I Have to Take Tom Jones to Task
The Hockey News has released their annual future watch issue and the underestimated Lightning were once again pigeon holed in last place with a D+ grade. Tom Jones of the St. Pete Times, who is a contributor to the publication, penned an article today portraying the Lightning prospect system as one on the precipice of disaster. The melodramatic key line of the piece states:
"Still, it cannot be ignored that the Lightning system is at a crossroads."
Jones pays lip service to the considerable successes the organization has had this season in placing three full-time NHLers into the league but seems to stumble past the obvious: those three successes aren't indicative of the last hurrah of an organization "at a crossroads", they're indicative of a prospect system on the rise. The Lightning have had eight of their prospects make their NHL debuts this season (Paul Ranger, Evgeny Artyukhin, Nick Tarnasky, Brian Eklund, Gerald Coleman, Ryan Craig, Darren Reid and Doug O'Brien) and yet, inexplicably, Jones chose a decidedly Chicken Littlesque tone for his column.
I would suggest to Mr. Jones that he would've been better served making a more critical case that the THN rankings are inaccurate, partly because of a flawed methodology. By only ranking organizations on a (by Jones' own admission, dated) top ten list THN A.) Places a premium on first round "name" players and B.) Discounts organizations which have built depth beyond ten prospects, in particular those who were selected on the second day of the draft (which, I would argue, is an area where the Lightning are among the best organizations in the NHL at finding talent). Admittedly, I haven't seen the full list of ten players which were considered in the process, but the six that Jones reveals in his column plus the likely inclusion of prospects like Nick Tarnasky leaves me to wonder which quality prospects THN left completely out of their evaluation?
Did they consider Stanislav Lascek, who is currently 2nd in the QMJHL in scoring? Did they consider Justin Keller, currently second in the WHL in scoring? What about Karri Ramo, who at age 19 is already a quality starter in the Finnish SM-liiga? Vasily Koshechkin, who is second in the Russian Superleague in GAA, save percentage and shutouts? What about Radek Smolenak? Marek Kvapil? Blair Jones? No matter how you slice it, the Lightning had several quality young players who were not even considered by THN.
Looking at the current Bolt Prospects Midterm Rankings, I would argue this organization has around 20 players who could very well get at least a cup of coffee in the NHL some day. Many already have. Are they potential 30 goal scorers? Probably not. Are they first round draft picks? Only two of them. But then again, this is a Lightning club where a 6th round pick, Paul Ranger, is already playing 16 minutes a night with the big club and has arguably been one of the team's most consistent blueliners. It's also a team that has an 8th round pick, Ryan Craig, who within 20 games is already a fixture on John Tortorella's power play and penalty killing units. "The sky is falling" ideed.
This isn't an organization "at a crossroads". This is an organization which has been methodically climbing out of the shadow of two dysfunctional scouting regimes and an until recently broken developmental apparatus. We're just 5 drafts removed from Rick Dudley's bloated and ineffective European prospect happy regime and less than a decade from the days of Kokusai's ownership when the team had to field what was probably the most underfunded, bare bones scouting staffs in the entire league. We're also in just the second full season of the Lightning having their first full affiliation since the bitter days of the now defunct Detroit Vipers.
Both of these factors are already yielding fruit. From Jay Feaster's first draft in 2002 have come Paul Ranger and Ryan Craig, as opposed to the Rick Dudley years from which Evgeny Artyukhin is the only draft pick on the team's roster. There also lies some irony in that, of course, because in those heady days of 2001 and 2002 THN was routinely rating the Lightning in the top ten on the strength of such young virtuosos as Nikita Alexeev and Alex Svitov. (Uh, Tom, if any of you and your friends from THN want to catch those two former can't miss prospects, the box office in Omsk will be open late. Dress warm.) Ranger, Artyukhin and Craig all played considerable minutes in Springfield last season and, in the cases of the former two, showed marked improvement over their days in split affiliation Hershey where their development was clearly stunted.
That the Springfield Falcons have struggled after a good start to the season and are now 22nd in the league does not invalidate the improvements in scouting and development. Indeed, as any Albany River Rat fan will tell you, how well the AHL club is doing in the standings is not necessarily proportional to how many future NHLers are on the team. In any event, 22nd is a an improvement over last season when the team finished second to last. If you want to see the result of a team that took small steps that eventually reached critical mass over the span of a few patient years, look no further than your copy of the Lightning's 2003-2004 Stanley Cup championship DVD, Mr. Jones. So lets cut the theatrics shall we? The improvement of the prospect system is obvious. If you had asked Stevie Wonder after he sang Living for the City last night (one of my favorites), he'd have told you even he can see it.