The Tampa Bay Lightning entered the 2005-06 NHL regular season only 14 months removed from being Stanley Cup champions. Thus, it was no secret that expectations were high in this, the first season in the post-lockout era.
Tampa Bay was not returning to the ice with the same line-up that helped them shock the world in 2004. Gone was the Lightning’s last line of defense, goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, as well as stalwart stay-at-home defenseman Jassen Cullimore, both heading on to Chicago, and the team’s second leading scorer in Cory Stillman, who joined the Carolina Hurricanes.
While the losses of these key pieces of Tampa Bay’s Stanley Cup run may have hurt the Lightning, and likely have played a role in their barely sneaking into the playoffs, garnering the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, and facing an early round departure, the holes created by their voids allowed Tampa Bay to apprentice a few of their top prospects into future roles with the big club. While ten rookies suited up for the Lightning for the first time, it was the contributions of three young players that were most apparent.
The Lightning youth movement did not seem readily apparent initially, as only one rookie cracked Tampa Bay’s opening day roster. Swiss-born defenseman Timo Helbling made his NHL debut against Carolina. Boasting great size and decent two-way play, it was hoped that the former Nashville prospect would stick with the Lightning for the duration of the season, but the arrival of another rookie defenseman in the fold made Helbling’s stay with the Lightning a short one.
The call-up of defenseman Paul Ranger after only one game with Springfield would soon lead to Helbling’s demotion to Springfield, and would give the future of the Lightning defense hope. It did not take long for Ranger to show the Lightning that their decision to recall him from the AHL after only one game was not rushed, despite his being a victim of the first round of training camp. Of all the rookies to see action on the 2005-06 Tampa squad, Ranger made the greatest impact.
Ranger entered training camp with an outside shot at cracking the Lightning roster, however, a slow start to camp resulted in his early demotion down to Springfield’s AHL camp. Ranger would return to the NHL far sooner than anyone anticipated. After a strong Springfield camp and a three-point outing in his first game with the Falcons, Ranger was recalled to get a taste of the NHL game, as Helbling struggled to adapt to the pace of the NHL game. Ranger’s impact on the Lightning blue line was nearly immediate. Though he began the season generally playing less than 15 minutes a game, it was not long before Ranger’s defensive confidence and poise led to him slowly being given a greater role with the Lightning, occasionally seeing action on special teams, honing his defensive game, making the safe play, cutting down the angles and not taking risks.
Not only did Ranger show great improvement in his own end over the course of the season, he also proved himself to be an adept puck-handler with great offensive awareness. Though it took him until the end of March to score his first NHL goal, he had already made the score sheet several times previously thanks to his great first pass. Coupled with adept skating ability, and bolstered by constant hard work, Ranger has proven to be a valuable addition to the Lightning squad. Though he was slowed by a minor concussion after a vicious elbow midseason, it did not slow him upon his return, and he never missed a beat. Ranger finished the season with one goal and 17 assists, after appearing in 76 games, and putting up a +8 rating on a team that gave up more goals than it scored.
Ranger further elevated his game in the playoffs, playing big minutes in the Lightning’s series against the Ottawa Senators. The exclamation point on Ranger’s playoff came when he notched not one, but two goals in Tampa’s 8-4 loss to Ottawa in Game 4. Ranger finished the five-game series with six points, second only to Brad Richards. Not a bad finish to a season for a former sixth-round pick who was among the first cuts in September.
Also seeing action for the first time on the Tampa Bay blue line was Doug O’Brien, who appeared in five games for the Lightning. After making his debut at the end of January, he received a second late season call-up, appearing in occasional spot duty on the Lightning point. In his five games, O’Brien, who was a big part of the Falcons blue line, went pointless with two penalty minutes. Perhaps next year he will be given a longer look.
