At roughly the midway point of the ECHL regular season, the Johnstown Chiefs, the AA minor league affiliate of the Tampa Bay Lightning, currently sit last in the North Division with a record of 15-18-2-2. Still, they are only 11 points out of first place in the division, so a solid stretch of games could put the Chiefs right back into the playoff hunt.
Things could be much worse for the Chiefs if it had not been for the stellar goaltending displayed (at times) by their young goaltending tandem in Gerald Coleman and Morgan Cey. Originally, it was expected that Jonathan Boutin would the Chiefs starting goaltender, after the Lightning came to terms with Finnish netminder Karri Rämo in the off-season and the demotion of long-time NHL veteran Sean Burke to Springfield. However, Burke stumbled in his limited time, and Boutin was recalled, to play as the second fiddle to Rämo. Burke has since departed the organization via re-entry waivers to the Los Angeles Kings. Thus, the Chiefs goaltending duties fell to Coleman and Cey.
For Coleman, this season has been a bit of a step back for the former Memorial Cup winner. Coleman was the starting goaltender for Springfield last season, and had even seen emergency duty for the Lightning in two games, so he went from the NHL to the ECHL, lost in the shuffle amid a very crowded crease in the Lightning organization. Still, it was to be expected, since, in spite of his spot duty with the Lightning, he struggled to find his form with the Falcons, running into occasional bouts of inconsistency, and the tendency to give up an inopportune soft goal. It was hoped that with the starting job full-time (something he would not have gotten in Springfield) for a year, he could rebound.
Coleman has looked much improved between the pipes this season, playing a stronger positional game, though still playing fairly deep in the net, and working harder to prevent giving up the bad goal. The problem this season for Coleman has not been his consistency, but rather his health. The first was a minor injury in late October that kept him out for only a couple of games, getting his season off on the wrong foot. He was able to rebound quite nicely, stringing together a stretch of strong performances. However, his season took a turn for the worse just before Christmas, as he was removed from a game against Cincinnati after tweaking his groin. Anxious to get back into the line-up in early January, it became readily apparent that Coleman rushed back too quickly, as he left early from his first game back, re-aggravating the groin injury. It appears as if both the Chiefs and the Lightning organization as a whole will be taking more care with Coleman this time around, as the Lightning already made a move for another goaltender, picking up former Los Angeles Kings top goaltending prospect Ryan Munce in a deal for a fourth-round draft pick. Munce will split the goaltending duties with Cey.
Cey has been quite the revelation this season for the Chiefs, filling in admirably for the injured Coleman. Thanks to a relatively thin defense, Chiefs goaltenders have been subject to some very long nights this season. The acrobatic Cey regularly faces over 40 shots in a game, and seeing upwards of 61 in one game – a 5-2 win for the Chiefs against Toledo in late December. Originally signed as a free agent by the Lightning out of college in 2005, Cey’s elevation of his play could go a long way in his parlaying of a future contract, albeit likely a minor-league deal. Still, Cey has been prone to occasional lapses in judgment between the pipes for the Chiefs. If the Chiefs can continue to get Herculean outings from Cey, who has posted a 3.00 goals against average, and an upper-echelon .921 save percentage, then given their solid offense, the Chiefs should be in good shape down the stretch.
It was expected that the Chiefs would be the beneficiaries of an influx of young offensive and defensive talent, as the Lightning came to terms with six of their junior-aged and college-level prospects this summer. At the start of the season, only two of these prospects –- Radek Smolenak and Stanislav Lascek -– were playing for the Chiefs. After a few weeks of regular season play, only Smolenak remained with the Chiefs.
Lascek’s first stay in the ECHL with the Chiefs lasted only a month, as the former QMJHL product was scoring at a torrid pace. He was playing alongside his former junior teammate Maxime Boisclair (who is playing under a Springfield contract), picking up 18 points in only 12 games, largely serving as the set-up man for his potent linemates. Lascek’s two-month stay with the Falcons did not deliver the same kind of results, with Lascek seeing time deeper in the line-up, and posting only modest numbers. Lascek has since been returned to the Chiefs, likely only for the short term.
For much of the first half, only Smolenak from the Class of 2006 remained in the ECHL. At barely 20, signed a year before he had to be by the Lightning, Smolenak is the third youngest player in the league. “I think they didn’t want me to play in the Ontario Hockey League as an overage,” Smolenak told Hockey’s Future in an interview earlier this month.
