Springfield Falcons season preview

By Phil Laugher

The Springfield Falcons enter the 2006-07 season looking to right a wronged ship. For the last three years, the Falcons have missed the playoffs, and in all three years they have done so handily. First, under the tutelage of Marty McSorley – as an affiliate of the Phoenix Coyotes – the Falcons finished with only 65 points. When they fell under the Tampa Bay Lightning organization following the 2003-04 season, and with Dirk Graham at the helm, the Falcons floundered through an awful 24-47-3-6 season, for only 57 points. The Falcons did improve their standing in the 2005-06 campaign; however, they again were out of playoff contention early, finishing with only 65 points.

Wholesale changes were made within the Falcons and Lightning organizations in the hopes of halting the ever-growing losing stigma that has haunted the Falcons organization since 1999, the team’s last .500 season. Gone from the coaching staff was head coach Dirk Graham, being replaced by former New York Islanders head coach Steve Stirling. Meanwhile, as a means of bringing in some fresh blood, the Lightning came to terms with several junior and European prospects who are expected to be major contributors on the Falcons squad this coming season, as well as in subsequent years. The future for the Falcons is looking up, which is not surprising, given how bleak the recent past has been.

Goaltenders

Perhaps the most noticeable difference for the Falcons squad will come between the pipes, as stellar Finnish netminder Karri Rämo agreed to a contract in the off-season, and agreed to come across the Atlantic, forsaking excellent opportunities in his native Finland to play with the Falcons. It is widely expected that Rämo will be handed the reins of the Falcons starting goaltender job, a role that was shared over the course of the last season by former London Knights goaltender Gerald Coleman, the recently-traded Brian Eklund, and ECHL standout Jonathan Boutin. Rämo brings to the table a winning tradition, strong reflexes and positioning, and a willingness to compete night in, night out. Rämo’s presence should give the Falcons a chance to compete in every game.

Should Rämo’s adaptation to the North American game be a bit rockier than expected, there are still plenty of options between the pipes for the Falcons. Coleman appeared in 43 games for the Falcons last season, and made a far smoother transition to the professional game than was expected, even though at times he ran into consistency problems. Also competing for the back-up role in Springfield is Boutin, who had a stellar season in the ECHL last year, good enough to warrant an all-star selection, and numerous call-ups to Springfield from Johnstown. Also in the mix, though with only an outside chance, is Morgan Cey who spent the bulk of the year last season with Johnstown, posting strong numbers, and seeing spot duty with the Falcons. There is also the outside chance that a veteran such as Sean Burke could appear with the Falcons, though the Lightning would likely prefer to try to trade the long-time veteran to another NHL taker first.

Defense

Back from last year’s squad was their leader on the point in Doug O’Brien. The product of St. John’s, Newfoundland was the leading scorer from the blue line for the Falcons last season, picking up 32 points in what was his second full professional season. Entering his third year with the Falcons, it is expected that O’Brien will continue his development, log plenty of ice time in both 5-on-5 and special teams situations, and likely see a couple of brief call-ups to the Lightning. However, O’Brien will not be counted on solely for contributions from the back end this season.

The Lightning inked two major prospect defensemen to contracts in the off-season in former Prince George Cougars blueliner Andy Rogers, and University of North Dakota product Matt Smaby, both of whom signed deals back in May, and given the small number of openings with the Lightning, will likely begin their professional careers in Springfield. Both Rogers and Smaby bring solid stay-at-home capabilities to the table with the ability to chip in offensively if needed. Smaby’s physical game perhaps will give him a leg up on Rogers in regards to playing time, as Rogers is also still recuperating from a season-ending leg injury which side-tracked his final junior season. Rogers is also currently sidelined with a minor unrelated hip injury.

