges, require the polish that only an adequate minor league affiliation can give them. With the exception of Holmqvist, none of the prospects in need of signing this summer are higher than a 3rd round pick. The experience of the last 11 years should tell us they need a stable full affiliate to succeed.

Learning From the Present

To some fans, in the wake of a very successful run to the playoffs and the Lightning’s first division title, this long diatribe on minor league affiliations may seem trivial. Why, with a core that includes young players at the NHL level like Lecavalier, Richards, Alexeev, and Svitov, should we care about our minor league affiliate? The New Jersey Devils, the team that eliminated Tampa Bay in the Stanley Cup Semifinals, offer us an important lesson in why we should care, as their success has largely been sustained in a similar situation almost solely through strong drafting and minor league development.

Where would the Devils be without a star caliber sniper like Patrik Elias (2nd round pick) who spent a total of 134 games developing with the Albany River Rats of the AHL? Without perennial Selke candidate John Madden, an undrafted free agent who spent 149 games with Albany? Without depth players like Sergei Brylin (2nd round pick), who spent 150 games with the Albany? Or gritty defenseman Colin White (2nd round pick), who spent 205 games with the River Rats? One look at the New Jersey Devils roster shows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the value of a strong scouting system and stable long term full affiliation in generating success at the NHL level around core players like Scott Stevens and Martin Brodeur in a financially conscious organization.

The Clock is Ticking

And so we hold our breaths this summer, waiting and hoping for a stable full affiliate for the first time in over half a decade. Hopefully it will be Rochester, but if not the team will attempt to pursue other avenues. An expansion team in Kansas City or New Orleans looks like a pipe dream in the economics of minor league hockey in the last 5-10 years. Other reports have the Lightning sharing an affiliate with the Dallas Stars in Utah of the AHL for one year before taking it over long term as a full affiliate. The ever-thrifty Lightning bristle at such a long distance solution, but perhaps at this juncture, beggars can’t be choosers.