The first full season of the Springfield Falcons as the Tampa Bay Lightning’s sole AHL affiliate in 2004-05 was anything but memorable. The Falcons, who were the youngest team in the AHL this season with a roster that included a league-high 12 AHL rookies and eight players age 21 or younger on the last day of the season, showed their inexperience right away by flopping out of the gate with a 3-10-1-0 record.
The team finished second worst in the AHL with a dismal 24 wins, 47 losses, 6 OTL, 3 SOL for 57 points. Tampa’s system is a grueling, torturing training schedule that is known as the NHL’s toughest and most demanding. A young player enduring the system, coupled with a new city and teammates could have factored into the problems.
The team had an average age of 22.5 years, but had an average team height of 6’3 and more importantly a colossal average team weight of 219 lbs. For any coach whose motto is: “You can’t teach size,” this team was a goldmine.
Tampa was hesitant to give Eklund the starting role and opted instead to bring in veteran Jamie Storr in the offseason to anchor the young squad. When it was clear Storr wasn’t going to bring them glory, they shipped him off to the Utah Grizzlies. Eklund was given the spot and finished the year with a respectable 14 wins and 23 losses and a 3.01 GGA, but most importantly a .911 save percentage in his third year pro, but first full year in the AHL. Eklund was also chosen as the Falcons’ Most Valuable Player. The 24-year-old stopped 92.2 percent of shots he faced in April.
Eklund’s huge frame has given him problems in the speed and dexterity department, but he should grow in to a reasonable backup in the NHL, or a solid starter in the AHL in the next few years.
The Lightning’s first choice (2nd round, 34th overall) in 2003 NHL Entry Draft, Egener came into his first professional season from the Calgary Hitmen with lofty expectations. He battled injuries to play 45 games, putting up only 3 goals and 2 assists. Egener shined in a tough guy role putting up the third most PIMs on the team with 183, again in only 45 games. Egener also possesses very quick feet for a big man, and can blast a hard shot. This year was a good start for Egener to get used to his role and he will be in the NHL one day at this pace.
6’2 215 lbs.
The Lightning’s seventh choice in 2002, Ranger put up excellent numbers in his last two seasons with the Oshawa Generals of the OHL before joining the Falcons this year for his professional rookie season. Ranger was invisible at times during the first half of the season, but played like a man possessed over the final 12 games of the season recording 6 of his 11 rookie season points over the final 12 games with a team-best +8 over that span. He figured in scoring in four of the last five games of the season.
O’Brien’s success in the QMJHL with Hull and Gatineau helped him put an offensive face on the Falcons’ mostly hulking defense in his rookie season in the AHL. He tallied 3 goals and 14 assists for 17 points, which was the most by any defenseman on the squad, but most importantly O’Brien proved versatile in all situations and played 74 games this past year third on the team and first among all blueliners. He likely earned himself a top 4 spot on the club for the coming 2005-06 season, but he needs to improve his play if he wants to reach the next level.
The big Swede jumped to the AHL from the ECHL this season. Tallying 3 goals and 9 assists in 42 games, Holmqvist averaged .29 points per game. He has not turned out as the Lightning had hoped, and turning 24 in July, time is running out.
Gerard DiCaire was another big bodied, fleet-footed defenseman for the Falcons, but he continued to struggle with his aggressiveness and did not improve his offensive numbers over what he had in Utah in 2003-04. DiCaire bulked up quite a bit over the past year and at times seemed to over-analyze the play in front of him and this is most apparent in his shot total of 57 over his 47-game season. He will need to continue to improve his intensity if he wants to continue to the NHL.
One of the positives for the future of the Lighting could be 22-year-old Artukhin who was the only player on the Falcons to finish the season with a positive plus/minus rating in his second professional season. He had 9 goals and 19 assists to finish fifth in scoring on the Falcons with 28 points in 62 games and a whopping 142 penalty minutes. Artukhin was fantastic near the end of the season tallying 11 of his points, including 9 assists, over his last eight games posting multiple points in three of his last five contests. Artukhin dished out some massive checks over the season giving full credit to his well-known mean streak that also landed him with 13 games in suspensions, 10 on December 8th for an incident involving abuse of an official and three more for a dirty hit on Providence player Pat Leahy on February 8th. He has a potent package that will be well utilized by the Lightning in the coming years and he has shown that he has the drive to continue making progress over this past year.
Craig was another of the gem this year leading the Falcons with 27 goals and 41 points in only his second season and showed exceptional scoring abilities throughout the year. Just 23 years old, Craig continued his season-long emergence as a team leader over the final weeks and helped inspire the team to its season-ending win over Hartford who was one of the top teams in the whole AHL in 2004-05. His great work ethic is what won over the Tampa brass and got Craig drafted in the eighth round of the 2002 Entry Draft and he continues to show that he wants that chance to play in the NHL.
6’4 234 lbs
The Lightning’s top draft pick in 2002, Henrich played his best hockey down the stretch of the season. His highlight film goal against former Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Allan Rourke and Lowell on April 13th proved to be the game-winner. The 21-year-old also brought Civic Center fans to their feet by stripping the league’s leading goal-scorer Mike Cammalleri of the puck before patiently waiting out Garon to score on a breakaway versus Manchester for a game-tying goal on April 9th. Henrich finished the season as the Falcons’ rookie leader in both goals 10 and points 26. With his attributes steadily improving Henrich will be getting looks from the big club.
Another feisty winger with an incredible work ethic is the only way to describe Reid’s play this year. The unimaginative rookie from Alberta potted 3 goals to add to 19 assists for 22 points over 56 games and will be a likely third liner next year with the Falcons. If anything was shown by Reid this past season, it is that he has the desire to fight for everything he gets and this could translate down the line as the 22-year-old’s skills improve.
A ninth round selection in 2003, Tarnasky had an exceptional final junior year in Lethbridge and the Falcons hoped that success would continue for the young man. Indeed, Tarnasky had a strong rookie year that saw him net 7 goals with 10 assists for 17 points in 80 games to go along with 176 penalty minutes. Tarnasky got great experience, for a rookie pro, by joining Ryan Craig as the only two players to play all 80 games over the season for the Falcons. The 20-year-old will likely be given more time to develop next season in Springfield.
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