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Brian Lawton's Offseason Report Card: A

We're still about a month away from the puck dropping on another NHL season, but the prospect season begins this week when Dimitri Kazionov's Ak Bars Kazan club lets the KHL regular season out of the barn. Shortly thereafter the Lightning will open camp for one of the most interesting and promise-filled seasons they've embarked upon in some time. There are still a few finishing touches that need to be put on the work, as there will likely be some key waiver decisions and possibly another trade, but now seems as good a time as any to evaluate what sophomore GM Brian Lawton did this summer.

On Smolenak and Lashoff

Two very interesting and unrelated things happened today with the signing of Bolt Prospects #2 rated prospect Matt Lashoff and the release by KHL club Nizhnekamsk Bolt Prospects #17 rated prospect Radek Smolenak. Despite the wide disparity in terms of where they sit on the rankings, both prospects could still find themselves making significant contributions to the Lightning this season.

First, about Smolenak: the rumors I have heard suggest that Radek was pretty upset about not getting a recall in the second half of last season and I suspect that may have come up prominently in his discussions with the team before he left North America for the offseason. Given how quickly he signed with Nizhnekamsk once he left, I also suspect it would be fairly easy for there to be some bruised feelings on the Lightning's side too. With all that said, though, Smolenak's unexpected dismissal from Nizhnekamsk should be seen as an opportunity for both sides to potentially benefit after a short divorce, and I hope the Lightning are reaching out to Smolenak and his agent to let him know that there is still a place for him in the organization.

Smolenak is a player who is on the cusp of being an NHL player. His deficiencies are clear: he needs to get better defensively in his third of the rink and he doesn't have world class speed. That said, his strengths are equally clear in that he possesses considerably grit and physical bravery, especially around the opposing team's net, and a finisher's touch with a quick release and a razor sharp shot. The Lightning go into the 2009-2010 campaign with very little for certain on their lower lines. It's hard to envision anyone other than Jeff Halpern, Stephane Veilleux, and Adam Hall having a lower line job locked up in Tampa this coming season. The other three or four spots on the roster are open to a world class free-for-all, and a player with Smolenak's peculiar combination of grit and skill could find himself drawing a big league paycheck with a good camp. True, that assumes Smolenak has been training and conditioning properly and can shift his mindset from the disappointment of his release from Nizhnekamsk and any hard feelings that still linger with the Lightning toward leaving it all on the line to make the team. It also assumes that there are no legal entanglements in Smolenak's Russian deal and that he is a complete free agent and that the Lightning are interested in bring Smolenak back across the pond. But it's a possibility, and it's a possibility with very little downside as the worst case scenario would be the Lightning having Smolenak waiting down in Norfolk again playing for an AHL club that could desperately use his 20-30 potential goals at that level. If it's possible, and both sides are willing, they should make a fourth year for Smolenak in the organization happen.

And then there's Matt Lashoff, who was one of the few exciting reasons to watch a Lightning game late in a failed season last year after he was acquired at the trade deadline for Mark Recchi. I mention Lashoff as a bubble player not because I think he'll be sent down to the AHL, but because the numbers game may make it difficult for Lashoff to receive the ice time he needs to reach his considerable potential. Make no mistake, the skating ability Lashoff possesses is a rare and breathtaking assett. The kind of smooth, powerful acceleration that Lashoff has is special, and the fact he possesses soft hands and an ability to distribute the puck well makes him a potential force for the Lightning. But he finds himself at the bottom end of a logjam that includes new addition Mattias Ohlund and the returning Paul Ranger and Andrej Meszaros, who missed the second half of last season with injury. Lashoff has the ability to every bit as good as those three players and it's not hard to envision a future where he could become a perennial 30-40 point a year defenseman who is well capable of playing 20-22 minutes a night. True, to get to that time Lashoff must commit to paying attention to detail in his own end of the rink and to showing more edge and willingness to battle to win puck battles. But, the possibilities are almost boundless for Lashoff, and so it would be foolish for the Lightning to not commit to making sure Lashoff recieves every opportunity to reach his potential and equally foolish for Lashoff not to step up and make sure he makes clear to Coach Tocchet that he refuses to slip off the bubble.

