After winning the Stanley Cup in the 2003-04 season, the Tampa Bay Lightning made a quiet but important move to ensure that they would become perennial playoff contenders. The Lightning turned their eye towards the future and the development of their prospects by securing their own AHL affiliate, the Springfield Falcons. The team also became part-owner of ECHL affiliate Johnstown Chiefs.
“In the past, and I’m talking in the Pre-Mr. Davidson era, we didn’t have our own farm team and it showed,” explained Lightning Chief Scout Jake Goertzen. “Our prospects were all over. We really had no homes for them. They weren’t being developed. We had no system. It was more hit and miss. Now, we have all of our players in Springfield, plus in Johnstown, which is proving to be very, very good for us. We have a couple of goaltenders there, a couple of guys who struggled at the AHL level go down there and get their confidence back. Both of our farm teams the coaches are hired by the Lightning and they coach the same system that we coach up here.”
Goertzen, who’s been with the Lightning for 14 years, believes that having an entire AHL affiliate devoted to developing Lightning prospects and helping them learn the Lightning’s system has already begun to pay off. Specifically, in the case of defenseman Paul Ranger and right wing Evgeni Artyukhin, it has helped both players succeed with the NHL club.
“I think this really helped Paul and Arty to have played under [Springfield Head Coach Dirk] Graham who coached the same system. If it weren’t have been for playing in Springfield last year, playing the same systems we have here they would have struggled a lot more. They wouldn’t have fit in like they have,” Goertzen argued.
But instead of struggling, both Ranger and Artyukhin have not only managed to keep their roster spots, they have also begun to excel.
Ranger, a big, mobile defenseman, was drafted in 2002. He spent last season in the AHL, appearing in 69 games and notching 3 goals and 11 points. This season, Ranger was sent down during training camp and appeared in just one AHL game, scoring a goal and two assists, before being recalled.
“Well I think initially it was a bit of a surprise,” Goertzen admitted. “We had a couple of other guys on the farm who we thought were ahead of him. Paul had a pretty good camp and then he took it upon himself to go back and play hard. He didn’t pout. He didn’t feel sorry for himself. He went right back to Springfield and played hard. We base our call-ups on merit and when [GM] Jay [Feaster] called down there for a defenseman they said that Ranger was the best guy and he was. He’s made the most of his opportunities.”
Ranger has stepped up to become the Lightning’s sixth defenseman while averaging 16:01 minutes of ice time. He’s appeared in 28 NHL games, notching 6 points and is on pace to surpass his numbers from the previous season. Hard work and familiarity with Tampa Bay’s style of play allowed the young defenseman to focus on his adjustment to the NHL and the new rules.
Thus far, Ranger’s biggest adjustment has been to the NHL’s crackdown on obstruction. Like most defensemen across the league, the first-year player has had to cope with defending his own end without drawing penalties.
“I think the only real adjustment has been to get used to not being able to hook and grab,” Ranger said. “You can’t spin guys around like you used to be able to, tie guys up like you used to be able to. I think that’s the biggest difference. All those interference calls, everything’s being called right now.”
But Ranger has made the adjustment to the new rules and thus far, his play has pleased the Lightning brass.
“Paul has done amazingly well for stepping into the line-up and pretty much putting the sixth defenseman spot on,” Goertzen said. “He’s getting plenty of minutes and the coaches seem to have a lot confidence in him. He’s a puck-moving defenseman and he’s just fit in really, really well. He’s a good skater. He sees the ice really well and I don’t think it’s a push that someday he’ll be in the top four.”
Artyukhin has transitioned well from the AHL to the NHL this season as well. The right wing spent last season in Springfield where he scored 28 points in 62 games, a dramatic improvement over the previous year when he scored just 3 goals and 6 points in 36 games.
“He’s really come on in the last couple of years,” Goertzen recounted. “He’s one of the biggest fastest skaters in the league right now. He’s really adapted well to the coaching so we’ve been really pleased with him.”
Artyukhin attributes his improved play with the familiarity he has with Tampa Bay’s system of play.
“They played the same system down there [Springfield] and it helped so much,” said Artyukhin “They play the same system down there as here so I’ve been playing it for two years and that helps a lot.”
In 27 games with Tampa Bay, Artyukhin has a goal and 7 assists at the NHL level. He’s averaged 9:38 minutes of ice time while playing on Tampa Bay’s fourth line.
“Right now, he’s expected to check and hunt down the puck and pursue the puck and make things happen physically,” Goertzen explained. “He’s had a few opportunities on the top two lines but right now he’s on the bottom two so he’s got to make things happen with his body and his speed.”
The Moscow native isn’t afraid to throw his 6’4 and 254 pounds frame around. In his two previous seasons in the AHL level, Artyukhin has tallied over 100 penalty minutes in each season. He leads the Lightning and ranks sixth among all rookies with 51 hits.
“I try to play hard and try to play physical. That’s my game,” said Artyukhin.
“I think that as the NHL and some of the players get used to the new rules, some of the physical play more of the physical will come back,” Goertzen argued. “Especially a guy like him that can skate the way he can skate and play a complete game. It’s not that he’s just out there to fight. He uses his body and hits people hard. So there’s still a place for people like that for sure.”
The Lightning are quick to point out that Artyukhin isn’t just a big body. It was his great combination of size and speed that led the team to draft him in 2001 and a big reason why they are so high on him. The 22-year-old has also proven that he knows how to use his size and speed. In 53 games at the QMJHL, Artyukhin tallied 13 goals and 40 points s well as an impressive 200 minutes in penalties. Numbers like these have convinced the Lightning that the talented Russian could soon be moving up in the near future.
“I think that he can be a third line player for sure,” said Goertzen. “A very, very good third line player and there’s a possibility that he will move up to the top two lines.”
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