Despite the large void the NHL lockout created, the hockey season is already long underway. Various amateur and professional leagues throughout North America and Europe have wrapped up their preseasons and are set to begin or are already in the thick of regular season action.
The Lightning's new AHL affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, open their 2012-2013 season tonight with an impressive roster that boasts the nucleus of last season's Calder Cup-winning roster and an infusion of talent with varying professional experience: (J.T. Brown, Brett Connolly, Danick Gauthier, Riku Helenius, Dmitry Korobov, Vladislav Namestnikov, Jared Nightingale, Matt Taormina and J.T. Wyman). In the absence of big-league action, watching much of the (currently foreseeable) lifeblood of the Lightning's future skate and bond together is a much-welcomed tonic.
Brett Connolly, you may have noticed, has been a polarizing figure for some time now. From the day he was drafted, really, as his gum-chewing and detached demeanor during an interview rubbed some the wrong way. Subsequent appearances have not helped much to alleviate the general perception of Connolly as cold and aloof, the antithesis to the ebullient Steven Stamkos. Perhaps, too, the early returns Anaheim and Carolina have received from Cam Fowler and Jeff Skinner may have had some fans wondering if Yzerman chose the wrong kid in 2010. However, a lackluster personality and not developing as quickly as others can easily be forgiven.
That Connolly's immediate future within the Lightning organization has come into question, though, is mostly a result of his roller-coaster of a rookie season during which he seemed to spend more time plummeting than climbing. The late-season signings and professional debuts of J.T. Brown and Alex Killorn as well as AHL MVP Cory Conacher earning a contract are significant factors too, but the discussion truly begins and ends with Connolly's own performance, of which opinions seem to range from entirely disastrous to, at best, disappointing. The prescriptions vary, too, from calls to bury Connolly in Syracuse for at least a season, starting him there with the expectation he'll earn a call-up, having him battle for an available roster spot in training camp and even reserving one for him so as to avoid crushing his confidence.
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Christmas has come and gone for us prospect followers and the excitement is starting to wear off â€“ along with my headache from staring at a computer screen too long. At one point Twitter told me it couldnâ€™t post my Bolt Prospects tweet because I was tweeting too much. Fair enough. On Sunday the picks and information were coming in faster than Cory Conacherâ€™s rise from a no-name to possible Calder Trophy candidate next year. It was tough to keep up.
Before the draft the Lightning had several organizational needs for the farm, not the NHL club. We get asked repeatedly on draft days if so-and-so can step right in and play. Unlike football, the answer is no â€“ outside of a couple picks in the top-5 overall. Yes, sometimes a Patrice Bergeron will sneak into the NHL right away, but itâ€™s best to just know that you wonâ€™t be seeing these players for a few years at the least, especially with the uber-patient Steve Yzerman in charge (and thatâ€™s a good thing).
When and how do you judge a trade or draft pick?
Earlier this week I tweeted from Bolt Prospects that it was the 10-year anniversary of then Lightning General Manager Jay Feaster sending the fourth overall pick to Philadelphia for a young forward Tampa Bay thought had some upside and two second round picks. At the time, jaws hit the floor from Nanaimo to Naples. I was standing on the line that divided my living room from my dining room and saw the trade go across the ticker on what I believe was ESPN-2. Yes, I remember exactly where I was standing when I saw the news.
It's been a day since the Norfolk Admirals hoisted the Calder Cup for the first time. The amazing thing about championships is that they're a shared milestone in the lives of, really, thousands, between the players, coaches, staff, and fans. Those journeys often contain compelling stories that make the triumph worth that journey. For Jon Cooper, it was about closing down his law practice to coach his way from Michigan high school hockey, to the USHL to working with Hockey USA, to a 2 season sprint to glory in the AHL. For Cory Conacher, it was about not being drafted and playing hockey at off-the-beaten path Canisius, dealing with diabetes, and earning an NHL contract in March of an MVP season before posting 4 assists in the championship clinching Calder Cup Finals game.
