Lightning NCAA prospects update

By Kevin Wey

The Tampa Bay Lightning have had not had a great deal of success drafting out of the college ranks over its 14 years of existence. Of the few collegiate players drafted, only 1997 ninth round pick Paul Comrie and 2000 seventh round pick Brian Eklund have played in the NHL. Comrie’s games came with the Edmonton Oilers before injury cut his career short. Eklund’s legacy appears as if it will be the acquisition of Zdenek Blatny, for whom he was traded to the Boston Bruins Feb. 8.

In recent drafts, Tampa has begun drafting more players out of the college ranks, or players who are college-bound, and the rewards should start coming in the next few seasons, especially at defense. Of Tampa’s seven collegiate prospects, five are defensemen, all of them big. Six-foot-five, 220-pound Matt Smaby heads the list. The 2003 second round draft pick captains the University of North Dakota and provides a physical presence who can shut down opponent’s top players and has some offensive potential. University of Maine junior defenseman Mike Lundin became a regular for the 2003-04 Hockey East champion Maine Black Bears as a true freshman and is becoming one of the best two-way defensemen in the league. University of Minnesota senior defenseman P.J. Atherton has had a tough time becoming a regular for the powerhouse Golden Gopher team, but he’s on the team’s top pairing in 2005-06 and is providing a needed physical presence. University of Massachusetts freshman defenseman John Wessbecker isn’t putting up points, but he’s a regular in the Minutemen’s roster as a true freshman after playing Minnesota high school hockey for Blake School.

Tampa Bay’s lone collegiate forward prospect, Dusty Collins, was drafted out of the U.S. National Development program, but he’s been and remains a project power forward. The junior is centering Northern Michigan’s third line.

Project defenseman Art Femenella has had a more difficult collegiate career. The 2001 sixth round draft pick played two more seasons in the USHL before going to the University of Vermont, where the gigantic 6’7, 220-pound defenseman has struggled to crack the line-up. Vermont experimented with Femenella at forward last year, and this season the junior defenseman has been a healthy scratch and more recently an unhealthy scratch, battling a bad back.

Tampa’s lone goaltender in the college ranks plays only slightly more than the team’s stick boy. Joe Pearce played five games his freshman season at Boston College, sat out the 2004-05 season, and has played only three games in 2005-06. However, Pearce shows what he’s capable of when he gets the chance. He was the Great Lakes Invitational Tournament MVP in 2003-04 and this season he was the Denver Cup MVP after leading the Eagles to the tournament title while Cory Schneider backstopped Team USA’s efforts at the World Junior Championships. Pearce has not played again since a 4-3 victory over Northeastern Jan. 6, as Schneider is one of the top goalies in college hockey.

P.J. Atherton, D
University of Minnesota – Sr.
Ht: 6’2 Wt: 205 lb. Shoots: Right
Born: 8-16-1982 Edina, Minnesota
Acquired: 6th Rd, 170th overall 2002 NHL Entry Draft

P.J. Atherton has come a long way in four years and fought through adversity. Drafted out of Cedar Rapids of the USHL, Atherton was not a regular in the Golden Gopher line-up his freshman season and he missed 17 games his junior season because he was academically ineligible the first semester, especially frustrating since he was a WCHA All-Academic Team member in 2003-04.

The 2005-06 season has been a success for Atherton. He’s pairing with puckmoving defenseman Chris Harrington on Minnesota’s first defensive pairing, providing the team with a physical presence. Truly a regular in the Gophers line-up for the first time in his collegiate career, Atherton is making an impact.

“We as coaches learned that we needed him in our line-up because he does bring that physical presence,” Minnesota head coach Don Lucia said.

With only 1 goals and 3 assists in 30 games, Atherton is not an offensive threat for the Golden Gophers, but that does not concern Lucia.

“We don’t look at the end of the game and say, ‘Geez P.J., what did you contribute offensively?'” Lucia said. “At the end of the day we’re looking at what he contributed defensively.”

At 6’2 205 pounds he has good size, and he plays a physical game, also blocking shots. In his junior days, Atherton was known to drop the gloves from time to time, when it didn’t result in a one-game disqualification. Offensively, Atherton has a hard point shot and a good outlet pass. The 23-year-old will have to work on his foot speed to succeed as a professional.

Atherton’s likely destination next season is either Springfield in the AHL or Johnstown in the ECHL, or a combination of the two. His role at the pro level is not likely to change.

“His value is not in points,” Lucia said. “It’s being a good penalty killer and taking care of his own end of the rink.”

Dusty Collins, C
Northern Michigan University – Jr.
Ht: 6’3 Wt: 210 lb. Shoots: Left
Born: 2-28-1985 Gilbert, Arizona
Acquired: 5th Rd, 163rd overall 2004 NHL Entry Draft

Power forward Dusty Collins may have played for the U.S. National Development Team in 2003-04, but Northern Michigan center is still a project center who has a ways to go. However, Tampa Bay’s only collegiate prospect forward has a lot of tools to work with.

