Lightning form sole AHL affiliation with Springfield

By Pete Choquette





After three years of wandering the continent, Lightning prospects<br />finally have a place to call their own

After
three years of wandering the continent, Lightning prospects finally have a
place to call their own. Thursday afternoon Lightning General Manager
Jay Feaster finally made good on a two year old promise to secure the Lightning
its own full affiliation in the American Hockey League. With the Basketball
Hall of Fame as a backdrop, Feaster announced a three-year full affiliation
deal with the Springfield Falcons, which served as the Lightning’s
half-affiliate for two seasons from 2001-2003.

The
announcement marks the end of months of speculation and consternation over
Lightning prospect development which included rumors of deals which ranged from
Hershey, PA to Salt Lake City, UT, with Des Moines, IA and a yet to be named
destination for the dormant Louisville franchise in between.

“We
are extremely pleased to be affiliating with one of the best-run franchises in
the American Hockey League. I have known Bruce Landon for almost 15 years now
and have had the pleasure of working both with him the past two years and
against him for eight years in Hershey. He is one of the best owners and
operators in the AHL and consistently runs a first-class operation,” said
Feaster, whose AHL ties as former General Manager of the Hershey Bears had
failed him in his pursuit for a full affiliation for months.

Eight
Was Enough

When
the Lightning youngsters take the ice on opening night for the Falcons in the
fall of 2004, the organization will finally see the end of over eight years of
instability at the minor league level. Not since the 1995-1996 season when the
team was affiliated with the Atlanta Knights of the International Hockey League
has the Lightning held a full affiliation at the IHL or AHL levels in any city
for longer than a single year.

In
the time since, the team has seen its prospects hindered by a dysfunctional
developmental apparatus, and for over a half a decade it has reaped more than
its fair share of disappointment from dozens of draft picks who struggled at
reaching their potential as a consequence. The two-year relationship between
the Lightning and Adirondack Red Wings which lasted between 1996 and 1998 set
the theme for the era as the coaches in Adirondack, whose paychecks were signed
by the Detroit organization, hesitated to give much beyond paltry ice time to
all but the veteran players who the Lightning sent there.

After
a brief stint with the Cleveland Lumberjacks as a partial affiliate in
1997-1998 and as a full affiliate in 1998-1999, the Lightning appeared to have
finally solved their minor league woes in the summer of 1999 when Bill
Davidson, owner of the perennial Turner Cup contender Detroit Vipers of the
IHL, purchased the team.

However,
the shock of converting a team laden with IHL veterans into a team filled with
youthful, inexperienced, and often overmatched young Lightning prospects proved
a disaster in Detroit and when the IHL folded in the summer of 2000 so too did
the Vipers. From 2000-2002 the Lightning were the secondary affiliate to the
Phoenix Coyotes in Springfield and again felt themselves on the wrong end of
affiliation favoritism at the hands of coaches Marc Potvin and Marty McSorley,
the latter of whom is rumored to have had run ins with two of the Lightning’s
key Russian prospects.

This
season, the Lightning have been forced to utilize a more piecemeal approach
sending as many as six prospects to the Hershey Bears, four to the Hamilton
Bulldogs and a very lonely Gerard Dicaire to the Utah Grizzlies.
With only ten contractually obligated spaces at the AHL level, the team has
also been forced to send many key prospects like Evgeni Artukhin and Andreas
Holmqvist
down to the Pensacola Ice Pilots of the ECHL as well. Fortunately
for these prospects the announcement of the Springfield Falcons as full
affiliate for the next three years ensures the Lightning all of its prospects
will receive all the developmental ice time they need under the watchful eye of
a coach who is accountable to the organization and who can teach the
Lightning’s exciting brand aggressive forechecking hockey.

The
Shape of the 2004-2005 Falcons

In
the aftermath of the announcement, one question leapt to the mind of many
Falcons and Lightning fans alike. What will the 2004-2005 Springfield Falcons
look like? Below is the best guess at the shape of the 2004-2005 Falcons.

Left
Wing:

The
Lightning could boast an impressive array of size, speed, skill and grit on the
left wing of the Falcons. Pencil in Nikita Alexeev, who is currently recovering
from shoulder surgery, on the first line. Alexeev still struggles to find consistency
in his game, but there’s no doubt that at 6’5″ 215 pounds with blazing
speed, he is easily one of the most impressive young physical specimens in the
game today.

Behind
Alexeev, power forward prospect Adam Henrich is likely to come into
Springfield on the heels of a third straight 30 goal season with Brampton of
the OHL. Russian Superleague all-star and Team Russia EuroTour fixture Anton
But
, an impressive mix of speed and skill with a sniper’s ability to find
the back of the net, could also find his way to North America.

