Lightning 2006-07 rookie review

By Phil Laugher

The Tampa Bay Lightning utilized five different rookies in their line-up over the course of the 2006-07 regular season. While none of this year’s rookie crop proved to have the impact of last year’s rookies, which included a 15-goal performance from forward Ryan Craig, and solid two-way play from Paul Ranger on the point.

Still, this year’s rookie crop brought some intangibles to the table that had previously been lacking on the Lightning roster: toughness and physicality. Also, the Lightning were given a taste of what is to come in the near future between the pipes, as well as witnessing the first baby steps at the top level of a potential second-line center.

Goaltenders

Karri Ramo garnered a call-up to the Lightning even before he played his first game with their AHL affiliate (at the time), the Springfield Falcons. Rämo was an emergency call-up to the Lightning as a result of visa issues for newly-acquired starting goaltender Marc Denis.

While Rämo did not havean appearance between the pipes during that short promotion to the big club, he see action during a similar call-up later in the season. Rämo played in his first NHL game on Dec. 2 against the Ottawa Senators, spelling for an ineffective Johan Holmqvist (who had given up three goals on the first seven shots he faced). Rämo performed admirably in relief, turning aside 16 of 18 shots, keeping the Lightning in contention. He appeared in one more game near the end of the season, once again in relief (and coincidentally, also against Ottawa, allowing two goals in 18 minutes).

Rämo will likely be given a very long look at training camp next season, as a result of both a strong first season in North America, and uncertainty between the pipes with the parent club for next season.

Defensemen

The only Lightning rookie defenseman to see action this season was not even in the Lightning organization at the start of the regular season. Shane O’Brien, a former eighth-round draft pick of the Anaheim Ducks in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, took the long course to the NHL. The rugged blue-liner spent the first three years of his professional career playing in the Anaheim system, first with Cincinnati, the Portland, honing his all-around game.

After steadily increasing his offensive production and stabilizing his play in his own end over his three-year AHL stint, O’Brien finally warranted duty with the Ducks. His large frame and knack for physical play was needed more than ever with Anaheim, after the departure of Vitali Vishnevsky and Ruslan Salei from the previous year’s roster (both of whom were among the top four in penalty minutes on the Ducks in 2005-06).

With the Ducks, O’Brien brought not only the physical, in-your-face style of play that the Ducks blue line sorely lacked, but he also contributed offensively, and at opportune times. The 6’2, 228-pounder notched two game-winning goals before his trade to the Lightning.

O’Brien was moved to the Lightning as the centerpiece to a deal that sent a first-round draft pick to the Ducks prior to the trade deadline. The Lightning, like the Ducks (at the start of the season), were lacking a reliable physical presence on the blue line, and though the price appeared to be steep at the time, O’Brien’s upside was enough to convince the Lightning to make the move. Though O’Brien appeared to leave his offensive game in Anaheim — registering only two assists in 18 games with the Lightning — he brought tough, physical play to the table, as well as solid puck-handling ability in the defensive end.

O’Brien finished his rookie season with two goals and 14 assists, as well as 176 penalty minutes. He still hasn’t seen 20 minutes per game yet at this level, and will have to be eased into a top-four role over the next couple of seasons.

Forwards

Up front, the Lightning used three rookie forwards over the course of the season. Two of these players had seen NHL action in previous seasons, with Nick Tarnasky playing sparingly in a dozen games in 2005-06 with the Lightning and Karl Stewart seeing occasional action in both 2003-04 and 2005-06 with Atlanta. Rookie pro Blair Jones also warranted a call-up to the Lightning this season, splitting his time between Tampa Bay and their AHL affiliate in Springfield.

Tarnasky, like O’Brien, was deemed a long shot to ever make the NHL. The 6’2, 233-pound Rocky Mountain House product was a 9th round afterthought selection by the Lightning in the 2003 draft. It was his tenaciousness that got him noticed by the Lightning in the draft, and it was that same sandpaper mentality that saw him rise quickly through the Lightning’s depth chart. The gritty, banging centerman played the whole 2006-07 season with the Lightning, appearing in 77 games. The bulk of Tarnasky’s time was spent centering the fourth line, bringing an up-tempo style of play to the table game in, game out.

Tarnasky notched five goals and four assists in these 77 games, including a game-winning goal against the New Jersey Devils in a February contest. He also appeared in all six Lightning playoff games. A hard-worker with limited offensive upside, it is Tarnasky’s drive and strength of character that keeps him playing at the top level, and makes him popular among management and his teammates. He will have to continue to develop his all-around game if wishes to trump ten minutes per game next season.

Karl Stewart, like Tarnasky, brings a strong physical game to the table. Also, like Tarnasky, Stewart’s offensive upside is limited. Stewart was acquired by the Lightning from Chicago prior to the trade deadline. The Lightning mark the young winger’s fourth NHL team in only three NHL seasons (he has played at least one game with all four). Stewart appeared in seven games for the Lightning, going pointless with a -2 rating.

The third Lightning rookie up front to make an appearance was talented centerman Blair Jones, who got a November call-up to the Lightning after a quick start with Springfield. The 6’2 centerman was shuffled in and out of the line-up during his handful of stints with the Lightning, while being regularly sent back and forth between Tampa Bay and Springfield. In 20 games, the Saskatchewan native notched one goal and two assists, averaging just below six minutes of ice time per game. The former 35-goal scorer in junior showed flashes of the same offensive talent during his limited action, but also looked out of place from time to time. He could stand another year of development at the minor league level with the new Norfolk affiliate next season, though he will likely also see some time with the Lightning as well.

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