“He’s got excellent size and strength, and he’s a very good skater for someone that size,” NMU head coach Walt Kyle said.

“He has a special work ethic, he’s really gifted in that regard,” Kyle said. “He not only works on the ice, he works off the ice developing his strength.”

Kyle considers Collins one of the team’s most improved players this season, which isn’t always a good thing for a junior. However, the 20-year-old Arizona native is short on experience and the confidence that follows. Collins is gaining some of that needed experience centering seniors Patrick Murphy and Jamie Milam on the Wildcats third line in 2005-06. In 26 games Collins has a modest 3 goals and 4 assists, missing six games this season. Four of those games were due to a broken hand suffered against Ferris State Jan. 14, and another was a game disqualification served Nov. 4.

Because of his size, raw talent, and work ethic, Collins will likely receive a three-way contract from Tampa after completing his four seasons with Northern Michigan. His upside is that of a physical power center on a fourth line, but he’ll probably have to start out in Johnstown.

Art Femenella, D
University of Vermont – Jr.
Ht: 6’7 Wt: 255 lb. Shoots: Right
Born: 6-6-1982 Annandale, New Jersey
Acquired: 6th Rd, 188th overall 2001 NHL Entry Draft

Art Femenella was a raw project player when he was drafted out of Sioux City of the USHL, and after two more years of USHL hockey and over two years of college hockey with the University of Vermont, Femenella is still very much a project.

A gigantic, physical fighter in the USHL, Femenella has not seemed well suited for the collegiate game. The direction professional hockey has taken also poses a problem.

“The pro game is changing so drastically that he’s going to have to learn that he’s a big guy and he can’t hook and hold, especially the way they’re calling the NHL,” UVM head coach Kevin Sneddon said.

In the meantime, the junior defenseman is having trouble cracking the Catamounts line-up. He’s currently suffering from a back injury that is making it difficult for him to sleep, let alone play hockey. Femenella as not played a game since Nov. 27. Prior to that, Femenella was a healthy scratch for four straight games in early November.

“I think we’ve certainly improved our defensive corps,” Sneddon said. “It’s now pretty tough to crack the line-up this year if you’re not already in it.”

Femenella is useful to have, when healthy.

“His skills and speed are limited, but he’s a nice player to have against certain teams because he does add that physical presence,” Sneddon said.

Sneddon noted that Femenella can make plays, handle the puck, and shoot the puck well, unfortunately he’s rarely in a situation to use any of those in a game. His lack of footspeed and his troublesome pivots prevent him from being the physical defensive defenseman he could be.

Femenella does have some straightaway speed though, which resulted in an experiment at forward during his sophomore year.

“He’s very intimidating to an opposing team when he’s coming in on a forecheck,” Sneddon said.

The experiment failed to result in any points for Femenella. In fact, he has only one point in three seasons.

“It was one of those things where as a coach you try to spark something,” Sneddon said. “It worked very well for a short period of time, and then we just realized that magic was done and we were getting better in terms of our people up front and we brought him back to the blue line.”

While Femenella has a great deal to work on skill-wise, his competitiveness, toughness, and work ethic are strong points. Struggling to crack the Vermont line-up for three seasons, Femenella is a longshot to play in the AHL, let alone the NHL. The 23-year-old defenseman has one more year of college hockey left, and then Tampa will have his rights until the following August.

Mike Lundin, D
University of Maine – Jr.
Ht: 6’1 Wt: 195 lb. Shoots: Left
Born: 9-24-1984 Apple Valley, Minnesota
Acquired: 4th Rd, 102nd overall 2004 NHL Entry Draft

Unlike Atherton and Femenella, Mike Lundin has been on his team’s roster since their first game his freshman season. In fact, Lundin missed his first two games of his Maine Black Bears career Oct. 28 and 29, due to a separated shoulder suffered against Alabama-Huntsville the previous week. The durable Lundin was back in action Nov. 4 against Merrimack.

Lundin was not originally slated to play for Maine in 2003-04. The Apple Valley, Minn., native had been slated to skate for the Cedar Rapids Roughriders of the USHL, but Maine decided to bring him in early, and he did not disappoint.

“We weren’t expecting Mike to come in and quarterback our power play, but amazingly enough, he ended up on our power play,” Maine head coach Tim Whitehead said.

“He was a fixture on our power play that freshman year, and we won our league championship in Hockey East, and he’s on the point on the power play with a minute to go in that National Championship game,” Whitehead said.