Rounding
out the group might be hard working veteran Dwayne Hay, who currently
plays for the Lightning in Pensacola, and massive Harvard winger Dennis
Packard
from the ECAC. Defensive specialist Jimmie Olvestad could also be
in the mix for the Falcons should he remain in the Lightning organization and,
more to the point, should he choose to remain in North America.

Center:

A
likely candidate for captain of the Falcons might be the diminutive AHL
All-Star Eric Perrin, who has piled up numbers for the Hershey Bears so
impressive that he stands head and shoulders above most of the league on them. Ryan
Craig
, a savvy player beyond his years who has played wing on Perrin’s line
for much of the season, could return to center on the second line.

Another
option could be the Lightning top prospect, Alex Polushin, who was well
on his way to an impressive season for CSKA of the Russian Superleague this
year before injuring his knee in a collision with a teammate in practice.
Polushin can play both the wing and center and might provide the long-term
replacement for Alex Svitov, who departed the Lightning organization in the
Darryl Sydor deal. Rounding out the position current Ice Pilots fan favorite Jean-Francois
Soucy
, who has rattled the boards in Pensacola all season, adds speed,
energy and grit to the lineup.

Right
Wing:

The
greatest strength of the Springfield Falcons next season might be at the right
wing position where the team could boast two outstanding veteran scorers, a
former SM-liiga MVP candidate, and another one of the most impressive young
specimens in the sport. Topping the list is Shane Willis who currently leads
the Hershey Bears in goals, despite the fact he spent over a month in Tampa
with the big club.

Behind
him is Sheldon Keefe, the proverbial junkyard dog, who blends maddening
intensity with the scoring touch of a former OHL scoring champion with Barrie.
Tiny speedster Eero Somervuori, currently playing solidly on a checking line in
Hamilton, was amongst the league leaders in Finland in scoring for two years
straight before coming to North America this season and adds even more potency
to any potential Falcons lineup. Who wouldn’t like to see a line of Anton But,
Alex Polushin, and Eero Somervuori together, other than Falcons opponents?
6’4″ 245-pound Evgeni Artukhin might add even more size and muscle to a
Falcons crash line which could also include Packard and Soucy. Out of the WHL,
Medicine Hat winger Darren Reid will contribute toughness, character and
an emerging scoring touch to the already impressive mix.

Defensemen:

Any
discussion of a solid team at any level usually begins with experience on the
backline, and the Falcons could have two key veterans in Darren Rumble and
Pascal Trepanier, who currently leads all Hershey defensemen in scoring. Behind
them, the Lightning is bristling with talented youth like puckmoving power play
wizard Gerard Dicaire, who nearly made the team out of training camp, and
Andreas Holmqvist who has all the necessary components to develop into a
top-four NHL defenseman in his own right with good size, speed, skill and a
booming right-handed point shot.

Ice
Pilots veteran captain Jeremy Van Hoof is solid as a rock and has been
deserving of a shot at the AHL for some time now, and the corps could be
rounded out by rangy young defensemen Doug O’Brien of the P.E.I. Rocket
of the QMJHL and Paul Ranger of the Oshawa Generals of the OHL.

Goaltending:

Starting
goaltending for the Falcons is an issue the Lightning certainly will be forced
to look into. Elitserian and SM-liiga veteran Fredrik Norrena is enjoying an
outstanding season with Linkopings in Sweden, but the team may look for a more
seasoned AHL veteran to fill the Falcons’ starting spot and serve as the
Lightning’s emergency goaltender.

Brian
Eklund
is having an impressive season as Pensacola’s No. 1
goaltender and will almost certainly be in the mix having won the spot from
disappointing former third round pick Evgeny Konstantinov whose lax work
ethic may finally buy him a one way bus ticket out of the Lightning
organization.

Eklund,
6’5”, will be but the first of many big goaltenders set to come through
Springfield in the coming years with 6’4″ Gerald Coleman of London
of the OHL, 6’5″ Joseph Pearce of Boston College in the Hockey East
conference, and 6’6″ Vasily Koshechkin of Lada Togliatti in
Russia’s Superleague all in the pipeline.

Coaching:

There
are some obvious candidates to take the role of head coach of the Falcons next
season. Former Phantoms and Flyers head coach Bill Barber might relish the
addition of Falcons Head Coach to his current title as Director of Player
Development for the Lightning as might western pro scout Dirk Graham.

One
name to watch that you might not know is current Pensacola Ice Pilots coach
Todd Gordon. Hockey’s Future’s Timothy Bennett has learned that the Lightning
intend to put Gordon on their short list for the Falcons job as he has
impressed the team in the past three seasons grooming prospects from Van Hoof
to Artukhin for the team’s ECHL affiliate.

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