Holiday Bolts n’ Pieces

By Pete Choquette

Questions From the HockeysFuture Readers:

Is Anton But good enough to play on a scoring line next year for the Lightning? Is he fast enough to keep up with Vincent Lecavalier?

With Vaclav Prospal an unrestricted free agent next summer, along with the fact the Lightning still haven’t found a third winger fully capable of filling out the Lecavalier line full time, this is a question which will become a potentially pressing issue in June and July. In answer to the latter half, absolutely. Anton But’s skating is definitely sufficient to keep pace with Vincent Lecavalier. The Lightning scouts have compared it to that of current Lightning speedster Jimmie Olvestad.

Is he good enough to step in immediately on Lecavalier’s line? Well, it’s never the soundest strategy in the world to rely on a fresh prospect making the adjustment to North American style hockey, smaller rinks, and American culture right out of the gates. However, But may be a special case. Easily the hottest player in the Russian Superleague over the first month of the season, Anton remains in the top-10 in the league in scoring with 12 goals and 23 points as of December 12th. The 22-year-old left winger also is known for playing a reasonably responsible defensive game, which should endear him to Coach John Tortorella. Two years ago, But was tabbed by the NHL’s Central Scouting Service as the drafted European player most ready to make the leap to the NHL. He certainly has done nothing to besmirch his reputation as a player since then.

But is not the only player who could potentially fill a spot on the Lightning’s top two lines should GM Jay Feaster decide to dip into his stash of prospects to plug some holes. Two dark horses are emerging this season due to strong play in their respective country’s top leagues. Twenty-five-year-old forward Dimitry Bezrukov currently leads Spartak of the Superleague in scoring with 7 goals and 17 points. At 6’3 and 202 pounds, Bezrukov has a little bit more of a North American style frame, and is also a strong skater with good skill. And, despite Jay Feaster’s disparaging comments this summer, the diminutive Eero Somervuori, is once again proving he is one of the top players in Finland’s top league, the SM-Liiga. He currently sits tied for fifth in that league in scoring with 28 points in 31 games, and is third in goals. At age 23, the 5’10 185-pound right winger might not have the ideal North American body, but then again neither does Martin St. Louis. What he does posses, however, is good skating and finishing ability. Word out of Finland is Eero has the inside track on a World Championship roster spot for Finland, and if he plays well in the tournament maybe, just maybe, he can turn Jay Feaster into a believer.

What do you think the Lightning’s strategy will be in the next draft? What position will they be looking to fill?

It’s not even 2003 yet, so this may be a bit premature, but in my opinion defense is the most deficient area in the organization at all levels. The last 365 days have seen the departure of Mathieu Biron via waivers and Josef Boumedienne via draft day trade. Sascha Goc returned to Germany to play with his brother for Adler Mannheim after an acrimonious split with the organization over NHL opportunity, and Kristian Kudroc suffered a major concussion in the opener for Springfield which left him with post concussion symptoms, knocking him out of the lineup for months. Once arguably the strength of the Lightning’s prospect system, it is now one of the Achilles heels. Only Swedish defender Andreas Holmqvist is looking like a surefire NHLer any time soon.

Our draft preview for the 2002 draft discussed the deficiency of left-handed point men in the organization. The situation has gotten worse with the departure of Boumedienne. Look for the Lightning to select a two-way defender with good size and skill who is preferably a lefty shot with their first selection in the next draft. Some players to keep an eye on include Portland’s Braydon Coburn, Sherbrooke’s Richard Stehlik, and Mark Stuart of Colorado College. This segues into the next question:

Why are the Lightning so poor at drafting goaltenders?

No doubt the Lightning’s other area of weakness is goaltending, as beyond Nikolai Khabibulin there is little to fall back on with supreme confidence. In answer to the question, first of all, the team has never drafted all that many goalies. In the team’s first seven drafts under Donny Murdoch, they only selected three goaltenders: Derek Wilkinson, Tyler Moss, and Zac Bierk. Since then, Jake Goertzen’s scouting staff has selected six in the last four years. While it’s probably safe to write off players like Alexander Polukeyev and Michal Lanicek, the jury is still out on others like Evgeny Konstantinov and Joe Pearce. Remember, goaltenders don’t hit their prime until much later than players at the skating positions.

