Part II of the Lightning minor league preview examines the five players the Lightning has assigned to its affiliate in the East Coast Hockey League, as well as one unsigned prospect playing in the Central Hockey League.
PENSACOLA ICE PILOTS (ECHL)
There were wholesale changes this summer in the panhandle of Florida as Philadelphia Flyers hall-of-famer Tim Kerr emerged as the new owner of the Ice Pilots. Kerr has committed to insuring that the Ice Pilots are financially healthy off the ice and competitive on the ice. One thing that didn’t change with the club was the affiliation agreement with Tampa. After signing on for another year, Pensacola is set to open its new season with two new prospects from the Lightning and three familiar faces.
Ryan Craig, C
Ryan Craig raised some eyebrows in training camp this season, earning himself further evaluation in two exhibition games. Craig’s invitation to Lightning camp was contingent on his performance at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament. Craig had a strong showing, earning himself a trip to Brandon, Florida. In his two exhibition appearances, the former eighth round gem showed better skating than was advertised, a strong, heady two-way game, and decent offensive skills. His smarts on the ice were prominent in his performance. Eventually Craig was cut from the Lightning camp, but promptly impressed Hershey Bears head coach Paul Fixter during practices and scrimmages. However, the Bolts had far too few available spots in Hershey for Craig, even though he had a legitimate claim to an AHL berth. The former Brandon Wheat King captain and WHL All-Star still needs to work on his skating and foot speed in order to eventually make the Bolt roster. Not just top end speed, but also (and more importantly) he needs improvement in his lateral movement, quickness, and agility. He, like most prospects, needs to further mature as a player and adjust to the speed of professional hockey. Craig is a true leader, and may end up wearing a letter in Pensacola some time this season. He is sure to quickly become a fan favorite due to his work ethic and ability to produce offensively.
Brian Eklund, G
After playing strong in pre-exhibition scrimmages, the 6’5” Eklund was struck during practice one day in the collarbone by a puck off a Jean-Francois Soucy slapshot. After a few scary hours that included a trip to the hospital, the injury was determined to be minor (bruised collarbone) and merely warranted sitting out a few days of camp. Upon being assigned to the Hershey training camp, Eklund was struck again in almost the exact location by another puck, forcing him to miss additional time. Eklund, a former seventh rounder, returns to Pensacola where he played in 19 games as a backup goaltender for the Ice Pilots last season. He will attempt to rise to Feaster’s challenge of becoming the team’s number one goalie. He’ll have to do that against fellow Lightning prospect Evgeny Konstantinov, however, who was recently recalled from assignment in the Russian SuperLeague.
Evgeny Konstantinov, G
It seems like a broken record with a number of the Lightning’s Russian prospects: lack of consistency, work ethic, and passion, but huge upside. This preseason has been a big step backwards for the top goalie prospect in the organization. Konstantinov wasn’t invited to Tampa’s training camp, instead being assigned to the Severstal Cherepovets of the Russian SuperLeague. The move was made because there was no guaranteed spot in either Hershey or Hamilton for Konstantinov, and after an inconsistent showing for AHL Springfield last year, Feaster felt Konstantinov was too good for the ECHL. The hope was Konstantinov would find playing time in his native Russia, and could be recalled to Tampa as the No. 3 anytime before mid-January. However, after going a month into the Russian season without a start, Feaster reassigned him to Pensacola. The move followed the call-up of goaltender Scott Dickie to Springfield, which opened up a spot with the Ice Pilots. Evidently Feaster thought playing in an ECHL net was better than warming an RSL bench. Konstantinov, a former third rounder, still has all the physical tools to be a starting NHL goalie, but has been disappointing thus far in his assignments in both the AHL and ECHL. In a contract year in front of what is certain to be an unforgiving home crowd in Pensacola, Konstantinov may have one last chance to continue his career with new netminder prospects Jonathan Boutin and Gerald Coleman biting at his heels.
Jean-Francois Soucy, C
Playing time is a must for this newly discovered bright spot in the Tampa system. After a surprising training camp last season in which Soucy netted a hattrick against Atlanta in his only exhibition game, and a subsequent solid, if not spectacular, junior season, Soucy was awarded a three year rookie contract this summer by the Lightning. Soucy proved his signing was no fluke with a very good performance in this year’s training camp in Tampa, as he continues to win over his skeptics. Soucy showed his advertised speed and quickness in NHL exhibition games, while showing he is willing to go into high traffic areas and play physical hockey at all times of the game. While on the power play against the Hurricanes, a forechecking Soucy knocked quasi-tough guy Sean Hill flat on his back. Hill was slow to get up after the play, which ignited at least two scrums and put a target on Soucy’s back the rest of the game. Soucy has the tools to be a true power forward, but will need lots of playing time to develop. The 6’3” 185-pound former eighth rounder also must put weight on his thin frame, even though he has good balance. The ECHL is probably a good place to start his pro career, but some would argue that he has made a legitimate claim for an AHL berth. Soucy has the potential to set the ECHL on fire if he doesn’t let his disappointing assignment distract him.
Jeremy Van Hoof, D
Like Craig and Soucy, Van Hoof is another example of a player in the Bolt system victimized by the lack of a full AHL affiliation. This solid stay-at-home defenseman had a good camp in Tampa and in Hamilton, but his lack of foot speed and quickness kept him from cracking the Bulldogs lineup, though the lack of roster spots available for Tampa prospects contributed to the decision. The former seventh rounder was also unable to find his way into the Lightning lineup for an exhibition game. If Tampa had a full affiliate, Van Hoof would no doubt be given a legitimate shot at the AHL. With virtually nothing left to prove at the ECHL level, but having nowhere else to go, the Pensacola faithful gladly welcome back this solid defender.
WICHITA THUNDER (CHL)
Henrik Bergfors, D
The Lightning attempted to sign Bergfors to a pro contract earlier this summer but was unable to get the gritty Swedish blueliner to withdraw his demand for a sizeable signing bonus. Had Bergfors signed that contract, he would now be playing in Pensacola. Instead, his agent managed to get him signed to an independent pro contract with the Wichita Thunder of the Central Hockey League. The Lightning would have been keeping an eye on him this season to see if he can demonstrate he can play North American hockey. If he had, the likelihood of Tampa and Bergfors coming to some sort of contract agreement would improve. That demonstration took a step backward during Wichita’s second exhibition game, however, as Bergfors suffered a shoulder injury in a game against the Tulsa Oilers that, according to initial reports, will require season-ending surgery. Bergfors must now spend an extra year proving he is healthy enough to continue his development as a physical backliner, as well as make the Lightning realize he’s worth the investment. Injury aside, reports out of the Thunder camp indicated team officials were unimpressed with Bergfors’ skating and understanding of the game. Bergfors experiment in using the CHL as stepping-stone to a contract with Tampa has only served to confuse the future of his development.