Size does matter for the Lightning

By Jake Dole
Is it any wonder that Rick Dudley stockpiled the Tampa Bay Lightning with size and grit over the past few years? Drafting the big three, Svitov, Polushin and Artyukhin indicated a move to project a larger and meaner Lightning squad for years to come. In the present-day NHL, it seems clear that size does matter, bigger is better, and physical domination is key.

Dudley’s Lightning, already seem stocked on talent. Lecavalier-Richards-Modin line might thrive for years to come. Therefore, skill does not appear to be the problem with this squad as of now. However, there is a clear absence of grit and character. Tampa is a very young squad and the team looked mistake prone and inexperienced last year. Lightning’ defense was awful, mainly because of the apparent lack of physical presence and identity.

Dudley didn’t hide his fascination with big players before the 2001 draft. Even early in spring, he praised Alexander Svitov’s nasty on-ice tactics and the surprising bonus of unlimited offensive potential. One can only imagine his delight when the wildcard Polushin slipped all the way to the second round, right into Dudley’s grasps.

Judging by the abundance of sky scraping bodies on the Lighting’s respective farms, one can only picture the look of Tampa Bay’s depth chart in five years or so. Size, skill, grit galore. Suddenly, all those years of suffering endured by the Tampa fans might come to an end. However, don’t make the mistake of judging the giants of Tampa Bay solely on their size. There is plenty of creativity, talent and goal-scoring prowess among the prospects. Anyone would agree that all the inches don’t make Zdeno Chara a top defenseman in the NHL. Ability is crucial to a prospect’s success in the NHL; a big body has to be mobile too.

The New Jersey Devils have built their success based on big forwards and defensemen with plenty of skill to offer as well. Guys like Holik, Stevens, Arnott, White and McKay are all blessed with good size and two-way abilities. Even John Madden at 5’11, is as wide as a bulldog. You can bet that Rick Dudley and company are trying to duplicate the Devils’ success. And there is nothing wrong with that, whatsoever. You can’t argue with success; you either join them or duplicate what they do. The Lightning organization is looking and learning. It is still years away from any kind of success, but they might be on the right track…

Let’s move for a close-up of these prospects, starting with the biggest.

Mathieu Biron. D. 6’7, 230. 1980-04-29.

It’s pretty hard to believe that a guy with such frame has been on three NHL teams; and he’s only 21. Hopes were high, when Biron became the first round pick of the Los Angeles Kings in the 1998 draft. In addition, to his size and strength, Mathieu has been praised for his hockey sense as well. He plays a calm, effective offensive game. He won’t blow you away with his agility like Chris Pronger; but at a very young age, Biron has shown exceptional maturity. However, Martin’s younger brother has been called somewhat soft despite his frame. Last year playing in the AHL, Mathieu collected only 35 penalty minutes in 56 games, a figure far below expectations. In order to become a consistent NHL performer, it is no secret that Biron will be expected to add some grit to the bulky exterior.
The Lighting already have decent blueline depth, and by adding some experience(Ledyard, Neckar), the path to the NHL for Biron might not be as immediate as in 1999. Spending another year in the AHL might be for his own good.

Prediction: AHL

Kristian Kudroc. D. 6’6, 240. 1981-05-21.

This truly makes you want to shake your head. Another former Islander with excellent potential. Badly scouted in his draft year, Kudroc might have been quite a steal. Scouts that did see Kudroc play described him as “a monster” that seemed to come out of nowhere at draft time. In addition to being grizzled and feisty, Kudroc has solid offensive skills, highlighted by a blistering slap shot, previously clocked at 98 miles an hour.
Kristian’s hockey sense has been a downside thus far in his development. Although he works hard, Kristian lacks certain instincts that are required of a consistent offensive performer. Skating, also, needs improvement, but Kudroc has been working vigorously on that.
Last year, Kudroc played admirably for the Tampa Bay Lightning, as he collected 2 goals, 4 points in 22 games. He also amassed 36 penalty minutes, with a +/- of 0; a rarity for Tampa Bay players, no doubt.
Kudroc would benefit from another year in the AHL, but he will get a shot to make the team at camp. After all, with his grizzled features, maybe they’ll confuse him for a veteran.

Prediction: AHL(Will see time after call-up).

Nikita Alexeev. RW. 6’5, 215. 1981-12-27.

Here’s another big man, that has been called Lightning’s most NHL-ready prospect last year by GM Rick Dudley. A native of Murmansk, Alexeev made the move to North America, after being selected by the Erie Otters in the 1998 OHL draft.
Although he is yet to compile eye-popping stats, Alexeev has been praised for his maturity, consistency and character. He is well-suited to the North American game; Nikita is a solid physical force and is fluent in English. As an incentive, Alexeev is a sneaky quick skater.
Over the years in the OHL, Alexeev has added a substantial amount of muscle, and now stands at 215 pounds. One downside to his game is offensive creativity. Although Nikita seems to have all the necessary tools to be an offensive dynamo, you’ll rarely see him on a breakaway, or stickhandling through the opposition’s defensemen in the neutral zone.
Nonetheless, Nikita has a great attitude and he gets along with coaches well. Hard work and willingness to learn will result in a successful NHL career.
Prediction: NHL(10 goals, 25 points is within reach in 70+ games).