Maine lost that game to the Denver Pioneers, but it spoke volumes of Lundin’s talent as a true freshman. The Apple Valley High School captain came to Maine after being named the 2003 Minneapolis Star Tribune Metro Hockey Player of the Year and a finalist for the prestigious Minnesota Mr. Hockey award. Forty-four games, three goals, and 16 assists later, Tampa Bay used a fourth round pick to draft the Black Bear blueliner.

Lundin’s sophomore season proved to be a transition for the young defenseman. He went from 175 lbs his freshman year to 195 his sophomore year, and the 20 lbs proved to be a challenge.

“Sophomore year he played at about 195, so he had 20 more pounds and his body wasn’t quite ready to play at that weight,” Whitehead said.

The 21-year-old is playing at 195 again, but he’s taken his game to the next level in 2005-06.

“Now, he’s still at 195, but it’s a different type of 195, he’s really cut now,” Whitehead said. “He was growing into his body last year and this year he’s just more comfortable with that weight and he’s conditioned himself into better shape.”

Although Lundin’s two goals and 11 assists place him second among Maine defensemen in scoring, the junior is the Black Bears top defenseman. His goal against Minnesota-Duluth and his two assists against Northeastern at the Florida College Classic helped earn him a spot on the All-Tournament Team and a spot on Hockey East’s weekly honor roll Jan. 2. Lundin was on the honor roll again Jan. 16 after setting up three of Maine’s six goals against Boston University that weekend. The key to Lundin’s success is his well-rounded game.

“He has no glaring deficiencies, and that’s one of the reasons I think he’s going to have a nice career in professional hockey, because he does everything well,” Whitehead said.

Offensively, Lundin has a strong wrist shot and is a good playmaking defenseman. Defensively, his hockey sense and shot blocking make him effective. Quickly becoming one of Hockey East’s top defensemen, Lundin could do more.

“Sometimes I wonder if he knows how good he is,” Whitehead said. “He could do even more for us as far as being assertive with the puck.”

Lundin still has one more year of college hockey to play, but he is a near lock to play in the AHL in 2007-08. The Lightning have drafted few collegiate players and have had even less success with those players. Lundin should help break that trend.

Joseph Pearce, G
Boston College University – Jr.
Ht: 6’4 Wt: 205 lb. Shoots: Left
Born: 6-24-1982 Brick, New Jersey
Acquired: 5th Rd, 135th overall 2002 NHL Entry Draft

Joe Pearce’s collegiate career has not panned out as was hoped when he was drafted after leading the New Hampshire Junior Monarchs to the EJHL championship and earning EJHL MVP and Best Goalie honors in 2001-02. Pearce moved to the USHL for an underwhelming season with the Chicago Steel, but then the adversity truly hit Pearce.

Boston College already has an established starting goalie in Matti Kaltiainen, and Pearce proved unable to displace the Finn. Pearce played in only five games as Kaltianen’s backup, but he was named the Great Lakes Invitational MVP after defeating Michigan and Michigan State for the tournament title. The next time Peace played after the holiday GLI tournament was Boston College’s final series of the year, against Maine.

When Team USA U18 starting goaltender Cory Schneider joined Boston College in 2004-05, splitting time with Kaltiainen, Pearce decided to sit out the 2004-05 season.

Pearce is back on the roster in 2005-06, but his experience is mirroring his freshman season. Pearce’s first games of the season were at the Denver Cup while Schneider was playing for Team USA at the World Junior Championships. Two years after the GLI, Pearce was named the Hockey East Defensive Player of the Week January 2 after saving 53 of 57 shots and earning Denver Cup MVP honors after leading the Eagles to the tournament victory. The junior goaltender also started Jan. 6 against Northeastern and only had to make 12 saves on 15 shots for the victory.

Since then, Pearce has continued to ride the pine behind Schneider, one of the hottest goaltenders in college hockey. Freshman goaltender Adam Reasoner, the brother of Edmonton Oilers center Marty Reasoner, is nipping on Pearce’s heels to become No. 2. At this point, it does not appear probable that Pearce will play at any level higher than minor pro hockey.

Matt Smaby, D
University of North Dakota – Jr.
Ht: 6’5″ Wt: 220 lb. Shoots: Left
Born: 10-14-1984 Minneapolis, Minnesota
Acquired: 2nd Rd, 41st overall 2003 NHL Entry Draft

Like Lundin, University of North Dakota defenseman Matt Smaby is one of the bright spots in Tampa’s otherwise dismal history with collegiate prospects. Smaby looks to follow North Dakota alumni Matt Greene (EDM) and Matt Jones (PHO) in finding his way to the NHL, and the big blueliner appears to be on that path.

“He’s 6’5 and brings a physical presence to the ice with him,” UND head coach Dave Hakstol said. “He needs to play with a physical edge every night to be effective, and he’s doing that on a pretty consistent basis for us.”

