The future is looking brighter for the top farm team of the Tampa Bay Lightning. After years of futility with their main affiliate, the Springfield Falcons, which included missing the playoffs in the past four seasons, a change was definitely in the offing. The Falcons finished last year with a record of 28 wins, 49 losses (as well as three more losses in extra time), with a line-up that included underachieving veterans, slow-to-adjust rookies, and a stellar goaltending tandem that prevented that record from being worse than it was.
The Lightning and Falcons parted ways at the end of the 2006-07 season, and Tampa Bay moved their affiliate to Norfolk, Virginia, home of the Admirals. With a fresh start, and a squad that is a year older and a year wiser, this year’s edition of the Admirals will look to right the ship as far as the Tampa Bay minor league system is concerned.
Once again, the Norfolk strength lies between the pipes. Unlike the 2006-07 regular season, where the goaltending duty was largely shared, the bulk of the netminding duty will fall onto the shoulders of Finnish sensation Karri Ramo. Rämo was a surprise (relatively), early cut from the Lightning main camp, as the Lightning chose to go with the veteran tandem of Johan Holmqvist and Marc Denis between the pipes, squeezing the 21-year-old Finn – and Lightning top prospect – back to the AHL.
How long Rämo’s stay with the Admirals is remains to be seen. One can assume that if either goaltender with the big club falters, that the Lightning will not hesitate in promoting Rämo to the NHL. For as long as he stays in Norfolk, Rämo will see the bulk of the duty in goal, displaying his great athleticism and improvisational ability.
At least at the start of the season, Rämo will be backed up by former Los Angeles Kings draft pick Ryan Munce, who spent the bulk of the season in the ECHL. Munce entered camp on a mission, and performed admirably, grabbing the backup spot from veteran Jonathan Boutin, who was optioned to the Lightning’s ECHL affiliate in Mississippi.
Should Munce falter, or should Rämo be promoted, Boutin will be back in Norfolk. He showed last season that when given the opportunity, he can play very well, and that any problems he had are in the past. This being the final year of his entry-level contract, Boutin will have a further incentive to make it back up to the AHL.
One of the weaknesses last season for the Falcons was their relatively young, inexperienced defensive unit. That unit has undergone wholesale changes, with a revolving door of veterans – the underachievers from last year’s squad being replaced with other hopefuls, and youngsters making the jump from junior to the AHL (and from the AHL to the NHL).
Two players that were expected to compete for prime ice time on the point with the Admirals at the start of training camp will not play in Norfolk, at least at the start of the season. The best rookie skater from last year’s Springfield team, physical, stay-at-home defenseman Matt Smaby, and rookie two-way blue liner Mike Lundin made the after strong NHL camps, and will not suit up for Norfolk for the foreseeable future.
Still, there are two surefire holdovers from last year’s squad on the point. Andy Rogers and Mike Egener, both former top-rated prospects in the Lightning organization, return for another go around in the 2007-08 season. Rogers returns to the AHL after having stayed relatively healthy for the final two-thirds of last year. It is hoped that, finally, the 21-year-old defenseman’s injury problems that have plagued his relatively short career are now in his past, and that the stalwart, mobile stay-at-homer will be ready to knock out a full season of hockey. Rogers plays a responsible defensive game, and will have to bring that style of play to the table every game in this, his sophomore season.
Egener, despite bringing a no-frills game to the ice last season, was rewarded with a one-year contract after the end of his entry-level deal. This is a make or break year for Egener, who had failed to make a statement at the professional level in his first few seasons. If he wishes to remain within the organization, he will have to step his two-way and physical play this season, playing a greater role with the Admirals.
Making the jump from the junior ranks to join the Admirals is hulking Slovakian sensation Vladimir Mihalik. The rugged 6’7 blue-liner two a couple of steps forward in his all-around game last season with the Prince George Cougars, and brings a more responsible, disciplined game to the table, and will look to make a relatively smooth transition to the Admirals.
New veterans added to the defensive fold include 6’5 former Phoenix Coyotes selection Jay Leach (26, 2 NHL games), a puck-moving former second-rounder of the Dallas Stars in Dan Jancevski (24, 2 NHL games), under-sized former Princeton product David Schneider (who had spent the last four seasons playing in Finland), and former New York Rangers prospect Bryce Lampman (25, 10 NHL games).
