Big Changes in Lightning’s Defensive Corps Continue
Just in case the single-minded focus of the team’s 2003 Entry Draft selections and the decision not to qualify offers to defensemen Stanislav Neckar, Nolan Pratt, and Kristian Kudroc didn’t assuage you, the Lightning has provided further proof of the complete systematic overhaul of its blueliners by signing 2001 second round draft pick Andreas Holmqvist and 2002 fifth round selection Gerard Dicaire. Prior to the 2003 draft, Hockey’s Future ranked Holmqvist and Dicaire as the top two defensive prospects in the organization, based on Hockey’s Future criteria, and chances are one, if not both, will see action with the Lightning in the upcoming 2003-2004 season.
Holmqvist made his Elitserian debut with Linkoping last season. Holmqvist notched 4 goals and 13 points in 43 games in Sweden’s highest league. While his numbers weren’t particularly overwhelming, simply suiting up and playing such a large number of games for the team was a remarkable accomplishment considering Holmqvist was expected to miss half of the season with surgery to repair a badly injured tendon in his wrist. Were it not for the injury, it is likely the Lightning would’ve signed Holmqvist last summer as General Manager Jay Feaster stated he was the most NHL ready unsigned prospect in the system.
That injury was not the first mountain the lanky 6’4” blueliner had to conquer on his way to North America, as he was largely ignored by the scouting community until after his draft year. However, after posting a strong season with Alsvenskan power Hammarby in 2000-2001 with a gaudy plus-26 rating and appearing in the 2001 World Junior Under-20 Championships for Team Sweden, the Lightning struck the deal with the Capitals to select the then almost 20-year-old defenseman. One year later he justified the selection with a vengeance by finishing second on Hammarby in scoring during the first phase of the season and finishing the season as a whole with 11 goals and 24 points in 42 games before missing the promotion tournament with his injury. Even with the wrist problem, Linkoping leapt at the opportunity to sign the talented defenseman for the 2002-2003 campaign.
From the other end of the hockey world, another long odyssey to the professional ranks has also ended with the signing of Kootenay Ice standout defenseman Gerard Dicaire. A former second round pick of the Sabres in 2000, the power play wizard had to re-enter the draft in 2002 after failing to come to terms with Buffalo. His reselection in the fifth round by the Lightning punctuated a year in which he was traded from the Seattle Thunderbirds to Kootenay, where he helped the Ice capture the Memorial Cup as the CHL’s top team. This past year, Dicaire earned second team Western Conference WHL All-Star honors for the second time in his career, and in 275 career regular season games he amassed 47 goals and 198 points.
Talent Analysis: Holmqvist
With the departure of Pratt and Neckar, there are currently two open spots on the Lightning’s backline, and one appears likely to go to Holmqvist. A strong skater with a good sized NHL frame, the team believes the offensive side of the young Swede’s game is already NHL caliber. He excels at making the first pass out of the zone and has a bullet for a point shot to contribute on the power play. Early in the Elitserian season, his flashes of brilliance led to whispers of a potential spot on a leg of the Euro Tour for Team Sweden. Defensively, however, Holmqvist struggled at times as a rookie with Linkoping, posting a minus-13 rating, and it’s safe to assume he will do the same adjusting as a rookie to the North American professional ranks. In addition, he must fill out his upper body if he will be able to compete physically in the corners and in front of his net in the NHL. He has displayed a mean streak at time in both the Elitserian and Alsvenskan, but currently lacks the bulk to do much damage as a hitter on the NHL stage.
Short term, Holmqvist’s impact may be limited due to the fact he will be competing for power play time with fellow right-handed shooters Dan Boyle and Pavel Kubina. Expect him to be weaned onto the highest level of hockey in the world slowly, similar to the way the team handled center Alexander Svitov last season. Long term though, Hockey’s Future projects Holmqvist as a top-four defenseman with potentially all-star level offensive ability. Johan Nilson of Hockey’s Future Sweden and affiliate site Eliteprospects.com has compared him to fellow Swedish backliner Mattias Ohlund, but more offensive-minded.
Talent Analysis: Dicaire
While Holmqvist appears on the fast track to the NHL, Dicaire may quickly move into the departed Kudroc’s spot as the team’s top young prospect at the AHL level. And, should the team find itself unable to lure Darren Rumble out of a recently signed contract to play in the Russian Superleague next season, Dicaire might be the team’s first injury call-up from Hershey, or whichever AHL outpost the team dispatches him to. He will be a central figure on the Lightning’s Traverse City prospect team and, barring a disastrous showing there, he will join Holmqvist at training camp in Brandon shortly thereafter.
A smooth, mobile skater with a decent but not altogether overpowering low point shot, Dicaire’s greatest asset is his superb passing ability, especially in making the first pass out of the zone. At the team’s prospect camp last summer, the surgical precision of Dicaire’s passes and his ability to take even the most atrocious offering from his teammates in kind was amazing. Indeed, aside from Nikita Alexeev, Dicaire had the appearance of the most professional player on the rink, including a very rusty Alexander Svitov. With a quiet intelligence out on the ice, Dicaire may not be the type of player who seizes a game by the throat, but he tends to find a way to hit the score sheet by the end of the night. Improving his acceleration to give him a more explosive first step would only help to increase him scoring exploits.
