Now that training camp is over and the regular season has started, it’s time to preview Tampa Bay’s make-shift minor league system and the players that have been assigned to it. This two-part series takes an in-depth look at the 16 players still in the Lightning system, placing particular emphasis on what each player needs to do in order to advance to the next level.
There were two main surprises at the Lightning camp this year as prospects Dmitry Afanasenkov and Martin Cibak won NHL roster spots over highly touted graduates and former first rounders Nikita Alexeev and Alexander Svitov. After two straight years as the last man cut from the camp roster, the hard-working Cibak finally gets a shot to prove he belongs in the NHL. Cibak, a former ninth rounder and IHL All-Rookie selection, began the season centering wingers Fredrik Modin and Ben Clymer getting third or fourth line ice time. In limited action during the season opener, Cibak saw nearly 10 minutes of ice time and won one faceoff.
Afanasenkov’s spot on the roster stunned both fans and media, who had dismissed this 1998 third rounder’s chances of ever returning to NHL ice again after he was forced to leave the AHL for Switzerland late last year. To start the 2003-2004 campaign, Afanasenkov joins Ruslan Fedotenko on a scoring line centered by Vincent Lecavalier. Afanasenkov notched a goal in his season debut, a second period marker assisted by Lecavalier.
The lack of a full AHL affiliation for the Lightning continues to impact the development of a number of prospects. Several are now relegated to playing this season in Pensacola of the ECHL even though their camp performance arguably was sufficient enough to secure an AHL spot. Tampa Bay’s disaster of a minor league system may look rather grim with bodies littered across four different states and one province, the future of the Lightning is anything but grim with the likes of Andreas Holmqvist and Eero Somervuori joining Alexeev, Svitov, and newcomer Gerard Dicaire on North American ice.
Part one of this preview examines the 10 players the Lightning has assigned to its affiliates in the American Hockey League.
HERSHEY BEARS (AHL)
Under the Lightning’s partial affiliation agreement with Hershey, the Bolts can assign up to six players to the team also serving as the full-time affiliate of the Colorado Avalanche. As of October 13, however, only five Lightning prospects are with Hershey. As former president and GM of the Bears for eight years, Lightning GM Jay Feaster has close ties with this organization, which should help make the best of a tough situation for Bolt players assigned to Hershey.
Nikita Alexeev, W
The last piece of advice Jay Feaster gave Nikita Alexeev regarding his assignment to Hershey was, “Don’t find out what the hot dogs taste like.” Going into training camp, Alexeev had a roster spot on the Lightning practically given to him. While he was a candidate for a position on the Lecavalier line, he was seen as practically a lock for at least a third line checking role. However, during camp, Alexeev proceeded to do everything to lose that roster spot. Taken to task by Feaster and Lightning head coach John Tortorella for his lack of consistency, work ethic, and passion, Alexeev finds himself starting this season in the minors. Alexeev must play each shift with desperation, rediscover his passion for the game, and improve his work ethic and consistency in order to find his way back into the Tampa Bay lineup. Look for Alexeev to join former Avalanche first round selection and the equally enigmatic Mikhail Kuleshov on a line centered by former Harvard standout Steve Moore. This line is full of potential with lots of size, speed, and skill, and could be an explosive force for the Bears. Unfortunately, it could just as easily be the poster child for underachievers.
Evgeni Artukhin, W
According to Feaster, this first-year pro needs to be responsible defensively and learn the pro game as he makes his professional debut. He needs to avoid being pigeonholed as an enforcer early in his career. Two paths lay before this young Russian: development into a tough, physical, checking liner with more than a modicum of offensive skill; or a sad degeneration into an Andrei Nazarov-type sideshow act. The best place for Artukhin this season may be in the ECHL where he could get lots of ice time on a second scoring line, however, with Hershey’s intention of icing him with fellow tough guy Bruce Richardson, it seems Artukhin is destined to fourth line duties with an overemphasis on the more physical aspects of the game. This role would only suffice to strengthen the already strong part of his game (Artukhin is 6’5”, 240 pounds and loves to hit), while ignoring the development of his weaker areas (raw offensive skill set, hockey sense). Artukhin racked up three fighting majors in as many exhibition games for the Bears, as well as invoking the ire of the Binghamton Senators in such a way that it is expected that none other than Dennis Bonvie will be on the prowl for Artukhin when the two teams next meet. Unfortunately, between the two paths given, the developmental path Artukhin is on seems fairly clear at this point.