Part-time returnees seeking playing time include responsible stay-at-homer Jay Rosehill, and 23-year-old NCAA graduate Justin Fletcher. Hulking blue liner Brett Angel will also be in the mix after signing a two-way deal with Norfolk near the end of camp.
While there have been wholesale veteran changes on the point, much of the key offensive core from last year’s Falcons squad returns to Norfolk this season. Talented pivot Blair Jones, sophomore winger Justin Keller, and veterans Kyle Wanvig and Norm Milley headline the Admirals offense this season. Milley led the Falcons in points last season, impressively averaging nearly a point per game and filling a much-needed leadership role, while Wanvig picked up 11 goals in only 23 games after coming over to the Lightning organization shortly before the trade deadline. Another veteran, Mathieu Darche, a former Columbus Blue Jacket was also added to bring some scoring punch to the table. Several times a 25-goal scorer at the minor league level, Darche will bring another bona fide scoring threat to the top two lines.
Jones spent much of the second half of last season with the Tampa Bay Lightning, not looking out of place, but also not seeing very much ice time. The addition of several veteran forwards, through the free agent market and by trades, assured that Jones would at least start the season with Norfolk. He will play on one of the top two forward lines, as one of the few natural center-ice men on the Admirals, and will be expected to significantly better his 21-point output of last season. A full year playing with consistent line-mates (and without time spent either in the press box or riding the pines) will be hugely beneficial for Jones.
Keller had a relatively quick start with the Falcons last season, but tailed off as the season progressed, finishing with 13 goals (most amongst rookies) and 24 points. The diminutive sniping winger played well in training camp, and will look to build on both his rookie season and his solid start to get an early jump on the season. Not the quickest of skaters, Keller uses his creativity with the puck and drive to the net to generate offense, and will be leaned on to provide secondary scoring from the wing.
One forward looking for a bounce-back season is third-year veteran Marek Kvapil. Kvapil languished through a sophomore slump with Springfield last season, which eventually saw him get demoted to the ECHL to get his game back on track. An explosive offensive finish rejuvenated his season, but he will have to bring that kind of finish and more to the table if he wishes to earn another contract. A consistent effort at both ends of the ice will be required out of the veteran winger.
Two forwards that will look to stick with Norfolk this season after getting shuffled between the AHL and ECHL last season are wingers Radek Smolenak and Stanislav Lascek. Both strong scorers in junior, neither was able to bring much of an offensive game to the AHL level in their limited ice, despite producing solid numbers with Johnstown. Smolenak’s relatively lazy play, and Lascek’s offense-first mantra and lack of foot speed hampered each prospect’s transition to the next level, and these issues and more will have to be rectified if either is to make any significant impact with this year’s Norfolk squad. Smolenak got off to a relatively quick start with a solid performance in Traverse City, while Lascek flagged. He will have to get his game on track soon, or he may find himself in Mississippi for much of the season.
Making the jump to the professional ranks from junior this season is former Mississauga winger Chris Lawrence, who went through a bit of a renaissance last season, producing a strong, consistent effort, alongside impressive offensive numbers, in his final season in junior. Lawrence has had a mediocre camp, and may find himself in Mississippi to start the year.
Other prospects in the running for roster spots include physical winger Karl Stewart, a veteran of 60 NHL games who split last season with Chicago and Tampa Bay, Brandon Elliott, who is expected to fill the enforcer’s role vacated by the departed Mitch Fritz, while bring more of an all-around game than Fritz, and Zbynek Hrdel, a scorer in junior who has struggled mightily in both of his professional seasons.
Three invites may also figure into the back-end of the line-up to start the season. Former WHLer Rob Klinkhammer agreed to terms on a two-way deal and may find himself in a checking line role, while former QMJHL two-way winger Shawn Collymore, and former Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Knight pivot Justin Taylor agreed to professional tryout contracts, and will likely be given an opportunity to secure a spot with Norfolk.
With a fresh change of locale, a future star goaltender between the pipes, a veteran defensive unit, a developing offensive group, and something to prove, this year’s Norfolk Admirals should trump the Springfield Falcons squads of the past few years, and with Rämo’s help, challenge for a playoff spot. If Rämo should get an early, extended call-up to Tampa Bay, all bets are off, and it will depend on how Munce and Boutin adapt to the increased pressure. Also of integral importance will be further development of the Admirals young group of forwards; many of whom have struggled thus far at the professional level.
Copyright 2007 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.