The Bottom Line
The 2005-2006 Springfield Falcons finished with a 28-48-4-3 record for 65 points, which placed the team 6th in the Atlantic Division and 12th of 13 teams in the Eastern Conference a full 20 points out of a playoff spot. The season was a modest 8 point improvement over last year's team which finished 24-47-3-6 with 57 points. At year's end Head Coach Dirk Graham and Assistant Coach Phil Russell were dismissed from the team.
What Went Wrong?
The foremost problem with the 2005-2006 Springfield Falcons was their inability to keep the puck out of their net. The team allowed 312 goals this season, the worst mark in the entire AHL and 57 goals more than they allowed in 2004-2005. Both the team's goaltending and defensive corps were equally culpable with the team's inability to stop opposing teams.
Entering the season, the Lightning organization knew they needed to acquire a veteran netminder to play in Springfield to mentor their three young netminders: Brian Eklund and rookies Gerald Coleman and Jonathan Boutin. Towards that end, the Lightning strongly pursued 2002 draft pick Fredrik Norrena, one of the best club players in Europe who would later serve as backup on Finland's silver medal winning Olympic team. The Lightning and Norrena's agent reached an agreement in principle but, according to the Lightning, against the advice of his agent Norrena backed out of the deal at the 11th hour leaving the Lightning with Brian Eklund and a rookie as their tandem for the season.
Unfortunately for the Falcons things quickly slid downhill between the pipes. Eklund, the team's 2004-2005 MVP was given the starting job at the outset of the season based on the strength of his .911 save percentage and 3.01 GAA the previous year. He failed miserably in his first opportunity to become a full time AHL starter goin 5-11-1 with an attrocious 4.19 GAA and .876 save percentage before being traded to the Boston Bruins at midseason for winger Zdenek Blatny. This put the Falcons in the uneviable position of having to give their starting job early in the season to the rookie Coleman. The former London Knight played well at first going 11-4-1 through December 10th before the wheels quickly and abruptly fell off. Coleman only won 3 more games the rest of the season and finished with a 3.88 GAA and .880 save percentage in a tandem rotation with fellow rookie Boutin. Boutin, who was called up semi-permanently from the ECHL after appearing in that league's all-star game at midseason, fared slightly better going 8-12-2 with a 3.13 GAA and .899 save percentage, but he was plagued with some of the inconsistency that vexed him in his days in the QMJHL.
Many of the Falcons' goaltenders' struggles can be traced directly to the poor play of the defense in front of them throughout the year. After just one game the team lost arguably its two best defenseman in Lightning rookie standout Paul Ranger, to callup, and veteran Brad Bombardir, to a catstrophic knee injury. The situation got worse as veteran Todd Rohloff struggled throughout the year with a variety of ailments ranging from a bad back to a sprained knee. Ranger was soon replaced by Swiss defender Timo Helbling but the team's attempts to replace Bombardir were short lived after tryout player Anders Eriksson decided to turn down a contract offer from the Lightning to play in Russia. Additionally, the club's best laid plans to repair its power play by acquiring cagey veteran Brad Tiley via free agency were also ineffective and Tiley was soon shipped out for AHL veteran Ray Schultz, who fared little better. Compunding these problems were the struggles of Lightning prospects Gerard Dicaire and Mike Egener who were sent down to the ECHL early in the year to regain their confidence and made only small contributions upon their return to the AHL at midseason.
As was the case last season, Lightning and Falcons management took the fall for acquiring a slew of ineffective veterans. Unlike last year, however, the team could not use the excuse that the AHL was infiltrated with large quantities of NHL talent as it was during the lockout. That is what makes the Falcons' huge drop off defensively all the more frightening. Even though the talent level in the league was reduced dramatically the team still allowed 57 more goals than last year. And after two failed bids to fix the problem through veteran free agents and trades, Falcons fans have every right to be skeptical about next year's batch of replacements. Aside from Doug O'Brien, who had 32 points in 74 games on the Falcons first pairing, the team may have to completely remake its backline for 2006-2007.
Up front, the team fared much better in its offensive production and actually absorbed the loss of Evgeny Artyukhin and, to a lesser extent, Ryan Craig to callups to Tampa Bay. However, when Norm Milley was also recalled to Tampa Bay for an extended stint with the big club, the team found itself mired in a two month long offensive drought in which it was reduced largely to a one line team. Building offensive depth is another need to be addressed for the Falcons next season.
What Went Right?
The Falcons' offense was dramatically improved over last season scoring 220 goals on the year, a healthy 59 goal improvement over 2004-2005 in which Springfield set the record for most times shutout in a season. Up front the Lightning and Falcons can point to a number of new acquisitions who fared well at the AHL level. Rookie Ryan Vesce, who the team signed out of the Swedish Allsvenskan, led the team in scoring with 18 goals and 67 points in 80 games. Winger Norm Milley, who was signed after departing the Sabres organization, posted an even more torrid scoring pace with 19 goals and 48 points in 53 games. Even Jim Campbell, who was traded at midseason for Springfield native Dan Cavanaugh, posted respectable numbers with 12 goals and 24 points in 32 games. Milley and Vesce, along with 2004-2005 holdover Jason Jaspers and rookie prospect Marek Kvapil, helped give the Falcons a respectable pair of lines when all the pieces were present in Springfield. The group was made even stronger when Zdenek Blatny, a former Thrashers 2nd round pick, was acquired from the Bruins organization. Together with Jaspers and Kvapil, Blatny helped form one of the most potent Falcons lines in recent memory late in the year. Additional scoring depth was provided by rookie David Spina, who was signed out of the ECHL as a free agent, and Lightning prospect rookie Zbynek Hrdel who started the year in Johnstown of the ECHL. Both had strong starts once they moved up to the AHL but faded as the season wore on.
