Springfield Falcons season preview

By Timothy Bennett

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A new era in Springfield Falcons hockey begins tonight
with a brand-new sole affiliation with the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay
Lightning. With the dawning of this new era, Falcons fans will need their
program guides close at hand in order to recognize a completely revamped roster
and coaching staff.

 

However,
the changes should be exciting for the Springfield faithful, as the new
affiliation brings the wide-open style of Tampa Bay Lightning hockey. style="mso-spacerun: yes">
For the Bolts, it marks the first time since
the 2000-01 campaign in which the organization will have a full minor league
affiliation, a new era for a club whose prospect development has no doubt been
stunted.

 

Tampa’s
affiliation agreement includes the provision for the organization to provide a
full roster to the Falcons, and Bolt GM Jay Feaster has accomplished that with
a creative mix of offseason veteran signings coupled with his stable of young,
solid NHL prospects.

 

Goaltending

 

Headlining
the Springfield roster this season is veteran NHL netminder Jamie Storr. Storr
was brought in by Tampa to provide some much needed depth in the organization
behind Nikolai Khabibulin and John Grahame. The Falcons reap the benefits as
Storr not only brings a marquee name to the franchise, but more importantly
gives Springfield a legitimate chance to win each time he is in net. A 10-year
NHL veteran with 219 games under his belt, Storr instantly brings stability and
credibility to the club.

 

Storr
will take some pressure off of Tampa’s top goaltending prospect style='mso-bidi-font-weight:normal'>Brian Eklund by assuming the majority
of starts and providing veteran leadership and mentoring. With the NHL lockout
in place, both 24-year-old Eklund and 29-year-old Storr should benefit from
working directly with Lightning goaltending coach Jeff Reese.

 

Defense

 

Anchoring
the Falcon blueline this season are storied AHL veterans Darren Rumble and
Terry Virtue. The experience and accolades that both Rumble and Virtue bring to
the team will be critical in mentoring and shaping Tampa’s cache of young,
skilled defensive prospects. There may
be more accomplishments in store for these two greybeards, as they could easily
combine for as many as 50 points playing within a Tampa system that encourages
defensemen to pinch in and contribute offensively.

 

Joining
these grisly veteran backliners will be five of Tampa’s top defensive
prospects, all ranked in Hockey’s Future Lightning Top 10. The Bolts have
assembled a large stable of big, mobile defenseman headlined by 2003 second
round pick and top Bolt defensive prospect Mike
Egener
. Joining Egener on the Falcon blueline are fellow prospects style='mso-bidi-font-weight:normal'>Gerard Dicaire, Andreas Holmqvist, Doug
O’Brien
, and Paul Ranger.
O’Brien and Ranger are two youngsters to keep an eye on. style="mso-spacerun: yes">
Both are coming off impressive junior
campaigns and have been impressive during training camp, specifically called
out by Feaster as being the best blueliners during the preseason. Free agent
signees Marc Busenburg and Harlan Pratt will provide depth for the mix of
veterans and prospects.

 

Forwards

 

The
Falcons offense should be far from anemic this season with the likes of
veterans Shane Willis, Craig Darby, and Jarrod Skalde as cornerstones on the
scoring lines. Willis heads the potent Springfield offense and has a legitimate
shot at making a run for the AHL scoring title. Darby, who could easily notch
another 70-point season in this lineup, will likely center first line. Skalde
will center the Falcons second scoring line, and at 35 years of age will
provide veteran leadership up front and give the Falcons a dynamic 1-2 punch
down the middle.

 

Likely
to join Willis and Darby on Springfield’s top line is the Lightning’s top left
wing prospect Adam Henrich. Henrich
led all Falcon players in scoring during the preseason. Feaster has
consistently noted him as one of the team’s three best forwards this fall and
he could potentially make a run at Rookie of the Year honors skating with
Willis and Darby.

 

Players
that are likely to spend some time on the Falcons second scoring line with
Skalde are wingers Evgeni Artukhin, style='mso-bidi-font-weight:normal'>Darren Reid, and Nikita Alexeev.
Artukhin had a solid training camp as a second year pro and possesses
phenomenal size and speed to go along with his mile-wide mean streak. Reid, the
rookie out of Medicine Hat, is a gritty, hard-nosed player with great hands, a
hard shot, and good hockey smarts. The enigmatic Alexeev has much to prove not
only to the Tampa organization, but also to the Falcon faithful in general, who
remember him in a poor light from the 2002-03 season. Clearly this is a make or
break season for the 2000 eighth overall pick who has yet to live up to his
high billing.

 

The
continued solid play from Tampa prospect Nick
Tarnasky
during camp has left head coach Dirk Graham no choice but to give
him the centering duties for the checking line, moving second year pro style='mso-bidi-font-weight:normal'>Ryan Craig to wing. style="mso-spacerun: yes">
Like Henrich, Tarnasky has been consistently
cited by Feaster as being one of the team’s three best forwards. Along with the
gritty duo of Tarnasky and Craig, Springfield’s checking line will be rounded out
with Artukhin, Reid, or Alexeev.

 

Anchoring
Springfield’s fourth line will most likely be recent free agent signee style='mso-bidi-font-weight:normal'>Andre Deveaux. He will frequently be
flanked by perennial AHL tough guy Steve McLaren and Tampa’s super-pest
prospect Jean-François Soucy. Mitch
Fritz will help McLaren patrol the ice and keep the opposition honest, while
hulking Harvard University power forward Dennis
Packard
may grab a cup of coffee from time to time as a depth player.

 

Outlook

 

Expect
a slow start out of the gate for the Falcons, as the whole of the organization
from top to bottom gets acclimated. New affiliation, new coaches, new roster,
and upwards of eight rookie players means it will take some time for chemistry
to develop. The defensive corps, despite the presence of Rumble and Virtue, will
be largely young and untested rookies, and will be challenged by the speed and
skill of the AHL game.

 

With
Storr between the pipes, the goaltending should be solid and there should be
plenty of offense. Defense will certainly remain a question mark and a risk, as
well as the team’s lack of depth in Johnstown (ECHL) and Adirondack (UHL).
Because of question marks on defense, especially determining how the rookies
will become acclimated to professional hockey, it’s hard to predict if the team
will be among the best in the league as at least one publication as projected,
or if they will be a bubble playoff team. Regardless, the future for the
Falcons in Springfield is bright as the Tampa organization is firmly committed
to building a perennial AHL contender.

 

Copyright
2004 Hockey’s Future. Do not duplicate
without permission of the editorial staff.

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