Lightning junior prospects update

By Phil Laugher

The Tampa Bay Lightning saw a sizeable contingent of their Canadian Hockey League prospect base graduate from the junior ranks to the professional system in Springfield and Johnstown. Forwards Blair Jones, Justin Keller and defenseman Andy Rogers have made the jump to the Falcons, while forwards Stanislav Lascek and Radek Smolenak have suited up for the Chiefs in the ECHL. Tampa Bay only added one player from the CHL in this past summer’s NHL Entry Draft — hulking Swift Current defenseman Dane Crowley.

With much of their young talent already playing professionally, the Lightning will likely look to replenish their junior reserves in next year’s draft. Five Lightning prospects currently play in the CHL, with three playing in the Ontario league, while two are playing in the Western league.

Marek Bartanus, F – Owen Sound Attack (OHL)
Acquired: 4th round, 92nd overall, 2005 NHL Entry Draft

Bartanus had a relatively difficult transition to the North American game after having been selected out of Slovakia in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, picking up only 19 points in his first season of Canadian junior hockey. An impressive performance at this past summer’s Traverse City Prospect Tournament got Bartanus’ sophomore campaign off on the right foot. He followed up his strong offseason with a cracking start for the Attack, picking up a point in every game in September in Owen Sound, eight points in seven games.

His offense began to slow in October, and he missed a series of games with a minor injury. Unfortunately for Bartanus, upon his return from injury, he has begun to revert back to his relatively anemic offensive ways, registering points in only one game over an eight-game stretch (albeit a four-assist outing against Oshawa). He currently sits with 15 points through 23 games, threatening last season’s totals already, yet far behind the optimistic pace he had set early in the season. He will look to right the ship in the second half of the season, hoping to recapture the production and consistency that he had begun to develop.

Kevin Beech, G – Sudbury Wolves (OHL)
Acquired: 6th round, 165th overall, 2005 NHL Entry Draft

Beech had been an important component of a talented Sudbury Wolves team last season, appearing in a Grant Fuhr-esque 63 games over the course of the season, his third in the OHL. In this his fourth season in the league, Beech has once again been a workhorse, playing in 22 of the team’s 28 games. With numerous rookies on the squad, and the graduation of immensely talented forward Benoit Pouliot, Beech has been counted on to provide support for the developing Wolves.

He has run into occasional bouts of inconsistency over the course of this season, appearing to be unbeatable in some games, including a 27-save shutout versus Toronto, and a stunning 54-save victory over Owen Sound earlier this month, but has also looked wholly ordinary in several contests, getting the hook after poor starts on a few occasions already. Sitting with a record 10 wins and 10 losses, a goals against average nearly half a goal-per-game higher than last season, and a save percentage 20 points below last year’s pace, Beech’s renewed success will be vital should Sudbury wish to challenge the league heavyweights in London and Barrie come season’s end.

Dane Crowley, D – Swift Current Broncos (WHL)
Acquired: 6th round, 168th overall, 2006 NHL Entry Draft

Crowley was selected as an 18-year-old by the Lightning, having been bypassed in the 2005 draft. Starting his first full season with Swift Current (after having played much of the past three seasons with the Saskatoon Blades), Crowley was expected to bring safe, defensive-minded physical play to the back end of the Broncos line-up. Early in the season, Crowley was asked to do more than was expected, and he ended up seeing time on the second power-play unit. While the offensive results did not come for the rugged blueliner, in spite of Crowley’s strong shot, he has been contributing in other means, playing a blend of strong physical play and defensive responsibility, with Crowley taking the body and dropping in front of shots.

A shoulder injury sidelined Crowley for three weeks in October and early November. He did not miss a beat upon his return to the line-up, and picked up his first goal of the season a couple of games after his return. Crowley currently sits with 6 points in 20 games, and a respectable minus-6 rating (a rating which is acceptable on a team that, while it may sit second in its division, is also a game below .500 and has given up 16 more goals than it has scored), and a team-high 63 penalty minutes.

Chris Lawrence, F – Mississauga IceDogs (OHL)
Acquired: 3rd round, 89th overall, 2005 NHL Entry Draft

What a difference a year makes. At this point last season, Chris Lawrence’s career was in turmoil. He had fallen out of favor with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds after bouts of inconsistency and occasional disciplinary issues, was unhappy, and his play suffered for it. A mid-season trade to Mississauga righted his ship, the lanky centerman was given an opportunity to play regular ice on the IceDogs’s top two lines, and his production shot up as a result of it, picking up 36 points in 38 games after the trade.

Lawrence did not miss a beat at the start of this season, his fourth in the league, picking up a hat trick and two assists in his first game. He was on a two-points-per-game pace when he suffered a minor head injury in mid-October that kept him out of the line-up for a few games. Any fears that the injury would derail his torrid start were put to rest when he ran off a string of multi-point games in early November.

Lawrence also participated in the first of two games for Team OHL against the Russian Selects in the ADT Canada-Russia Challenge, picking up an assist. Sitting with 31 points (15 of which are goals) in only 20 games, the IceDogs forward is on pace for a breakout season, a year in which he will be gunning for a contract. Any concerns about Lawrence’s ability to play a leading role, display consistency and level-headed leadership on the ice should have been put to rest if his early-season performance is any indication.

Vladimir Mihalik, D – Prince George Cougars (WHL)
Acquired: 1st round, 30th overall, 2005 NHL Entry Draft

Mihalik, like Lawrence, was given a fresh start this season, though Mihalik was traded in the offseason, as opposed to Lawrence’s mid-season move. An up-and-down first season in North American with the Red Deer Rebels saw the ornery, oversized Slovak suffer through some growing pains as he adapted to the different style of the North American game. By the end of the season, Mihalik had reached his comfort zone, realizing that making the safe play, and using his obvious size advantage to menace the opposition would be better than trying to do too much too quickly.

Still, Mihalik was moved to Prince George in June, and was given a fresh start. He put together a strong camp in Tampa Bay in September, being returned to the Cougars shortly before the start of the NHL season, but several games into the WHL campaign. His return to the WHL lasted only four games, as he, too, suffered a separated shoulder against Vancouver, which sidelined him for two and a half weeks. Upon his return to the line-up, the often anemically-offensive defenseman discovered his offensive touch, picking up two points in his return to the line-up, before going on a six-game stretch where he picked up three goals and three assists. In all of last season, Mihalik had only three goals and 12 points. Sitting with 10 points already this year, Mihalik is slowly developing offensively, and is still playing a mean, physical, and overall disciplined game in his own end.

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