Rounding out the likely defensive corp for the Falcons is former first-round draft selection Mike Egener, who has impressed mightily at Tampa Bay’s training camp this season after having undergone a rough adjustment period in the professional ranks in his first two pro seasons, as well as part-time returnees P.J. Atherton, Jay Rosehill, as well as veteran journeyman Sylvain Dufresne and second-year pro John Adams. Egener split time between Springfield and Johnstown last season, seeing only 38 games with the Falcons after failing to gain any semblance of consistency, while Rosehill played in 45 games and Atherton only nine. Out of the three, Atherton still scored the most points – four. Geoff Waugh also has an outside shot of taking one of the Falcons roster spot, after having impressed with the Lightning in their training camp, making it to the second round of cuts. With Timo Helbling having returned to Europe after spending 60 games with Falcons last season, one of these six will have to step up to fill in Helbling’s key minutes if the Falcons defense is to improve over its mediocre contributions last season.

Forwards

Wholesale changes have also taken place on the Falcons forward lines, as their two leading scorers from last season in Ryan Vesce and Jason Jaspers have departed the club to follow other options, while they have been replaced by a large influx of professional rookies. Back from last year’s squad are veterans Zdenek Blatny (who scored at nearly a point-per-game clip after being acquired mid-season), hard working forwards Dan Cavanaugh and Darren Reid, as well as sophomores Zbynek Hrdel and Marek Kvapil. Kvapil, who was the fifth leading scorer with the Falcons last season will be counted on heavily to improve on a modest rookie season of 45 points, and should see regular ice time in the top six and on the first power-play unit. Factor in the likely return of former Lightning and Falcons centerman Eric Perrin after an extended stint in Europe, and the Lightning have plenty of veteran offense to make up for the losses of last season.

As far as rookie forwards go, the Lightning came to terms with wingers Radek Smolenak, Justin Keller, Stanislav Lascek, as well as centerman Blair Jones in the off-season, and will bring all four along as slowly as is necessary, so as not to burn out their young talents. It is likely that given the forward depth for the Falcons, only two of the three wingers will make the Falcons roster at the start of the season, with the third seeing plenty of ice with the Johnstown Chiefs, at least initially. Perhaps one of the more intriguing line combinations to emerge from Falcons training camp could be the reuniting of three former Chicoutimi Sagueneens forwards in the aforementioned Lascek, as well as his linemates in AHL-contracted gritty winger Maxime Boisclair, and diminutive centerman invite David Desharnais. All three spent the past two seasons playing alongside each other and posting large numbers, and their chemistry is unquestionably attractive. However, if the three former Sags are unable to generate similar results as they displayed in the QMJHL, snipers Smolenak and Keller are surely willing and able to fill in for spot duty in the back end of the line-up, and seeing occasional power play time.

One of the key issues facing the potential success of the Falcons forward unit is who will make the Lightning squad, and the fall-out from the loss of that player. It is quite likely that one more key component from the Falcons squad last season will not return, having graduated to the NHL. The two leading contenders to stick with Tampa Bay are journeyman winger Norm Milley, who notched 48 points in only 53 games with the Falcons last season, and gritty centerman Nick Tarnasky, who brings a hard-nosed, rough-around-the-edges game to the table, a near-complete inverse to Milley’s finesse, offensive game. Losing either of these players will be a great blow to the Falcons chances, as while both bring separate intangibles to the table for Springfield, both are great leaders, and their collective presence would work wonders on a young, developing Springfield squad.

Outlook

The Springfield Falcons 2006-07 season will likely be yet another difficult year. With so many rookies in the line-up, the chances of there being extended growing pains for their young roster are high, particularly in the early stages. However, with a fresh outlook, an influx of young blood, and new minds behind the bench, things are looking up in Springfield. While playoffs may be a bit of a pipe dream at this point of the year, if some of the rookie players have relatively seamless transitions to the professional game, and the veterans contribute as they have in the past, the Falcons should be in contention for an extended season come mid-April. They should at least improve on their past season. They cannot fall much further down.


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