The stories of the players and the coaches are the ones we'll read about in the coming months and years, and they should be. When the Lightning made their Stanley Cup run in 2003-2004 and were playing the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference Finals, John Tortorella refused to fire back at Ken Hithcock's remarks about "Italians from Boston," because Torts rightfully understood, "It's about the athletes." Ultimately, they're the ones who score the goals and make the saves. They sacrifice their bodies and take the stitches and they take the slings and arrows if they lose. Ultimately, it's their moment, and to a lesser extent the moments of their families who supported them in the journey up to those moments. The hockey moms and dads who woke up at 6:00 am to drive their kids to games. Scratching together money for skates and ridiculously expensive composite sticks. The wives and significant others who live with the players and coaches through the disappointments and the frustrations, and live in fear of moments when things can go wrong, like when slap shots can hit a man in the ear at 90 miles an hour, similar to what happened to Scott Jackson.
Less compelling, perhaps, is the story of an organization, but, these are stories can be worth telling, too... especially in this case. We started beta testing Bolt Prospects in 2004-2005, one year after the Lightning's Cup win, in the heart of the NHL lockout. That year was also the first year since the Detroit Vipers of the IHL folded after the 2000-2001 season that the Lightning had a full-time minor league affiliate: the Springfield Falcons. Absent a full-time affiliate, it became clear the Lightning would struggle to maintain their spot on top of the hockey mountain, because split affiliates would not give prime ice time and coaching help to another organization's players. That problem prompted the start of an 8 year process for the Lightning that ended in building what must be considered the sport's preeminent developmental apparatus with the Norfolk Admirals' Calder Cup championship and the Florida Everblades' Kelly Cup Championship.
Dear Hockey's Future,
Some thoughts about your new prospect rankings for the Tampa Bay Lightning, and the overall shape of your coverage:
There are things we can have subjective differences about, and those are OK. Time will bear out the quality of a writer's subjective opinions. But then there are things that are objective facts, like who an organization still holds the rights to, that aren't up for debate.
For instance, Johan Harju is playing for Lulea in the Elitserien this season. He doesn't have an NHL contract and he won't be knocking on the door of cracking the Lightning out of camp. Mitch Fadden has been completely cut loose by the organization since his "automobile incident," shall we say? Martins Karsums isn't playing in the NCAA, although we do hear that Dynamo Riga of the KHL does have an excellent Latvian Studies program. And, Levi Nelson did not receive a qualifying offer from the Lightning this summer and will not be back with the team.
These are objective facts, and when you can't get basic objective details correct, you undermine your credibility from the beginning when the time comes to shift gears to subjective evaluations.
Speaking of which, we also have subjective points of disagreement with those rankings, which we would argue are the worst Hockey's Future has put out in about 5-6 years when you guys were leaving prospects like Karri Ramo out of your top-20 altogether.
Is Dustin Tokarski a worse prospect than Harju, after his return to Europe, or an undrafted free agent signee like Tyler Johnson? Erm, no. That's not to say it's a total stretch to put Johnson in the top-10 (we have him at 11 right now), given his junior and Team USA plaudits, but anyone who saw Tokarski in the second half of last season after Cedrick Desjardins went down saw a young, workhorse goaltender who had even better plaudits in junior hockey and with Team Canada. This young man's a heartbeat away from being on the Lightning roster should anything happen to Dwayne Roloson or Mathieu Garon, and it seems bizarre to have him at just 13th in the organization behind a player like Harju who statistically is unlikely to come back to North America now that he's gone back to Lulea.