The signing itself is not too surprising, given that many late-birthday draft-picks (like Smolenak) are signed within the first year. “I’m glad they did that, but now I’m in the ECHL so I’ll just try to move up.”
Whereas Lascek started to click immediately with the Chiefs, for Smolenak the adjustment was a little more difficult. Smolenak remarked that “the first month was pretty hard, everything was different. The guys are stronger, bigger, faster… Another big thing is I have to live on my own, do everything by myself. It was a pretty big change, but some guys helped me out with it.”
With the help of his new teammates, it was not long before Smolenak began to get acclimated to his new surroundings and to start producing. He currently sits with 12 goals (good enough for the team lead) and 22 points (third among forwards, behind the aforementioned Boisclair and veteran minor-leaguer Randy Rowe).
Holding Smolenak from making the next step were some of the same things that had plagued him in junior. There were concerns about his consistency and his skating that were holding the first-year pro back from following Lascek to Springfield.
“I’m never going to be the best skater, I know that,” he commented. “I wasn’t born like that, but I’ve got to try to improve it and get better.” He spent plenty of time in the off-season working on his skating, and while his foot-speed is still a bit of a detriment in his game, he has shown marked improvement in that regard since his first year in junior.
“The guys don’t skate around,” Smolenak stated, when asked about the big differences between the junior and professional game. “They know where they should be. The biggest change is trying to read the game and where you should be instead of just skating around.”
Reading the play is indeed an area where Smolenak struggles mightily. He has already displayed excellent finishing ability in the professional ranks, has good drive to the net, and has shown a willingness to play in all situations. While he has not seen time on the penalty kill this season, he played that role regularly with the Frontenacs last season. “I know we have better guys than me for penalty kill,” he said, “so I’m not mad about it. Of course I’d like to play that.”
Making every minute count on the ice will be integral for Smolenak’s future in the Lightning organization. “I’m trying to improve. One game I’m better, one game I’m worse. I’m trying to get consistency.”
Smolenak has since been recalled to the Springfield Falcons on Jan. 19 where he has no points in five games.
Another forward in search of consistency for the Chiefs is former second-round draft selection Adam Henrich. It was hoped that Henrich would be the power forward of the future for the Lightning when they selected him with the 60th overall selection in the 2002 draft. Despite a great array of talent and NHL size, Henrich failed to live up to the lofty expectations placed upon his shoulders in his first two years of professional hockey, which saw him shuttled regularly between Springfield and Johnstown, not staying in either locale long enough to be able to gain any semblance of consistency.
This season, Henrich’s contract year, he has looked better, playing regularly in the top two lines with the Chiefs. The oft-indifferent work ethic that plagued Henrich’s early professional career will need to improve right now as he is now playing for a contract. Henrich currently sits with eight goals and 22 points in 25 games with the Chiefs (he missed a few games early in the season with a short-term call-up stint with the Falcons which, once again, did not produce great results), and has a team-high plus-9 rating. He has also started using his ample frame more effectively, and in opportune times, leading the team with 107 penalty minutes. Whether his late burst will be good enough to warrant Henrich another contract in the off-season is unclear. He has started to round into form this season, and his continued success, coupled with slow, steady improvements over the course of the remainder of the season would go a long way in ensuring a new contract, if not with the Lightning, perhaps a minor-league deal within the system.
As far as other Lightning property with the Chiefs is concerned, second-year pro Zbynek Hrdel has seen a bit of a role reversal from last season. Last year, he spent the bulk of the season playing in the back half of the Springfield Falcons line-up, with spot duty down with Johnstown. This year, however, Hrdel has spent the bulk of his time with the Chiefs, alternating between the second and third lines, with occasional spot duty up with the Falcons. The offensive ingenuity he displayed with Rimouski in the QMJHL has not translated well to the professional ranks, and he will have to start carving out a niche with Johnstown if he does not want to be lost in the shuffle. He currently sits with five goals and 17 points in 32 games.
Another Lightning commodity, former Montreal draft pick Andre Deveaux, has done just that, potting the occasional goal to complement his gritty, hard-working play. Deveaux, too, has seen occasional duty with Springfield, but has spent the bulk of his time with Johnstown, picking up six goals and 14 points in 21 games, along with 51 penalty minutes.
