Lightning training camp preview

By Phil Laugher

The Tampa Bay Lightning enter the 2006-07 season having fixed many of the problems that they faced at the end of the previous season. The relatively inconsistent goaltending situation has been remedied through trades and a signing, the revolving-door defense of recent years has a host of new arrivals, and the forward lines feature most key returnees, as well as players salvaged from Europe. In spite of the Lightning coming to terms with numerous prospects in the offseason, it is likely that the majority will start their professional careers in Springfield, and for some, in Johnstown. This veteran approach for the Lightning leaves little room for prospect options, at least initially. When the Lightning begin training camp in earnest on Sept. 14, after the conclusion of the Traverse City Prospect Tournament, there will likely only be room for one or two of Tampa Bay’s prospects on opening night.

Seventeen Lightning prospects, as well as several free agent invites, participated in the Traverse City Tournament in Michigan as a preamble to the Lightning’s main camp, including soon-to-be-professionals in Karri Rämo, Matt Smaby, Andy Rogers, Justin Keller, Blair Jones, 2006 first-rounder Riku Helenius, and many others. A strong individual performance in the Traverse City tournament has given many a leg up heading into the main camp in the past. Though the Lightning went winless through the round-robin portion of the tournament, several players had impressive performances, with Rämo playing strongly in his only appearance in the tournament, stopping 25 saves in a 2-1 loss, and Radek Smolenak leading the way offensively with four points in three games.

Goaltending

Tampa Bay’s goaltending was an issue for much of last season, with veterans Sean Burke and John Grahame sharing the load in the space vacated by Nikolai Khabibulin. It is likely that Burke will be on the outside looking in, and Grahame was dispatched to Carolina. Taking over the goaltending duties will be veteran Marc Denis, acquired in a deal with Columbus that sent talented scoring winger Frederik Modin the other way. Likely backing up Denis will be former New York Rangers draft pick Johan Holmqvist, who was signed from the Swedish Elite League back in May. It was thought the 28-year-old would be in competition with 2002 seventh round selection Fredrik Norrena, who was another offseason signing, but Norrena was also moved to Columbus in the Denis trade. It is likely that prized offseason signing Karri Rämo will play a major role for the Springfield Falcons, rather than with the Lightning, though he may be given a long look. Depth goaltenders Jonathan Boutin and Gerald Coleman will be in battle for playing time with Rämo and are long shots to see any time with the Lightning this year.

Defense

Tampa Bay came to terms with several defensive prospects since training camp wrapped up last season. The first of which was Andy Rogers, who signed with the Lightning shortly before he was demoted to the Western Hockey League as one of the final cuts last year. He faced another injury-riddled campaign with the Prince George Cougars, but will make the jump to professional hockey this season. The other key defensive signing was that of Matt Smaby, the physical stay-at-home product of the University of North Dakota, who came to terms with the Lightning shortly after the NCAA season wrapped up. Of the two, Smaby is probably the most NHL-ready defensive prospect the Lightning have, though there may be a logjam in front of him, preventing a Paul Ranger-esque meteoric rise to the Lightning roster out of training camp.

The Lightning have four returning players on the point in mainstays Dan Boyle and Cory Sarich, last year’s rookie surprise Paul Ranger, and stay-at-homer Nolan Pratt. In addition to this quartet of returnees are free agent acquisitions two-way threat Filip Kuba from the Minnesota Wild, banging, ornery veteran Luke Richardson from the Toronto Maple Leafs, and power play specialist Andy Delmore, who had last been with Columbus. With seven veterans on the point, Smaby and Rogers, as well as outside contenders in two-year minor leaguer Doug O’Brien (who saw a few games with the Lightning last season), and former Buffalo Sabre Doug Janik, all in consideration for roster spots, the upstart youngsters could be hard pressed to crack the line-up immediately, and it would likely take a Herculean training camp by one of the young four to bump one of the seven veterans from the main Lightning squad.

