A Shot in the Arm: Farm Producing When Needed

In the new era of the NHL where the salary cap reigns, it is imperative clubs find and develop their own talent through their farm system. Since the lockout in 2004-2005, the Lightning has been forced to compete to stay at the top of the food chain by carefully shopping for affordable free agents and coordinating financially-sensitive trades. While other clubs have had the option of plugging multiple holes with cost-feasible prospects, the Lightning has been forced to look outside the organizational depth chart for help.

The Lightning farm system has recently produced a sixth round gem in Top Four defenseman Paul Ranger, as well as checking line forwards Nick Tarnasky and Ryan Craig. However, the club has traded valuable draft picks for players such as Vaclav Prospal (Part 2), Shane O’Brien, and Chris Gratton, and taken fliers on low-cost free agents such as Johan Holmqvist, Andreas Karlsson, Eric Perrin, Mathieu Darche, and Jan Hlavac. Additional cap space was eaten up by contracts given to important pieces such as Filip Kuba and Michel Ouellet.

The farm simply has not been able to provide enough answers to the team’s roster questions in recent years. The club has spent cap dollars on acquiring assets from outside the organization, each time pushing their salary ceiling to the limit.

As a result, one can only imagine the panic in the Lightning offices at the St. Pete Times Forum when it was learned All-Star defenseman Dan Boyle would be lost for the first 6-8 weeks of the season.

A team with high hopes needed a shot in the arm.

Before training camp started, Lightning General Manager Jay Feaster had acquired or signed the likes of experienced professionals Doug Janik, Dan Jancevski, Bryce Lampman, Jay Leach, and David Schneider in an attempt to build defensive depth for such an occasion.

However, that “shot in the arm,” as Feaster called it, came from the farm.

The story is well known by now.

Prospects Mike Lundin, fresh off accepting his degree from the University of Maine, and Matt Smaby, who was considered to be one of several in the mix for just a No.6/7 defenseman spot, have stepped up in this young season and given the Lightning that shot.

Lundin has averaged 11 minutes a game thus far and Smaby saw 6-plus minutes in the Lightning opener. While Dan Boyle can’t be replaced, the defense as a whole has come together and is weathering the storm so far until his return.

But what about the future?

A farm system should not only be able to supply plug-ins to temporary holes, but build the foundation for the future of the franchise.

Today’s Lightning is built upon a core of players like Martin St. Louis and Boyle and draft choices such as Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards, and Ranger.

How do Lundin and Smaby fit into the franchise's future plans?

Bolt Prospects asked Feaster about the upside of Lundin and Smaby, and the future looks bright for the duo.

“Lundin has incredible upside,” said Feaster, “quite possibly as a legitimate Top Four defenseman in the NHL. He is already moving up the depth chart here in Tampa. Mike reads the rush as well as, if not better than, any defenseman in our organization. He needs to get stronger, but we honestly project him as a future Top Four. We also think there is going to be a bit of an offensive element to his game as he knows when to jump into the play and he has decent offensive instincts.”

“Matt Smaby is going to be a Top Five in our minds,” he continued. “He is still learning, and he still has some work to do within the system; however, he is big and strong and he skates well, and he is also physical. We really like that aspect to his game. He needs to continue to work on handling the ‘speed’ of the rush at the NHL level and continue to get better down low in his one-on-one coverage, but we believe he will play for us as well and ultimately play legitimately in our Top Five if not Top Four.”

While both defenseman are off to an impressive start, rookie seasons are filled with peaks and valleys and it’s not out of the question for one or both to find themselves furthering their development in AHL Norfolk at one time or another this year.

However, Lightning fans should expect to see more in the future of Smaby’s physical presence and Lundin’s poise and hockey sense, not to mention goaltending contributions from a strong pool of netminders like Karri Ramo and a strong, but very young set of forwards.

Slowly but surely, the next foundation is being built … and built through the farm.

According to Feaster, the Lightning blueline could one day consist of draft picks Ranger, Lundin, and Smaby, as well as fellow prospects Kevin Quick and Vladimir Mihalik, among others.

“Pretty exciting,” he says.