Lightning AHL prospects season review

By Phil Laugher


The Springfield Falcons entered the 2005-06 campaign hoping to right the ship after suffering through their worst season in franchise history, and the lowest point total (57) for a Springfield-based squad since the 1976-77 Indians. Having missed the playoffs in four of the past five seasons was something that the Falcons coaching staff, headed up by a returning Dirk Graham, hoped to drastically improve upon.

While there was some improvement for Springfield in total points (8), and goals scored (59), the Falcons still missed the playoffs by a wide margin. When looking at their respectable start to the season, it would be hard to believe that the Falcons would be so far out of the playoff race come the end of the season. At the end of November, the Falcons were two games above .500 and on pace for a playoff position. However, the team’s fortunes would take a bad turn mid-December. Springfield sat four games over after defeating Manchester on Dec. 10. Little did they know that that would be their last win in the 2005 calendar year, and that they would have to wait until the fourth week of January until their next win.

After defeating the Monarchs, the Falcons proceeded to drop their next 13 games – only two of which did they pick up a point for an overtime or shootout loss – and their season was thus effectively over. For the remainder of the season, with their better players seeing time up with Tampa Bay, the Falcons flitted further with mediocrity, finishing the season outside of the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons, and ending up 12th in their conference.

Forwards

It was a series of these call-ups that put a halt to Springfield’s modest start. Clearly the recalling of captain and leader Ryan Craig to the Tampa Bay Lightning in mid-December was a key factor in Springfield’s mid-season decline, and the fact that he was not returned to the AHL for the duration of the season was integral in Springfield’s inability to right the ship. At the time of his call-up, Craig had picked up 22 points in 28 games for the Falcons, and was among the team leaders.

While the loss of Craig’s offensive talent certainly hurt Springfield, it was his tireless work ethic and on-ice leadership that was missed most by the Falcons and their faithful. The fact that he was not returned to Springfield — thanks to his immediate impact in the Lightning roster – was a bane of Springfield’s late season chances. During his stay with Springfield, Craig developed from being a late-round afterthought to one of the better leaders in the American Hockey League, in less than three years.

Also called up at the same time as Craig, at the start of Springfield’s major slump, was Darren Reid, who was not counted on for his offensive presence, but rather his increased contributions on the Falcons checking line. Reid had begun to round into form after having a sub-par first professional season, and has started to find a niche on Springfield’s third line, alongside fellow occasional call-up Nick Tarnasky. After a year of inconsistency, Reid focused on improving his all-around game, and brought stronger defensive play and hard, grinding work against the opposition’s top players. Despite the fact Springfield gave up far more goals than they did the previous season, Reid’s plus/minus rating was cut in half from the previous year. Though he was slowed for a short time by a minor knee injury, Reid has become a more complete player, now knows his role on the team, and is thus more valuable to Springfield as a result. Reid finished the season with 17 points in 50 games.

Playing alongside Reid on the checking line was Tarnasky, a tenacious, hard-nosed, physical forward with a bit of a mean streak who also garnered a short stint with Tampa Bay due to his intense defensive work. Like Craig, Tarnasky was a late-round pick for the Lightning, and had to work hard for all of his chances. The fact that a ninth-round selection was able to make his NHL debut so soon after being drafted — the only ninth-rounder from the 2003 draft class to make an NHL appearance — is indicative of his work ethic. A great defensive forward, who, like Reid, lowered his plus/minus despite a defensive decline for the Falcons, Tarnasky too, may see more time away from Springfield than in Springfield next season. Tarnasky finished the season with 14 goals, 23 points, in 68 games.

One of the greatest additions to this year’s Falcons squad was the player who ended up being the team’s leading scorer, free agent acquisition Ryan Vesce. Vesce, a graduate of Cornell, was signed after having a strong campaign playing in Sweden. Small in stature but big in skill, Vesce picked up 67 points after appearing in 80 games, enough to lead the team in scoring. Also helping pick up the slack in scoring created by the voids created by Craig and Evgeni Artyukhin (who appeared in only four games for Springfield before being called up to the Lightning) were veteran minor leaguers Jason Jaspers, who picked up a team-high 29 goals, Norm Milley, who scored at a near point-a-game pace, until he, too, was recalled by Tampa Bay, and late-season acquisition Zdenek Blatny, who picked up 29 points in 31 games after coming over from the Boston Bruins organization.

Marek Kvapil was another solid addition to the Falcons front line, having played last season with the Ontario Hockey League’s Saginaw Spirit. Kvapil, Tampa Bay’s 2005 sixth round selection, was second among Springfield rookies in scoring, picking up 45 points in 77 games, playing on the Falcons second line for the most part. A strong skater with great stickhandling abilities, Kvapil will look to improve his two-way game next season for the Falcons, likely in an increased role.