Smaby’s physical, aggressive edge is evidenced by his 91 penalty minutes, second in the WCHA only to Minnesota State’s Rob Rankin. Although the Shattuck St. Mary’s product’s offensive numbers do not match his penalty minutes, Smaby has not put up a great number of points with the Fighting Sioux, he has only three goals and five assists in 32 games in 2005-06, but those numbers belie an offensive upside.

“I think there’s still room for some pretty good development yet offensively,” Hakstol said. “He shoots the puck extremely well and has pretty decent vision.”

North Dakota’s captain as a junior, Smaby has paired with freshman Zach Jones shutting down most opponents’ top lines. Smaby was nominated for the WCHA’s Defensive Player of the Week Oct. 17 after scoring as many goals (one) as he allowed Northeastern the entire weekend.

Smaby is a certainty to play for the Tampa organization in the AHL after college, but he’ll have to develop his offensive game to play in the NHL.

“He has to be a physical two-way defenseman,” Hakstol said of Smaby’s pro future. “I think he’s going to have to keep his game simple in his own end but at the same time, I think he does have some offensive ability.”

Greene and Jones have made successful transition from the UND blue line to pro hockey in 2005-06, and Smaby looks to follow, likely in 2007-08.

John Wessbecker, D
University of Massachusetts-Amherst – Fr.
Ht: 6’2 Wt: 185 lb. Shoots: Right
Born: 9-15-1986 Edina, Minnesota
Acquired: 7th Rd, 225th overall 2005 NHL Entry Draft

He may be an NHL draft pick, but John Wessbecker is still exceeding expectations in 2005-06.

The freshman UMass defenseman is coming straight out of Minnesota High School hockey with Blake School, where he was captain his senior season, was All-Conference, and was named the Bears Team MVP, Best Defensive Player, and was named a recipient of the Hobey Baker High School Character Award. Despite these accomplishments, Wessbecker’s jump straight from Minnesota high school hockey to a regular in the Minutemen line-up is impressive.

“We thought that he’d be able to contribute this year,” UMass head coach Don Cahoon said. “We’ve been pleasantly surprised with physically how ready and how fast he was able to catch up with the speed of the game.”

With six goals and 16 assists in 26 games with Blake, Wessbecker was not a big scorer in Minnesota high school hockey, but he was physically dominating and one of the best defensive defensemen in the state. The 19-year-old has carried that style to college hockey, but he’s also eager to learn.

“He’s very aggressive, he’s physical, he’s not afraid to engage, he thrives on the contact and the competition part of the game, and he’s very coachable,” Cahoon said. “Anything that we’ve tried on to him, you see him implementing it in his game day in and day out.”

Wessbecker has paired primarily with sophomore David Leaderer as a stay-at-home pairing. The business major is all business in his own zone and thinks defense first, as evidenced by his two assists in 28 games. He has played in every game, an encouraging sign for any freshman player. Although he’s a regular in the UMass line-up, Wessbecker must continue to adjust to the speed of the Hockey East game, both physically and mentally. Cahoon and the UMass staff are also making sure Wessbecker remains a reliable defensive performer.

“John’s simply the type of player that less is more,” Cahoon said.

Thus UMass works with Wessbecker to “simplify his game, so he doesn’t over-handle the puck, and so that he’s making his reads prior to them needing to be executed.”

Drafting a player directly out of high school hockey is always a gamble, because of the lesser competition. However, the selection of Wessbecker has proven prudent for the Lightning. Cahoon compares Wessbecker favorably to former UMass defenseman and current Chicago Blackhawks prospect Nick Kuiper.

“We had Nick Kuiper a couple years ago sign with Chicago and he’s playing in Norfolk in the American league,” Cahoon said. “John is probably every bit as far along as Nick was at the same stage, maybe even physically a little bit ahead, and he has the same approach as Nick.”

“Like Nick, he’ll probably be one of the best defensive specialists in the league by the time he leaves here.”

Kuiper was a candidate for Hockey East’s Defensive Defenseman of the Year for 2003-04. Wessbecker may one-up Kuiper and take the award by the time he leaves UMass, if he continues to develop.

Wessbecker’s skating ability, size, physicality, and defensive awareness should ensure that he’s an AHL caliber defensive defenseman by the team he leaves UMass. Whether he plays for Tampa Bay is to be seen, but the initial returns from the 2005 seventh round pick are encouraging.

Tampa Bay College Prospect Player Stats 2005-06
P.J. Atherton Minnesota
Dusty CollinsN. Michigan
Art Femenella Vemont
Mike LundinMaine
Matt Smaby North Dakota
John Wessbecker UMass
Tampa Bay College Prospect Goalie Stats 2005-06
Joseph Pearce

B. College


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