RJ Out, Ollie In?

By Chad Schnarr

When Lightning “designated hitter” Ryan Johnson was traded to the Florida Panthers last week, it opened a spot on the roster for a defensive forward. Take out your pencils and write in the name Jimmie Olvestad.

With the off-season additions of Juha Ylonen and Tim Taylor, RJ’s spot as the team’s primary face-off man, penalty killer and checking forward was lost. RJ played some wing last season and could have simply moved over to a checking wing, but it never got a chance to happen. His trade value was as high as his talent ceiling is low, so he was dealt for Vaclav Prospal to fill a hole on a scoring line. Acquiring a capable scoring liner is considerably more difficult than finding a capable checker, so the small hole RJ left can be filled by moving current Bolts up or over.

Or how about up AND over?

On July 16th, Lightning GM Rick Dudley announced the official signing of Swedish prospect Jimmie Olvestad to a three-year rookie contract. A speedy, gritty winger, Olvestad is being brought up from the prospect ranks and over the big frozen pond to North America.

“I think he’s coming over to make the team,” Dudley said. “I don’t believe he would’ve signed a contract unless he thinks he’s got a legitimate chance to play for us.” A few days later, in an interview on WDAE radio in Tampa, Dudley would mention the possibility of a fast checking line consisting of Ylonen, Taylor and Olvestad. Good-bye, RJ; hello, Ollie.

What Johnson took with him to Florida, Olvestad can bring to Tampa Bay. Their games are very similar at this point in their respective careers. RJ is known for having lightning speed (pun intended), responsible defense play, willingness to crash the net, great character, aggression, hitting and playing on the penalty kill. What a coincidence–Olvestad brings the same things. However, where RJ’s game stops, Olvestad’s has room to grow. Playing on a checking line throughout the SEL regular season, Olvestad scored seven goals in 50 games. Those numbers may not impress, until it’s realized Jimmie was just 21 years old playing his second year in one of the world’s top men’s leagues. That’s no small task.

Given a chance to prove himself worthy of a more prominent role, Olvestad responded in the SEL playoffs with a gritty and remarkable performance. He scored seven goals in 16 playoff games, including a hat trick and an overtime winner, helping Djurgarden repeat as SEL Champions. He also finished with a plus-9 rating.

The 25-year-old Johnson showed some offensive spark early in the minors (67 points in 64 games in 97-98 for New Haven of the AHL), but he has yet to display that talent in the N HL (42 points, 171 games). Before the AHL, Johnson managed only eight goals in 59 games his last two years at the University of North Dakota.

It could be argued Johnson has never received a real chance on a scoring line in the NHL. In an attempt to add a defensive presence to a scoring line late last year, RJ was given an audition on Brad Richards’ line. He even got some minutes with both Vinny Lecavalier and Richards, proving more than capable of keeping up with the speed of the Rimouski Brothers. He did his job digging in the corners and added a needed defensive presence. What he couldn’t do was add any scoring touch or other offensive ability to the line.

That’s where Olvestad can step in and take over. Though he likely will never hit more than 20-25 goals in any given year, that’s substantially more than the career-high seven goals RJ netted in 80 games last season. Olvestad can also fulfill the complementary defensive role and be an effective checking liner, while still chipping in offensively. Maybe not next year, but certainly down the line.

Scouts project Olvestad to develop in the mold of fellow countrymen Magnus Arvedson and Niklas Sundstrom. Both players have hit 20 goals as complementary wingers in their careers. The Lightning would take that any day, especially considering they are still waiting for Andrei Zyuzin to pan out, so trading Sundstrom to San Jose can stop looking like such a bad move.

Though Johnson’s 48.8% face-off percentage last year will not be hard to replace, it’s no secret his 177 hits will be. RJ led by example, never complained, and was a fan favorite because he wore his hard hat to work every night without question. He will struggle to compete on scoring lines, though he’ll be more than adequate against them. Given a chance, Olvestad can win over the hearts of fans with his own, but similar, energetic and hardworking style. He’s known in Swedish circles for carrying a hard hat, but also for his goal-scoring celebrations.