Also, the Lightning hasn’t spent many first day picks on goaltenders, either. In fact, of the nine goalies selected by the Lightning, only two were higher than a fifth round selection. Expect that to change in the second round of June’s draft, as the hole between the pipes remained unfilled in last year’s draft. With Konstantinov not yet looking like the Nikolai Khabibulin clone he was touted to be, and only Marc-Andre Fleury looking like a sure-fire first rounder, look for the second round to be goalie-time for the team from Tampa.

One small criticism, though… In 11 years the Lightning have never drafted a French Quebecois goaltender. The province of Quebec can easily claim title as the cradle of goaltenders with a litany of stars starting from the pinnacle of the position in Patrick Roy and extending down through players like Martin Broduer and younger goaltenders like Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Martin Biron. Perhaps it’s time for the Lightning’s scouts to tap into this rich wellspring of net-minding talent and receive some of the benefits other teams have enjoyed for years from drafting French-Canadian goaltenders.

Lightning Round

Here are some quick recommendations and comments on the career tracks of some of the Lightning’s other key European prospects.

Karri Akkanen

The big physical Finnish center plays for a terrible Ilves Jr. A team and his road to the SM-Liiga may be hindered by his zeal for the rougher side of the sport. He could do himself a huge favor by following in Evgeny Artukhin’s footsteps by coming to North America next year to play in the CHL.

Henrik Bergfors

Orebro is not only one of the worst teams in the Alsvenskan, it is also extremely cash-strapped. Promotion to Sodertajle doesn’t look like it is on the horizon any time soon, and if Bergfors’ parent club doesn’t put him on another club in the Swedish second tier league, it may be time for Jay Feaster to rescue his burly Swedish stay-at-homer with a contract and the opportunity to play in the minors for the Lightning next year.

Sascha Goc

If he had just stayed patient and stayed in the AHL one more year he’d probably be with the Lightning’s big club now. Instead, Darren Rumble is filling in as Tampa’s seventh defenseman after Jassen Cullimore’s shoulder injury and Goc is back in Germany playing with his little brother Marcel — sadly, a missed opportunity for Sascha. If the Lightning does indeed get a full affiliate next season, they could use a solid AHL veteran like Goc. But will Sascha be content to bide his time in the minors? Only he and his agent know for sure.

Johan Hagglund

Maybe Johan isn’t a “key” prospect for the Lightning, but he had a strong enough season to escape the clutches of Orebro via trade to Hammarby, which is an excellent club. Strong play in Hammarby in the next year or so could lead to promotion to MoDo, which could put the Swedish forward back on the Lightning’s prospect map.

Andreas Holmqvist

He has struggled for a month or so, as has everyone else on Linkoping, but Holmqvist remains a lead pipe lock to be signed by the Lightning this summer. The size, mobility, and skill of Holmqvist will make it possible for him to see some NHL action as early as next season.

Dimitry Kazionov As it turns out, Kazionov probably should have accepted Kingston’s invitation to play in the OHL this season. As is, he has been stuck on Lada Togliatta’s farm club, only playing one game at the Superleague level. Next year, perhaps he’ll decide Canada is a nicer locale than he thought.

Fredrik Norrena If Kevin Hodson doesn’t win the back up job, conditions may be favorable for Norrena to leave Vastra Frolunda after a disappointing year so far in the SEL. Fredrik has lost his starting job to Henrik Lundqvist and one has to wonder if Norrena will stay in a town where he will be merely a tandem goalie at best. More to the point, will Vastra Frolunda continue to pay a high salary for a net minder who isn’t logging the games of a starter? Jay Feaster’s offer of a two-way contract may look more appealing in 2003 light, that is, if the offer is still on the table.

Alexander Polushin

He’s been a force to be reckoned with in U-20 tournaments, and he will probably be one of the better players for Russia in the upcoming World Junior Championships. However, he has yet to put up the kind of numbers he is capable of at the Superleague level with CSKA. He has shown indications of coming around offensively in the last month or so, but staying with CSKA for one more season might not be so terrible. He receives 14 minutes a night for the recently promoted team, which is a lot for a 19-year-old in the RSL, due to his hard physical work and strong defensive play, and his coach, Viktor Tikhonov has a reputation, half of which is good.

Marek Posmyk

Also an AHL/IHL veteran, Posmyk wouldn’t be a terrible addition to a full Lightning affiliate, even if his offense, which was never his strongest suit, has all but dried up for Slavia Praha. Here is another player who, had he stuck it out patiently, might be playing for the big club due to injuries. Patience is a virtue, or so they say.