Eric Perrin, C
The free agent signing of Eric Perrin by the Bolts over the summer amounted to nothing less than a love-fest for the national hockey media enamored with the hope of predicting this year’s Cinderella story. Perrin’s explosive on-ice chemistry at the University of Vermont with Lightning All-Star Martin St. Louis is now very well documented. However, those fans clamoring for a sappy, sentimental, made-for-TV reunion of these former Catamount standouts will have to wait. Perrin has his work cut out for him as the Lightning is very deep with young talent at the center position. In addition to cornerstones Lecavalier and Brad Richards, Perrin must also compete with Tim Taylor, Svitov, and Cibak for a roster spot in Tampa. Perrin had a solid camp, notching three assists in three games, proving he could play at the NHL level. However, Perrin must now wait his turn, continue to develop his offensive skills and consistently hit the score sheet before making his long-awaited NHL debut. If Cibak falters in Tampa, look for Perrin to get the call-up before the currently disappointing Svitov. Perrin’s assignment in Hershey will likely be centering a second line that includes AHL veterans Travis Brigley and Steve Brule, as well as bringing some of the offense that recently made him a star in the Finnish Elite League.
Pascal Trepanier, D
Signed by the Lightning as a free agent this summer, Trepanier returns to the Bears where he was a popular member of the 1996-97 Calder Cup champions. Trepanier will be a leader on the blue line for a Bears squad sporting a number of young and talented Avalanche defensive prospects. He was recently selected to wear an ‘A’ on his jersey as Hershey begins regular season play. Trepanier should be ready for a recall to Tampa should the Bolts experience an extended injury on their blueline.
Shane Willis, W
The burning question is, “What more does Shane Willis need to do to win a roster spot in Tampa?” Willis had a solid training camp, showed he could both score and create scoring chances, played with an increased physical edge, and seemed to be the early favorite to win a winger spot on the Lecavalier line. However, being held out of the final two preseason games while the Lightning brass further evaluated Svitov, Alexeev, Afanasenkov, and Cibak served to further cast a confusing light on the situation. While some believe Willis to be persona non grata in Tampa, the organization insists that Willis needs to become a more all-round player. Lauded by Feaster and the coaching staff for his marked improved physical play in training camp this year, he has been challenged to drop the scoring line-only label that has been pinned to his sweater. While Willis has the skill to hold a scoring line position in the NHL, his chances of winning a roster spot in Tampa significantly increase if he’s able to pull a shift on a third or fourth line. However, scoring goals is what Shane Willis excels at, and he’ll be given every opportunity to do just that in Hershey. Willis didn’t disappoint in the season opener, notching a goal and an assist in his Bears debut. With the departure of Colorado’s Brian Willsie to the Capitals via the waiver draft, Willis will be called upon to fill a goal-scoring void. Look for Willis to work the right side on the top line in Hershey with Colorado top prospects Jordan Krestanovich and Charlie Stevens. With the great attitude he arrived with in Hershey and a continuation of his camp performance this year, Willis could finally get another chance to prove he belongs in the NHL should Afanasenkov falter. Then again, most thought Willis would get that chance last year, but never saw NHL ice.
HAMILTON BULLDOGS (AHL)
Under the Lightning’s partial affiliation agreement with Hamilton, the Bolts can assign up to four players to the team that also serves as the full-time affiliate of the Montreal Canadiens. Hamilton is coming off an appearance in last season’s Calder Cup finals and boasts a very deep team both in scoring forwards and on defense.
Andreas Holmqvist, D
Alexeev and Svitov aside, there probably wasn’t a bigger disappointment in this year’s Lightning training camp than former second round pick Andreas Holmqvist. Prior to camp, Holmqvist was slated to vie for a spot on the Bolt blueline, but by the time he was cut early in camp, it seemed he would be lucky to stay out of the ECHL. Beset with culture shock, the fact his immediate family had yet to arrive in the States, and the adjustment to the North American game, Hockey’s Future’s top Lightning prospect looked lost on the ice. The Lightning feels that once he settles in and gets comfortable, he will develop quickly. His top priority is to rediscover his game that he seems to have left in Sweden. That might be sooner rather than later, as Holmqvist quickly secured a roster spot on the Hamilton blueline by notching three goals in three exhibition games for the Bulldogs. With the surprising development of Dicaire, Tampa shouldn’t feel rushed to get Holmqvist to Tampa anytime soon. A full season in Hamilton with Calder Cup playoff experience and a wide variety of game situations will be good for Holmqvist both on and off the ice. Look for him to eventually be on the top defensive pairing in Hamilton on a team full of quality blueliners.