Evgeni Artyukhin. RW 6’4, 213. 1983-04–04.

Was a surprise slip in the 2001 draft, as he went 94th overall to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Artyukhin is a talented forward who possesses a lot of strength with the puck. Evgeni has shown the ability to physically dominate, with the occasional mean streak.
However, the streak is occasional at best. Those who like Artyukhin praise his talent, size and potential. Those who aren’t big fans of his will point to the disappointing season, underscored by a clear lack of production. Expected to take control at the U-18 championships, Artyukhin hid behind the likes of Kovalchuk and Chistov, collecting a mere 2 points in 6 games. He showed a lack of desire and unwillingness to get involved physically.
More development and playing time is paramount to Artyukhin. He is still a project, and another year(or two) in Russia should reveal whether he is, in fact, NHL-material.

Prediction: Podolsk(Russia)

Andreas Holmqvist. D. 6’4, 190. 1981-07-23.

Drafted 61st overall by the Lightning in the 2001 NHL entry draft. Played for Hammarby (second division) of the SEL, where he compiled 18 points in 37 games.
Andreas is another wildcard. After getting passed over in the 2000 draft, Holmqvist became a commodity after a solid season and a respectable U-20 Championships showing.
A solid two-way rearguard, Holmqvist is an excellent puckhandler with a physical edge.
Will benefit from another year in the SEL, playing in the senior division.

Prediction: SEL

Alexander Svitov. C. 6’3, 200. 1982-11-03.

With Kovalchuk and Spezza becoming virtual locks to go 1-2 in the 2001 entry draft, Svitov became somewhat of a lock himself. The Lightning, positioned in the 3rd spot, seemingly showed a lot of interest in the physically dominating center, from Avangard Omsk’s senior division.
With the draft having its share of surprises, it’s clear that the top 3 went as expected. GM Rick Dudley stated that he liked Alexander’s two-way ability, as well as his preparedness for the NHL.
Svitov was coming off an excellent year. He played tough and produced(as evidenced by 8 goals, 15 points and 119 penalty minutes in the Superleague). The only blemish on his record had to be the disappointing U-20 showing, where he collected 1 assist in 6 games. Granted, Svitov seemed to spend most of the time in the penalty box, as he finished the tournament with 58 penalty minutes!
Controlling his temper is something that the scouts are expecting from Alexander. But, if you ask him, he’ll tell you that it’s no problem. “I play the game my way”. Free spirit, indeed.

Prediction: NHL(he’ll be a banger, 20 points is his limit for now).

Alexander Polushin. RW. 6’3, 198. 1983-05-08.

Personally, this prospect is my favorite out of the 2001 draft class. A raw talent, Polushin has yet to realize his potential.
He’s got great size, grit, and he has produced at tournaments with consistency. However, going 47th at draft time had to be a shock to those who followed the pre-draft hype.
Looking at it from a different perspective, Tampa Bay selected a wild card, no doubt. Polushin will not jump out at you with out-of-your-seat moves, or crunchy-sounding body checks. He plays a solid physical game.
Some scouts have claimed that they haven’t seen great work ethic. But give him time. Although the effort needs improvement, Polushin has some Alexander Svitov in him on the good nights. He has shown grit, solid passing ability and determination.
As of now, he is a project; but often safe picks don’t make it far, wildcards do.

Prediction: Tver(Superleague).

Dmitry Afanasenkov. RW. 6’2, 200. 1980-05-12

A talented sniper, Afanasenkov has underachieved, somewhat. After failing to crack the Lightning opening day lineup last season, Dmitry struggled in the minors with Detroit of the IHL He completed an uninspiring season with 15 goals and 37 points in 65 games. Although he showed flashes of brilliant offensive ability at times, Afanasenkov simply did not develop as well as the organization had hoped.
A couple of years ago, Afanasenkov was expected to unseat Brad Richards as the Lightning’s top prospect, in the eyes of many. He dominated in the QMJHL and played sound offense.
At 21, Dmitry will get more opportunities, and during a call-up last year, he compiled 2 points in 9 games, including a goal for Tampa Bay. He looked solid at both ends, and showed plenty of promise.
A great skater and puckhandler, Dmitry has good reflexes and an eye for the net. However, with Tampa Bay’s great depth at forward, he’ll need an excellent camp, and he’s probably not ready yet.

Prediction: AHL(Needs to show more consistency).

Johan Hagglund. 6’2, 197. 1982-06-09.

There is one concern about Hagglund, and that is the fact that he hasn’t faced physical competition.
Playing for MoDo Jr. last year, Hagglund collected 18 points in 21 games; not exactly mind-blowing numbers.
He has grit as indicated by 66 penalty minutes, and plays a safe two-way game. He is mainly a play maker, and an above-average stickhandler.
Hagglund is years away from the big show. Hopefully, he will make the jump to play a level higher. He still needs to improve his consistency, after a few disappointing tourney showings.

Prediction: MoDo(2nd).

Expect a considerable, but not dramatic, improvement from the Bolts next year. They’re still young, and are at least two years away from playoff contention. Alexeev and Svitov should bring some needed size and grit. The youngsters are older, but with numerous spots being filled by rookies, the team hasn’t aged much. At least Dave Andreychuk is skewing the sands of the hourglass.