Lightning TC Review: Positives Despite Results

Since Jay Feaster took over as general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2002, two things have stood out as being top priorities with the organization—winning and work ethic.

Success is earned.

In this meritocracy system, Feaster will do whatever it takes to win, and if a player doesn’t perform up to expectations, he is in danger of losing his spot on the depth chart, if not the roster.

Starting off their pro careers on the right foot is essential for young prospects in the organization, such as the 20 that finished eighth out of eight teams in last week’s Traverse City (TC) prospects tournament in Michigan. Individual performances aside, winning is priority number one with the club and the last-place finish is not sitting well with the general manager.

“I am not pleased with the results,” Feaster made sure to tell Bolt Prospects before providing player evaluations.

Tournaments are ultimately about who wins and who loses, but as another member of the club’s leadership team points out, the Lightning’s representation in TC was lacking many of the organization’s top prospects such as Karri Ramo, Matt Smaby, Justin Keller, Alexander Killorn, and Luca Cunti. Also, Dana Tyrell, this summer's top pick, was in Russia playing for Canada in the Super Series.

Instead of icing the best team available, the club chose to bring players they didn’t know as well and are not as experienced as others in order to give them a taste of higher-level hockey and gain that valuable experience.

While the lack of wins was disappointing, the NHL club’s hierarchy was pleased with prospects’ effort, going as far as saying the players "did not even think of quitting.” It was also mentioned that the youngsters created a “ton” of scoring chances, but the inexperienced group had a tough time burying the puck.

Moving to individual performances, Feaster echoed his sentiments posted on the St. Pete Times web site yesterday about leading scorer Radek Smolenak, calling him the team’s best forward during the week. On the defensive side, Feaster gave the top honor to former University of Maine standout Mike Lundin.

While fans and followers may refer to all drafted players as “prospects,” Feaster has reserved the right to be called a “prospect” to a select group of draftees who have separated themselves from their peers. If labeled a prospect by the organization, it means they think the player has a very real and legitimate shot of being an NHL contributor in the future.

Both Smolenak and Lundin earned the coveted “prospect” label from Feaster based on their play last week, a good sign considering both came into TC with question marks around their respective games.

The club also handed out praise to defenseman Justin Fletcher and center Mitch Fadden. Additionally, rookie-pro Chris Lawrence was highlighted for the progress he has made in his overall game despite just registering one assist.

“Statistics don’t always tell the whole story,” a club representative cautioned.

Among the tryout players, Medicine Hat Tigers (WHL) forward Daine Todd was singled out by the staff. Todd has earned himself an invitation to Norfolk’s training camp.

Feaster said former top picks Andy Rogers (2004) and Vladimir Mihalik (2005) were “up and down,” though it was pointed out Rogers improved as the games went on and Mihalik was solid at times. Going forward, Feaster states that it is of utmost importance that both defensemen stay on the ice this year rather than in the trainer’s room.

Rogers has missed a significant amount of time in his young career with injuries and Mihalik’s trip to Brandon, Florida for the NHL camp has already been canceled because of minor groin injuries.

In goal, prized 2006 first rounder Riku Helenius struggled with rust in his game from a season lost to injury, but he too was mentioned as showing improvement in his overall game as the tournament progressed. Seventh round (2007) goaltender Torrie Jung caught the eye of the NHL club’s leadership team, as Jung was “impressive in the way he handled himself,” especially considering he was one of the younger goaltenders in TC.

While some of the prospects, like Jung, were able to start off on positive ground with the club, others didn’t do themselves any favors.

Stanislav Lascek, the former QMJHL scoring star who struggled in the AHL last season, did not play in game one because he was late getting to the tournament. To make matters worse, Lascek chose to go through his agent to get back on track for TC instead of the Lightning. This did not sit well with Feaster, who called Lascek’s entire experience in TC “disappointing.”

Along with not hesitating to demote a player in his meritocracy system, Feaster, like Lightning head coach John Tortorella, is also a straight-shooter.

One of his targets after his team’s winless TC was Lascek.

“If [Lascek’s] performance doesn't pick-up in Norfolk's camp,” Feaster says, “he will find himself in Biloxi (Tampa Bay’s ECHL affiliate, the Mississippi Sea Wolves).”

Though there were certainly disappointments in TC this year, the improvement shown by a handful of prospects such as Smolenak and Lundin, as well as the experience gained by many of the younger players, can be viewed as encouraging.

As for Lascek, who may be as offensively skilled as any of the Lightning’s draftees, he certainly has the ability to play himself back into the Lightning’s good graces and ultimately have a successful career in Tampa. However, like everyone else in the Lightning organization—from NHL All-Star to unsigned late round pick—he has to step-up and earn it.