Forward

Much of the competition for the open roster spots will come in the forward lines, more than likely on the fourth and perhaps third lines than in the top six. With the Big Three in Lecavalier, Richards, and St. Louis locked up long-term, and veteran contributors Vaclav Prospal and Ruslan Fedotenko back for another year, Tampa’s top-end offense should not suffer. The departure of Modin’s offense will likely be offset with either up-and-down forward Dmitri Afanasenkov or another surprising rookie from last season in Ryan Craig being inserted into the top six in Modin’s place.

Newly-appointed Lightning captain Tim Taylor is guaranteed a spot, though he will probably play on the third line with plenty of penalty-killing situations, as well as fellow leader and grinder Rob Dimaio, who will probably line up alongside Taylor in many situations. Things get a little hazier the deeper into the roster one gets, though. Tampa Bay also went back across the pond for more than goaltenders in the offseason, luring back former highly touted first-round selection Nikita Alexeev, and high-scoring Swede (and former Atlanta Thrasher) Andreas Karlsson, and both of them will likely be given ample opportunity to crack the line-up.

The departure of Evgeni Artyukhin back to Russia as a result of a bitter contract dispute likely spells the end of his relatively short stint with the Lightning, at least for the time being, and creates a fourth-line hole. There are a myriad of options for that final roster spot, and this battle will likely prove to be one of the more entertaining fights in the training camp this year. There are plenty of players who spent much of the year with Springfield, who are ready to be given a longer look in the NHL, and many have already had a taste of hockey with the Lightning. Two of the more likely options as a fourth line winger in the Lightning system are antagonists Nick Tarnasky and Darren Reid. Both players bring a similar style of play to the table – an ability to get underneath the skin of the opposition, a willingness to get physical if necessary, and have great defensive responsibility and penalty-killing ability – and both have already seen time for the Lightning under coach John Tortorella.

Another player with a chance of getting an extended look is Marek Kvapil, who was in the second-last group of cuts last year, and responded by putting together a very impressive first season with Springfield. If the Lightning is looking for a youthful offensive talent to fill the final spot, Kvapil may be the best fit, though he could probably benefit from another season with the Falcons.

There are veteran players invited to camp who also have a shot at winning that last roster spot, and both, too, have played for Tortorella before. The first of which is former Lightning centerman Eric Perrin, who was a member of the Stanley Cup-winning Lightning squad in 2004, appearing in four regular season games and 12 games in the playoffs. Perrin is returning after a successful stint in Europe for Bern, where the slight forward picked up 38 points in 44 games for the Swiss powerhouse. Perrin has been used in key situations for the Lightning in the past, and that experience may give him a leg up. Also coming into camp with a shot at the 12th forward spot is veteran journeyman Norm Milley, a character player with good offensive talents, who appeared in 14 games for Tampa Bay late in the 2005-06 season.

The large stable of offseason signings up front, featuring Jones, Keller, Smolenak, and Stanislav Lascek will undoubtedly spend at least one season getting acclimated to the professional game with Springfield or Johnstown, and the presence of veteran leaders such as Milley and Perrin alongside these rookies would work wonders for their development, thus, it would appear as if Tarnasky and Reid will have a leg up on the competition in that regard down the stretch. The battle for the 12th roster spot – and likely, given the seven veterans on the point, the last roster spot – will undoubtedly go down to the wire, and given the variety of intangibles and the numerous options, the battle will be very heated.

Preseason Schedule

Wednesday, September 20 – @Washington (7:00)
Friday, September 22 – @Detroit (7:30)
Sunday, September 24 – v. Dallas (7:00)
Tuesday, September 26 – @Montreal (7:30)
Thursday, September 28 – v. Detroit (7:30)
Saturday, September 30 – @Dallas (8:00)

Conclusion

Space is at a premium at the back-end of the Lightning line-up, and given that Jay Feaster and company decided to fill the apparent holes within the Lighting roster from outside rather than from within leaves very little room for internal prospect options. The one likely space available will go to the player who best fills what the coaching staff would like out of their fourth line. If they want an offensive player, then the final spot will likely go to Perrin or Milley, and if they want a grinding, two-way – albeit inexperienced – option, then it is likely that Tarnasky or Reid will be given a spot. Things will get very interesting if the Alexeev or Karlsson reclamation projects flounder.

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