Smolenak and Lashoff are just two of a host of young players, from Steve Downie to Blair Jones, who have the potential to contribute greatly to a revival in Tampa Bay starting next season. And, starting next month with training camp, a great story is going to be written by some of these players, and it's a story that I can't even guess the outcome of. Maybe that's why two obscure transactions in the dog days of August made me excited for hockey, and the promise of a new season. Let's get it cranked up.

The Week It All Turned Around?

Make no mistakes about it, the 2008-2009 season, which was the debut for General Manager Brian Lawton and the OK Hockey ownership group, was one of the most humiliating in the history of the Tampa Bay Lightning. That's saying something, considering the Lightning's chequered history includes fake British royalty, allegedly broken fax machines, and a 1997-1998 team that was arguably the worst in the history of the NHL. What made 2008-2009 a disaster of such epic proportions that it could be mentioned along side an unmitigated failure like that 1997-1998 team was the undeserved, arrogant swagger with which Lawton and OK Hockey entered the season. They threw money around in free agency. They dealt off star player Dan Boyle and then jawed with the blueliner through the media. They fired the winningest American coach in the NHL history and replaced him with a talking head from ESPN that hadn't coached in 13 years under the assumption that poor, slack-jawed hockey fans from Tampa Bay weren't smart enough to know a backward step in the coaching department when they saw it. And, that's just the tip of the iceberg. They were self styled high rollers who expertly gambled away much of the credibility the franchise had fought to earn over the previous ten or so seasons since the 1997-1998 nightmare and, in the process, gambled away their credibility with the Lightning's fans and the media as well.

Well, in the last week, Brian Lawton and the Lightning organization may have finally started to do something to earn that credibility back. Things didn't start in a promising way with talk of ownership infighting, players defecting to Russia, and neverending rumors of Vincent Lecavalier being dealt to Montreal for a bag of pucks in order to save money. But, a week later, the Lightning seem to have finally gotten their act together and if the Lightning do manage to re-emerge as an elite caliber team over the next five or so seasons, as I believe is possible, this may be the week we point back to as the starting point for the rise. Rather than trade Lecavalier, Lawton and OK Hockey sat on their cell phones, choosing not to deal a true superstar from a position of extreme weakness at the trough of his value and strip their brightest young player, Steven Stamkos, of the protective talent he needs on the line above him to push for a big sophomore campaign. They now seem to have put Lecavalier's future in the hands of Lecavalier: if Lecavalier has a big season I would expect that he will be retained. If he has another poor season, he'll likely be gone.

Overshadowed by the Lecavalier soap opera, but not unnoticed by this website, the Lightning went out and executed what may prove to be the second best draft in the team's history. They once again lucked out in getting the perfect fit for the organization's needs when Victor Hedman fell to the second overall pick, giving the Lightning the best raw talent they have ever had on their blueline and a player some independent scouting firms believe could have the most upside of any player to be drafted since Sid Crosby. Beyond Hedman, who could be dismissed as a bit of a no-brainer pick, Lawton was surprisingly aggressive in trying to move up in the first round, and he eventually managed to move up to twenty-nine in the first to grab power forward project Carter Ashton, who was thought to have been a lock to go more toward the middle of the first round. Day two opened up with two more exciting picks. Richard Panik, who was rated the seventh best player in his draft class by THN at this time last year before a season marred with injuries and questions about his work ethic, was taken in the late second round and gives the Lightning a player with Marian Hossa type upside. Then the Lightning managed to have Alex Hutchings, who has seen comparisons ranging from Chuck Kobasew, to Chris Kunitz, to Brian Gionta, to Mike Richards, fall to them all the way into the fourth round. Not since the 1998 NHL Entry Draft, which perhaps not-so-coincidentally followed the embarassing season which paralleled last season's disaster, when the Lightning drafted Lecavalier, Brad Richards, and Dimitry Afanasenkov with their first three picks, have the Lightning had such a successful first half of a draft. Undoubtedly, new head scout Jim Hammett's first run with the Lightning seems like an unabashed success, at least on paper.