The Falcons also got decent play from their checking lines, particularly defensive player of the year Dan Cavanaugh and Lightning prospects Nick Tarnasky and Darren Reid. All three players established themselves as heart and soul, high energy grinders capable of chipping in the occassional point. Cavanaugh scored 4 goals and 19 points in 39 games after being acquired for Jim Campbell while Tarnasky improved on his 2004-2005 campaign scoring 14 goals and 23 points in 68 games, a 7 goal and 6 point leap in 12 less games played. Reid's 5 goal improvement was far more modest, partly due to time lost with a sprained knee at midseason. The group was also bolstered by a 27 game stint in the minors by Lightning veteran Chris Dingman. The team's "extra forwards", Mitch Fritz, Dennis Packard and Andre Deveaux, made modest contributions but by season's end Packard and Deveaux had been sent to the ECHL for seasoning.
What Happens Now?
The first order of business for the Falcons will be to hire a new head coach. The team has stated it will be looking for an experienced coach, which rules out remaining assistant Darren Rumble as well as sentimental pipe dream Dave Andreychuk. If the team is looking within the organization, Bill Barber won consistently at the AHL level in the Flyers organization but seems unlikely to come down from his perch as VP of Hockey Operations. That leaves Johnstown Chiefs head coach Frank Anzalone, who has been a consistent winner in the NCAA and ECHL ranks but has just a 59-77-22 record as an AHL bench boss.
From a talent standpoint, the Falcons and Lightning must address the dire situation on the team's blueline. Doug O'Brien was the team's only steady blueliner and it is highly questionable if veterans Schultz or Rohloff are worth retaining. Mike Egener will be in the mix looking to improve in his third season of pro hockey as might Gerard Dicaire in his fourth. Lightning draft picks Andy Rogers and Matt Smaby are already under contract for next season and 2005 first round pick Vladimir Mihalik might join them by summer's end. Whichever fails to make the Lightning out of camp next season should be providing rugged stay-at-home play for the Falcons next season. The remainder of the Falcons defensive corps will likely be comprised of veteran acquisitions with Brady Greco, Jay Rosehill and PJ Atherton giving the team some credible depth.
In net, simply rebuilding may not be an option due to numbers in the organization. The Lightning already have Coleman, Boutin and Morgan Cey under contract for next season. All three showed flashes over the course of the season and should be retained. The Lightning are also looking to sign Finnish phenom Karri Ramo this offseason, which would bring the team to four goalies and four minor league spots in the organization with little room for a veteran. Improvement in net for the Falcons may well depend on the improvement of Coleman or Boutin or the fast assimilation to North America and ascendency of soon to be 20 year old Ramo.
Up front, if the club can keep together its offensive core of Vesce, Jaspers, Milley, Kvapil and Blatny it should be in good shape for next season. Blatny may be the hardest of the five to keep if he is lured to Europe with the promise of greater financial rewards. The team will have to decide whether or not there is a roster spot for David Spina as well. It may not, as the Lightning are expected to sign WHL goal scoring leader Justin Keller as well as Stanislav Lascek, who finished second in the QMJHL this year in scoring.
On the checking line, veteran Dan Cavanaugh should be retained. Lightning prospect Nick Tarnasky probably has a better than average shot of making the Lightning out of camp next season, with skating challenged Darren Reid also having a shot. If Tarnasky leaves, it will possibly fall to Andre Deveaux, Dennis Packard or Zbynek Hrdel to fill his spot on the third line. It also could be an ideal spot to pencil in struggling former second round pick Adam Henrich.
Beyond the top three lines, Mitch Fritz should be back to supply muscle, while Johnstown Chiefs winger Brandon Elliot's time to make the full time leap to the AHL will likely occur next season. The team also will have some decisions to make with tryout players Kevin Croxton and Mike Ouelette, as well as ECHL star Justin Kelly.
It's far too early to tell.
The decision of who will be the Falcons' coach next season will be critical to setting a new tone in Springfield. Dirk Graham was a hardworking buzzsaw whose demanding style led to rumors of toxic conflicts with some of the Lightning's prospects. He also showed little patience with the goaltending situation early in the season, which added additional pressures to an already strained situation. Will the Lightning choose the anti-Graham as their next head coach in Springfield, a coach who takes a more positive player oriented approach? Considering the struggles some of their prospects have had with harsh disciplinarians like Marc Potvin, Marty McSorley and Graham over the last half decade, it might not be a bad idea.
Defense and goaltending will depend primarily on how much old Lightning prospects improve and how well new Lightning prospect additions take to the AHL level. Can Karri Ramo go from tandem starter in the SM-liiga at age 19 to starter in the AHL at age 20? Can Andy Rogers recover from ankle surgery to become a top two pairing steady AHL defenseman as a rookie? These are questions that won't begin to be answered until Traverse City and training camp early next Fall.