Zbynek Hrdel made the jump to the professional ranks from the Memorial Cup with runner-up Rimouski. Splitting time between Springfield and Johnstown, Hrdel made modest progressions in his all-around game, picking up 15 points in 41 games for the Falcons, seeing playing time in the back-end of the Falcons line-up. Former second-round selection Adam Henrich also saw spot duty with the Falcons, picking up three points in 12 games, though he showed some improvement in his game in the ECHL, posting strong offensive numbers. The Henrich project appears to be on again in earnest. Former Montreal draft pick and fellow project Andre Deveaux continued his development in his second season with Springfield. Playing on the fourth line, the physical centerman picked up 11 points and 135 penalty minutes in 59 games, splitting time between Springfield and Johnstown. Finally, former seventh-round selection, hulking winger Dennis Packard returned to the Falcons, also splitting time between the AHL and the ECHL, picking up nine points in 46 games.

Defense

It was expected that Paul Ranger would have been one of Springfield’s top defensemen this season, coming off a strong first professional season. However, that was not to be. Ranger appeared in only one game for the Falcons this season, picking up an impressive three points. He was immediately recalled to Tampa Bay, stepped right into the line-up, playing confidently and responsibly for the Lightning, and never returned to Springfield.

With Ranger out of the picture due to his stellar play with the Lightning, the top defenseman tag was thrust onto the shoulders of fellow second-year professional Doug O’Brien, a former sixth-round selection. O’Brien was the only holdover from last year’s defense to have a strong impact on the Falcons club this season. He finished fifth in team points, first amongst defensemen, with 32 points (seven of which were goals) in 74 games. His improved two-way play and willingness to play in all situations helped garner him a short stint with the Lightning late in the season, and will be invaluable for his future development. He is likely to return to the Falcons at the start of next season, though may warrant a longer look with Tampa if his play carries over from this past season.

When Ranger was called up to Lightning, it was Timo Helbling who was demoted. The Swiss defenseman played solidly for Springfield, helping to fill the void left by Ranger, picking up 21 points over the course of 60 games, and playing in key situations, when Helbling had previously only seen spot duty in his previous AHL seasons.

Former highly-touted prospects Mike Egener and Gerard Dicaire were expected to bring great contributions to the table for this season’s Springfield squad, however, both players stumbled out of the gate, and split the remainder of the season between Springfield and Johnstown. Egener finished the season with three points in 38 games, while Dicaire picked up eight points in 40 games. The remainder of Springfield’s defensive unit was made up of veteran journeymen who were for the most part ineffective.

Goaltending

Springfield’s defensive woes further compounded what was also a diminished goaltending unit. Last season, Brian Eklund stood on his head for the Springfield Falcons, seizing the starting job. Though the team’s record was not indicative of Eklund’s value to the 2004-05 Falcons squad, Eklund posted a modest goals against average of 3.01 and strong .911 save percentage, finishing only nine games below .500, and was named the team’s most valuable player. Thus, the starting job this season was Eklund’s to lose this season, and lose it he did. He stumbled out of the gate, and it was largely thanks to Springfield’s increased goal output that Eklund’s record was not worse than five wins and 11 losses, posting an abysmal 4.19 goals against average, alongside a save percentage nearly four percent below last season’s pace, through the first half of the season.

As the season progressed, Eklund continued to lose starts to rookie netminder and former Memorial Cup winner Gerald Coleman. Coupled with the exceptional play of Jonathan Boutin with Johnstown, Eklund was deemed to be expendable, and was traded to Boston in February in a move that brought Blatny to the Lightning organization.

Thus, Springfield’s netminding duties fell onto the shoulders of two untested products in Coleman and Boutin. Coleman was expected to have a slow transition to the professional game after having fallen out of favor down the stretch for the London Knights last season; however, he was immediately thrust into the starting job after Eklund struggled. Coleman surpassed the relatively low expectations set entering this season, as he improved his consistency over the course of the season, regained his focus between the pipes, and played strong given the weak defense in front of him. Coleman finished the season with a record of 14 wins and 21 losses, and a goals against average of 3.88.

Boutin, too, had experienced consistency issues in the past, but he, too, righted his mental ship with Johnstown this year. Though he got off to a slow start on the mediocre Chiefs squad, he stood on his head after the first few weeks, keeping the Chiefs in many games that they normally would have been long out of based upon their early-season performance. Boutin even garnered an appearance in the ECHL All-Star game. Shortly thereafter, he was recalled to the Falcons, splitting time with Coleman. His improved play carried up to the next level, as he posted a modest 3.11 goals against average, a near .900 save percentage, and a record of eight wins, 12 losses. Between Coleman and Boutin, Springfield’s goaltending situation is looking up for next season.

Springfield has suffered through an awful stretch of seasons in the last six years. In the end, the Graham coaching staff had to take the blame for the poor season. Springfield will look to right the ship yet again next year, with a new cast behind the bench. Coupled with a likely influx of young offensive talent from the CHL next season in Blair Jones and recent signees Justin Keller and Stanislav Lascek on the horizon, as well as a couple of young defensemen who will enter the fold in Andy Rogers and Matt Smaby, the Falcons could have a shot at making the playoffs next season. There is still much work to be done if that dream is to come to fruition. It will be the job of new coach Steve Stirling to ensure that the Falcons do not miss the playoffs for the fourth straight season.

Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.