Should Adam Janosik and Geoffrey Schemitsch really have been held out of the top-20 of their list in favor of a marginal checking line prospect like Brendan O'Donnell, a guy who was a USHL backup last season in Adam Wilcox, and an overage draftee like Ondrej Palat? That's not to say these three prospects don't have the opportunity to be more, particularly Wilcox, in the future. But, Janosik's been a top pairing fixture for Slovakia in recent junior tournaments and played well in those tournaments and in the QMJHL and Head Amateur Scout Darryl Plandowski called Schemitsch one of the Lightning's 10 best prospects in THN's last Future Watch issue despite his injury-plagued 2010-2011 campaign. As with most things we have subjective disagreements about, you don't have to take our word for it. There are scouts and scouting services who have the same opinions.
We'd also make the argument that Matthew Peca is a better prospect in his sleep than O'Donnell is awake after 3 cups of coffee (hence why multiple OHL and QMJHL teams fought for the right to add him to their rosters), but I understand the appeal of O'Donnell's situation at North Dakota over Peca going to a marginal ECAC program at Quinnipiac. Still, Peca falls into the same category of guys with Tokarski and Janosik who were rated around 100 in their draft seasons by, for instance, Red Line Report who HockeysFuture seem to discount because they went in the 5th round or after. These prospects clearly have more upside than the typical late round draft pick, though, and deserve a more critical eye in evaluation, and, again, you don't have to take our word for it because at least one scouting service also says so.
Bottom line, you guys need to step up your game. Part of the reason BoltProspects was founded was that we felt fans were getting poor information from Hockey's Future and there needed to be some other outlet to keep you accountable. At the risk of giving you something that could be interpreted as praise, which we're loathe to do, there's been improvement over the years. But, this last round of rankings is the worst I've seen since about 2005 and is a huge step backwards and the team page on Hockey's Future just continues to get worse with its lack of updates and corrected information. When people Google the name of a Lightning prospect, the links to both our websites come up toward the top in the search, and we're never pleased if your link has incorrect information. We want Lightning fans to be the best informed fans in the NHL about their prospects, and because we can't force everyone who hops on the internet to come here, we have to push other major websites like Hockey's Future to improve their quality, too, if we're going to meet that goal.
Take this as an honest critique and not a personal attack, and make it right.
Your Pals at BoltProspects.com
With the passing of August, the summer is on its decline, and hockey season is almost here in North America. But, in Europe, preseason games are already being played and the regular season is set to begin next week. On Thursday, slick scoring prospect Nikita Kucherov and CSKA will square off against perennial league power Magnitogorsk in their season opener in the Russian KHL. A week later, on 9/15, action starts in the Finnish SM-liiga where Riku Helenius and JYP will open against KalPa. That day also marks the start of the Swedish Elitserien where Johan Harju and Lulea will face Vaxjo.
We're well into the offseason now, with the draft and free agent frenzy behind us. While some teams will make various tweaks and possible additions before training camp begins in two months, the cores of the division's rosters are set.
I looked at the updated depth charts on Forecaster.ca today to see how the division is looking, and how the competition stacks up for against Lightning. While these are not the exact lines for the respective clubs, they give you a pretty good idea of the structure of each teams. Again, these are not exact lines, but the depth charts as Forecaster lists them.
Congratulations to the Boston Bruins on their victory in Game 7 tonight. I didn't think the Bruins had much of a chance going into this season and, on paper, their victory certainly seemed an impossibility once they lost one of their top line forwards, Nathan Horton, to injury for the series. But, games aren't played on paper, and the Bruins were able to get the Canucks so far out of their character that by the end of the series the Canucks looked like a shadow of the team that won the President's Trophy.
As a Tampa Bay Lightning fan, it makes the 1-0 Game 7 loss in the Eastern Conference Finals sting that much more. I'll probably go to my grave believing that with one more day's worth of rest the Lightning would've had enough in the tank to take the Bruins out. And, to see how poorly Vancouver played in this series, it's hard not to think the Lightning might very well have been the team lifting the Stanley Cup at the end of this series had they just had the chance to play for it. It's a thought that hurts badly, but it's also a thought that makes me anxious for next season and I suspect will motivate the Lightning's players returning for next year to know it was that close and to take care of the business that was left unfinished.