Jimmie Olvestad, W
Great speed, smarts, and hockey sense all characterize this Lightning veteran of two seasons. A former third rounder, Olvestad has been a mainstay on Tortorella’s checking lines using his speed on the forecheck and his smarts to create turnovers and hem in the opposition. However, as good as Olvestad is at forechecking, he is equally poor at finishing those opportunities he creates. Passed over in the waiver draft, if Olvestad is going to get back to Tampa, he will need to develop the offensive part of his game. He’ll have the opportunity to work on those skills as he may have the opportunity to center top Montreal wing prospects Alexander Perezhogin and Duncan Milroy.
Eero Somervuori, W
Prior to the start of training camp, a number of forecasters and prognosticators in the hockey media were listing Somervuori as a candidate for the Calder trophy, the NHL’s rookie-of-the-year award. The Lightning staff confirmed that Somervuori had a very strong camp and has shown he has the tools necessary to play in the NHL. However, even by Eero’s own admission, the speed of the NHL game and the reduced size of the rink were surprising. In Hamilton, Somervuori will need to get comfortable with the North American game and continue to develop both the offensive and defensive aspects of his game. The former seventh rounder will have every opportunity to excel as he is getting first line ice time with top Montreal prospects Tomas Plekanec and Jozef Belaj. If Afanasenkov falters and Willis truly is persona non grata in Tampa, then Somervuori’s chance to make a run for the Calder trophy may happen after all.
Alexander Svitov, C
Want a start-of-the-season analysis of Alexander Svitov? Easy. See Alexeev, Nikita. Like Alexeev, Svitov was all but guaranteed a roster spot before training camp and given every opportunity not to lose it. In fact, Svitov was the last player cut from the roster when he easily could have qualified as one of the first to be cut. He showed up to camp out of shape (a big no-no in Tortorella’s book), and ended up spending time performing extra conditioning drills when others were practicing. Like Alexeev, Svitov needs to work on his consistency, work ethic, and passion for the game. And like Alexeev, the former first rounder has all the tools to be a successful in the NHL, but needs to play with desperation every shift. With Perrin in the organization, the Bolts have the luxury of allowing Svitov to mature and they should take advantage of it. Svitov will likely center the Bulldogs second line and the Lightning would like to see a return of that nastiness in his personality that characterized his play as a Russian junior. Considering how that nastiness invoked the ire of many Canadian hockey fans during the World Juniors a few years ago, the fact that Svitov now finds himself playing in Ontario is nothing short of ironic.
UTAH GRIZZLIES (AHL)
While no official affiliation agreement exists between Tampa and the Utah club, Feaster managed to loan one player to the Dallas Stars AHL affiliate.
Gerard Dicaire (D)
While all the pre-camp hype on the Tampa blueline focused on Holmqvist, Dicaire quietly came to training camp and turned the heads of everyone from the GM, coaches, and fans. He did everything right, including moving the puck, playing sound defense, contributing offensively (scoring a power play goal in his first exhibition game), not committing turnovers, and not panicking with the puck during key times in games. The Lightning brass has admitted that Dicaire has raced up the organization’s depth chart. After ultimately getting cut from Tampa’s camp, Dicaire continued to contribute in Hershey at the Bears camp. Unfortunately, with the Avalanche loaded with defensive prospects, there was no room left for Dicaire in Hershey. In an instant, Dicaire became the season’s first casualty of Tampa’s dysfunctional minor league system. In fact, the Lightning was so impressed with Dicaire’s play they would have carried him on the opening day roster if they weren’t already committed to carrying eight defensemen. As an alternative, Feaster managed to loan Dicaire to the Utah Grizzlies rather than see him sent to Pensacola of the ECHL. However, the former two-time WHL All-star will have to compete for ice time with other blueline puckmovers in Salt Lake City like Andrew “Bubba” Berenzweig, and top Dallas prospect Trevor Daly.
Part 2 of this series will focus on Lightning prospects assigned to Pensacola of the ECHL and Wichita of the Central Hockey League.