That was sort of the edge of my wildest expectations going into the week: that Lawton would be aggressive and the Lightning would have a successful draft. I never thought the team would have the resources to go make much of a splash in the first day of free agency. Unlike last season, the expectation was that the Lightning might nibble around the edges, but that a top-flight veteran blueliner was surely out of reach. That's where the Lightning caught the hockey world by surprise. Roughly fifteen minutes after the start of free agency, the Lightning landed Mattias Ohlund, in a move that sent a shockwave of excitement through the Lightning fan base in a way no free agent signing has ever done before. Ohlund is nearly a perfect fit for the Lightning. He's a rock solid two-way defender who played 22 minutes a night last season in Vancouver, and will help trim the load the Lightning's young blueliners will have to carry. And, his Swedish heritage makes him the perfect choice to mentor Hedman. I expect Ohlund, who had been playing in a conservative Vancouver system geared toward their strength in net where Roberto Luongo resides, to get back to posting 30 point seasons in Tampa Bay, and I expect him to become the rock Head Coach Rick Tocchet relies upon to help calm down the Lightning's blueline in key situations. The Lightning also added former Blackhawks blueliner Matt Walker and re-upped Lukas Krajicek, instantly making a club that struggled mightily with injuries on the blueline last season eight deep in the back. True, they're all lefthanded shots and, other than Hedman, they're all waiver eligible, which will prompt further moves. But, relative to the alternative, that's a good problem to have.

The Lightning still, at a minimum, have to acquire a backup netminder to replace Karri Ramo after his defection to Russia. Talk in the local media indicates that Lawton intends to fill the void via trade rather than free agency. There's also talk of signing one more forward, and the Lightning do have a hole in their top six forwards. I'm still a little skittish to read the phrase, "General Manager Brian Lawton is looking to make a trade," but I must say this past week has gone a long way to start repairing the damage done last year. We can only hope that Lawton and Company can keep it up. If they keep having weeks like this one, there's little doubt the Lightning will soon be back in the playoff hunt.

Best Draft Since 1998?

It's almost impossible to beat the haul the Lightning got in 1998 (Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards, Dimitry Afanasenkov, and Martin Cibak), but I think the Lightning might've just completed their second best draft in team history. They already completed a first in history making a pair of first round picks on night one of the draft with Victor Hedman and Carter Ashton, so they were on their way already.

However, their second and fourth round selections really put this draft over the top. Richard Panik is a big time gamble, but he's going to a very good program in Windsor and will be playing for Bob Boughner. On pure talent, he could be even better than Ashton if you can get his head on straight, and he'll be in the environment in Windsor to facilitate that.

And, we love that Alex Hutchings pick. Absolutely love it. You got a hockey player who can play center or wing. Good skater. Good hockey sense. He can pass. He can shoot. He mucks well for a little guy. He just knows how to play the game. It's shocking he fell into the Lightning's lap in the fourth round, and in getting Hutchings the Lightning completed a very successful first four rounds where they got 4 of the top 48 rated prospects by THN and 4 of the top 60 by Red Line. That's in a deep draft, no less, so they got a lot of quality.

The goaltenders, Zador and Janus, seem like a reaction to Karri Ramo's defection. Zador's got to get playing time, but he was a first rounder in the OHL Priority Draft in 2007, so he's got raw ability. Janus made his name at the WJC's and had decent statistics for Erie this season. Because Janus was an overager, he'll probably only have one more year in junior. Zador probably gets two. You're just wishing and hoping one of them develops the way Ramo did when the Lightning took a sixth rounder on him out of Lahti.

I have a feeling the Lightning got some value out of that Gotovets pick. I'm guessing if his name was Johnson or Wilson, he might've gone a couple of rounds sooner, but teams are terrified of the KHL poaching their players. Yes, there's a danger if Gotovets develops he could be poached by Dynamo Minsk, but he's already taken the step of coming over to Shattuck and he already speaks pretty flawless English. I don't think you make that commitment and go to an Ivy League school like Cornell only to turn back around and go back to Belarus, and I have yet to hear about anything glaringly wrong with his game other than the fact he's pretty skinny. He'll be a darkhorse to watch over the next few years.