Five forwards made their Tampa Bay debuts this season, with two making big impacts. The first Lightning rookie forward to get the call-up from the farm was the mammoth Russian power-forward in the making, Evgeni Artyukhin. Built like a tank – a very large tank – and with above average speed and strength as well as a willingness to hit to hurt, Artyukhin is a valuable physical presence on the Lightning fourth line. Originally a bit of a project, Artyukhin received his call-up early in the season, and stuck around for the duration, seeing occasional duty on the second and third lines before finding his niche on the team’s energy line. Prone to occasional discipline issues – Artyukhin was suspended for a helmet-swinging incident against Ottawa in March – Artyukhin’s physical play was still a welcome addition.
Artyukhin finished the season picking up four goals and 13 assists in 72 games, and posting -1 rating alongside 90 penalty minutes. Artyukhin will look to bring a more complete game to the table next season, but his spot is more or less assured thanks to his heavy-hitting, intimidating style of play.
Receiving a call-up at the same time as Artyukhin, in late October, was former ninth-round selection Nick Tarnasky. The gritty, hard-working forward saw action in 12 games, picking up one assist while playing on the team’s fourth line. He will look to try to win a spot on the fourth line next season, and given the stocky forward’s desire to succeed, he should have a good chance. The professional experience he gained will be a boon in furthering his development next year.
The biggest impact made by a Tampa Bay rookie forward came midway through the season, when the hard-working Ryan Craig finally got his comeuppance, earning his oft-delayed promotion to the Lightning. Craig, despite showing great leadership and posting strong offensive numbers with the Falcons, saw many of his teammates gain promotions before he did. It was just a matter of time before it was eventually Craig who received the call to go to Tampa, and that call came in mid-December, debuting against Detroit on the 17th.
Craig made the most of this opportunity, picking up a goal in the second period of the 6-3 loss. He then notched his second professional goal in his second game with the club, thereby entrenching his roster spot with the Lightning. Craig thus jumped onto the top two lines nearly overnight, and never looked back. It did not take long for Craig to be given the responsibility of being one of the team’s top penalty-killers, also seeing plenty of time on the power-play unit. Defensively responsible, offensively aware, and a tireless worker at both ends of the ice, the gritty forward was entrusted with important roles and did not disappoint. Craig is also very versatile. Not only is he an adept centerman, and able to pay stand in front of the net paying the physical toll that comes along with that role, he is also willing to do the dirty work along the boards when he is playing wing.
Craig finished the season with 15 goals, 13 assists, in only 48 games, posting a respectable –4 rating. His 15 goals place him tied for second for goals among Lightning rookies. Long a key contributor for Springfield, the one-time draft afterthought is now a mainstay for the big club. While it may be too early gauge, Craig may be in line for a letter some time down the line, given his strong leadership ability and his past duty as Springfield’s captain.
Two other rookie forwards earned call-ups to the Lightning over the course of the season. Darren Reid was called up at the same time as Craig, appearing in seven games for the Lightning and picking up one assist, seeing spot duty. Reid played in 50 games for Springfield. Also, long-time AHLer Norm Milley appeared in games in his fourth NHL season (though he is still considered a rookie), picking up two goals and one assist in 14 games for the Lightning, as he was shuffled in and out of the line-up in the second half of the season. During his AHL stay, Milley compiled nearly a point a game.
Tampa Bay also had two rookie goaltenders garner a look with the big club. Brian Eklund earned an emergency call-up in early November, appearing in one game, a 3-2 loss against the Montreal Canadiens, in which he turned aside 16 shots. Former London Knights netminder Gerald Coleman, on the back of a strong first professional season with Springfield, also saw spot duty, coming in for relief duty in two games, turning aside 15 of the 17 shots he faced in over two periods of work.
With prospects Andy Rogers and Mike Egener on the brink, as well as many of the cup-of-coffee rookies in Coleman, Eklund, Tarnasky, O’Brien and Reid deserving of another look, there will likely be many rookies making their breakthrough on next year’s Lightning roster. Whether they will make impacts on the degree of those made by Ranger, Craig, and Artyukhin remains to be seen.
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