Versatile forward and occasional defenseman Brandon Elliott, a fifth-round pick in 2004, has posted six goals and two assists thus far this season, playing in all situations as well as bringing toughness. Elliott is the only Chief to have picked up a short-handed goal, of which he has two. He has also added 85 penalty minutes.
The Lightning have only one defenseman under contract who has seen more than one game with Johnstown, and that is former eighth-round selection Brady Greco. Greco’s season did not get off to the best of starts, as he missed the first two months of the year recovering from off-season shoulder surgery. He returned to the Chiefs in December, appearing in five games, going scoreless with 12 penalty minutes, before getting himself into hot water off the ice, facing a host of charges as a result of fleeing the scene of a car accident on December 19th. He has not played for Johnstown since.
It has been the play of another former Lightning draft pick that has been the story of the Chiefs blue line thus far this season. P.J. Atherton has emerged as a star in the defensive end for the Chiefs thus far this season, posting four goals and 19 assists in 35 games, good enough for fourth on the team in points, and second among defensemen behind veteran Doug Andress. Atherton, who was characterized as a stay-at-homer during his four-year stint with the high-powered University of Minnesota club, signed with Springfield at the conclusion of last year’s NCAA campaign, appearing in nine games with the Falcons, and picking up four points.
Atherton started this season with the Chiefs, and it was hoped that he would be able to build upon the modest foundations that his short stint in the AHL last year had shown. What he produced was far and away beyond the expectations of most. Finally given an opportunity to play in more than a supporting role, the steady Atherton has been given the ability to be more creative in the offensive end, and it has become readily obvious that that aspect of his game was suppressed during his stay with the Golden Gophers.
“In Minnesota we had a lot of really talented guys so I wasn’t necessarily an offensive weapon there,” Atherton told Hockey’s Future. “We had All-Americans. It wasn’t my job there. So just a shift in the role, being given the opportunity I think is what helped.”
Producing offensively is nothing new for Atherton though. Prior to his stay at Minnesota, he was a very talented offensive defenseman for Cedar Rapids in the USHL, putting up nearly 30 points in his final year with the club. However, playing first alongside strong offensive weapons on the point such as Keith Ballard (PHO) and Paul Martin (NJ) initially, and Mike Vannelli (ATL) and Alex Goligoski (PIT) in his final years, Atherton was forced to develop more of a steady defensive game.
Now, however, Atherton is being given a chance to shine. With Johnstown, he has been playing in all situations, and is playing on the top defensive pairing, alongside his roommate, Andrew Martens.
“It’s great. We have a really good relationship, we’re really good friends off the ice, we hang out a lot,” Atherton said. “I think that really translates onto the ice. We’ve kind of learned each other’s tendencies, where we’re going to be, so I think it helps playing with the same guy.”
Never having gotten a chance to play on the power play in recent years, he has picked up all four of his goals this season when his team had the man advantage. “I enjoy playing the power play, moving the puck and getting to shoot,” he said.
The Falcons rather than Tampa signed Atherton, as a result of an overabundance of bodies already under contract with the Lightning. Tampa Bay was still keen on Atherton, pushing for him to be signed by the Falcons so that they could still keep close tabs on the young defenseman.
“My agent talked to Tampa a lot and we decided the best thing to do is sign a contract with Springfield,” Atherton stated.
“I think [the stint with Springfield] was invaluable. I got a lot of confidence from going up there; they gave me a lot of opportunity. Everyone was great up there. I think it really helped in translating into this year.”
Clearly the stint in Springfield was a catalyst in jumpstarting Atherton’s career. His stellar play has not gone unnoticed by the ECHL, either, who named him player of the week for the last week of 2006.
While his improved play has not warranted a call-up to the Falcons as of yet, due to a logjam of young talent already in Springfield, this has directly resulted in Atherton getting to carry a sizeable portion of the load with the Chiefs, getting used to playing a large chunk of minutes night in, night out, and giving him the risk-free opportunity to fine-tune his game.
“I’ve always kind of been a late bloomer in everything that I do,” he said. “Hopefully I keep coming on here, keep improving. I’m trying to get better all the time.
“Hopefully I can earn an NHL contract. That’s my ultimate goal.”
Holly Gunning contributed to this article. Copyright 2007 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.