The only regret is that the Lightning didn't find a way to get an offensive defenseman or two into the system. That'll be something they'll need to look at next year, and they'll certainly continue to try to flesh out their forward depth. Getting Ashton, Panik, and Hutchings was a whale of a start, though. Very good draft. I suspect they get at least three NHL players out of this group.

Update:
Evidently, Janus would've gone to Russia to play in the KHL if he hadn't been drafted, and he wants to play pro this season and not go back to junior. That's an interesting problem for a Lightning organization that has Riku Helenius and Dustin Tokarski all but inked into the lineup in Norfolk next season.

Rock Solid First Round for the Lightning

Hard to argue with what the Lightning accomplished tonight at the draft. I think the two players they got are definitely going to be NHLers and their athleticism is bullet-proof. For the second year in a row, they got the perfect fit getting Victor Hedman. He's exactly what the Lightning needed, and he has the ability to make the entire defensive corps better. In a perfect world, the Lightning would've been able to get one of those pure offensive defensemen to pair with him that they could just turn loose, but it wasn't in the cards.

Credit to Brian Lawton for being aggressive trying to move up. From about pick #10 or #11, the Lightning were trying to move back into the first round to acquire another prospect. This is the first time in team history they've been this aggressive, and they got a good payoff for it. I was worried that the ownership squabbles were such a distraction that Lawton would sit on his hands tonight, but that wasn't the case. They had the resources to make moves, and they tried to do so.

I have no problem moving a pick outside of the top-60 to move up a few picks to get a player you believe is going to be an NHLer, and Carter Ashton was very good value at pick 29. He should have gone around pick 20 and there are several forwards who were taken ahead of him that simply aren't better players than he is. The Lightning got a guy who's going to be that Modin type player who does the board work for you and drives the slot and bangs 25-30 goals home for you. They've desperately needed a player like that since Modin was dealt. Even Ryan Malone, as good as he is around the opposing crease, could be stronger along the wall. Ashton's great along the wall, with the added dimension of being a good fighter if you provoke him. He might end up being a good protector for Stamkos down the road. A simple meat and potatoes game like he has translates well on any line you put him on. I thought the Lightning might take a player like Ashton like Budish, for instance, with the pick at 32. I never though Ashton would slide down as low as 29 to be a possibility for the Lightning. Definitely a rock solid pick.

The only downside from the first night of the draft is that because the Lightning don't pick again until 52, I don't know if they'll be able to grab a righty shot offensive defenseman. There are some players still on the board they could use: Charles Olivier Roussel of Shawinigan and Stefan Elliott of Saskatoon are still out there. Eric Gelinas of Lewiston is a lefty shot defenseman with a lot of offensive upside who is still out there as well. I doubt they'll make it to 52, though, and I doubt the Lightning have the resources left to move up from 52 to get one.

Chad and Tim from our staff made a good point to me: now that you have Ashton to go along with a prospect like Johan Harju, you need a playmaker to set these big snipers up because they're not the type of players who make their own offense on the rush. But, other than Alex Hutchings of Barrie, there's not many playmakers left. There are some snipers like Jeremy Morin of the USNTDP, Toni Rajala from the Ilves program, Landon Ferraro of Red Deer, and Ben Hanowski of Little Falls High School. There's also a wild card like Zach Budish, who's a power forward who can do it all, but was hurt all year. So, there's a lot of talent still hanging around. I just wish the Lightning could be at about 42 rather than 52 to know they're going to get a player like that.

Another thought is that Rick Tocchet tweeted that there's a scary enforcer who the Lightning should take a look at. Defenseman Brayden McNabb, who is rated at 66 by Red Line and 54 by THN is one of the toughest players in this draft, apparently bit someone somewhere along the way this season. Cannibalism qualifies as scary.

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