Dicaire’s positioning is reasonably sound in his own end, but he tends to treat physical contact like a seven-year-old treats a dinnertime helping of spinach. In other words, while he certainly tried to assert himself more physically last season, it still seemed reluctant and forced. Finding the mean streak in Gerard Dicaire could be the difference between him becoming a top-four defenseman in NHL, or becoming the number five defenseman who will see second unit power play time Hockey’s Future projects him to be. As a mobile left-handed point shot with good puck moving ability, Dicaire’s skills are in demand on the big club, and if he works hard he could find himself on the ice at the St. Pete Times Forum sooner rather than later.
A Change in Philosophy
These two signings, coupled with the drafting of Mike Egener and Matt Smaby, as well as the release of Neckar, Pratt, and Kudroc, are a strong indicator of a shift in organizational philosophy for the Lightning. In the past, under former General Manager Rick Dudley, the Lightning actively sought out the biggest defensemen they could find, regardless of their skating deficiencies. Time has shown in the cases of Mathieu Biron’s poor balance and Kristian Kudroc’s lack of mobility due to chronic injury problems, that the philosophy was flawed. With the Lightning shifting its system last season to a very aggressive forechecking scheme where the defensemen were counted upon to join and support the play, the need for a change became even more apparent.
It is no coincidence that the three defensemen who did not receive qualifying offers from the team were three of its least mobile. Players like Holmqvist and Egener clearly appear to be the new paradigm in Tampa: defensemen with a good blend of skating ability as well as size, as has been the mold of forward prospects like Nikita Alexeev. In the short term, by replacing Neckar and Pratt with Holmqvist and a free agent signing who fits this new organizational philosophy, the team’s defensive corps should be remodeled to one with a much higher degree of mobility and skill. This, in turn, could help boost the team’s offensive output, as Dan Boyle was the team’s only blue liner to break the 30 point barrier last season. In the long term, the shift should yield a higher rate of successful draft choices which are well suited to fit into the Lightning’s brand of high tempo hockey.
From Brandon to Brandon?
In addition to the signings of Holmqvist and Dicaire, the Lightning has also finalized a rookie contract with Brandon Wheat Kings star forward Ryan Craig. An eighth round selection in the 2002 draft, Craig’s signing caps a long and distinguished junior career. His list of accomplishments includes multiple selections as a first team WHL Conference All-Star and 137 goals and 268 points in 302 career regular season games. However, many who watch the WHL will tell you, it is the way Craig carries himself as both a player and as a man which sets him far apart from his contemporaries. As the Wheat King’s captain the past two seasons, Craig has become one of the most respected players in the franchise’s history, garnering the title of the WHL’s best captain. Off the ice, his work with the community has made him one of Brandon’s favorite sons, and he received the CHL Humanitarian of the Year award last season. That’s Brandon, Manitoba.
In the summer of 2001, as an undrafted free agent, Craig earned a tryout with San Jose, but failed to receive a contract. Their loss was the Lightning’s gain as it selected the then 20-year-old overager late on day two of the draft. Knee surgery kept Craig out of the Lightning’s rookie camp in Brandon, Florida last summer as well as the beginning portion of the 2002-2003 WHL season, but he soon reasserted himself with a vengeance. In his final year of junior hockey, he notched 42 goals and 74 points in just 60 games played. Craig’s signing with the Lightning now gives a huge dose of leadership and class to the team’s minor league apparatus.
Talent Analysis: Craig
Above average across the board, that’s the best way to describe Craig’s overall skill package. He’s an above average passer and playmaker but not a dazzling one. His shot is not overpowering, but he spots it well with accuracy like current Lightning star Brad Richards. His hustle and work ethic make him a competent defensive player as well as a decent forechecker, although he is not dominant physically. The undeniably strong intangible qualities of leadership and character that Craig possesses are what have elevated him from a just above average skilled player to a star in the junior ranks and the Lightning is counting on those qualities to carry him to a good NHL career.
Craig’s greatest deficiency is his barely adequate skating ability which comes as a byproduct of knee problems plaguing him throughout his career. As a result, the Lightning appears intent on starting Craig in the ECHL with Pensacola, although he will likely dominate that level of hockey. A strong rookie camp in Traverse City coupled with a strong training camp in Brandon, Florida could change their minds and move him up to the AHL level. Ryan Craig’s intangibles could lead him to be a strong checking line character player similar to former Lightning Rob Zamuner.
Hockey’s Future has learned the Lightning is actively seeking a second AHL affiliation agreement for the upcoming season. The team has already signed an agreement with Feaster’s former team, the Hershey Bears this summer. That agreement will place six players contracted by the Lightning at the AHL level, and another agreement would presumably attempt to provide at least four more spots to equal the ten the Lightning has had available in the partial affiliation agreement with the Springfield Falcons the past two years. With Des Moines, Iowa reportedly courting an AHL expansion franchise for the 2004-2005 season, this will hopefully be the final season the Lightning will have to settle for a partial affiliation where its players are coached and trained by employees of another organization.