Saturday Morning With Coach Stirling and Claude Loiselle

I was fortunate enough to be invited down to The Scope before Saturday morning’s optional skate to talk to Norfolk Head Coach Steve Stirling and Norfolk General Manager Claude Loiselle. At about 9 am I made my way down to the building in the heart of a quiet downtown Norfolk. The hockey operations staff were in a good mood after beating the Binghamton Senators 5-1 in the Admirals’ home opener, and there was a feeling in the building that things were starting to get on the right track.

Coach Stirling was good enough to oblige me by participating in a very lengthy and very detailed 50 minute sit down that gave an excellent lay of the land of the prospects in the organization. After congratulating Coach Stirling on last night’s victory, the coach pointed out that in his opinion Norfolk’s scheduling is the most difficult in the league because the way opposing teams come in for weekend sets makes it very hard for the team to put together home winning streaks because it’s hard to beat the same team on back to back nights.

I started by asking the coach about the goaltending situation and about Ryan Munce’s strong start to the season. Coach praised Munce for being in, “Full control in the crease. He’s not all over the place.” Munce, said Coach Stirling, appears to be sound positionally, is controlling his rebounds, and above all is making key saves at key junctures of the game. “I would say he’s been a pleasant surprise.”

On Jonathan Boutin, Coach Stirling said the decision to send the young goaltender down came down to a toss up between Boutin and Morgan Cey and that it appeared to him that Boutin mentally was not sharp from the start of Norfolk camp and was trying to ease his way into the season rather than coming to camp ready to go from day one. Since returning to Norfolk, “Boots has gotten better every day in practice, which is a good sign.” He’s been working this week with Lightning minor league goaltending instructor Corey Schwab and all indications are that when he finally does get back onto the ice he will be ready to play.

When asked where goaltender Karri Ramo falls in relation to young goaltenders Stirling has coached in the past like Rick DiPietro and Roberto Luongo, Coach Stirling paused to think carefully before offering, “He’s up there. He’s a really talented kid. He’s really mature.” Coach went on to suggest that if Ramo had gotten a few more starts down the stretch last season he might be closer to where DiPietro and Luongo were developmentally at the same age. “Karri’s a real fiery, competitive kid, that’s what I like about him the best.”

Shifting gears to talk about the defense the discussion turned to defenseman Vladimir Mihalik the morning after he scored his first professional goal. Stirling recounted how Mihalik had, in his opinion, an average Traverse City tournament and that the decision to not take Mihalik to Lightning camp probably paid off for Mihalik in keeping his confidence level high. “He might have been overwhelmed up there. Might not have had as much success as since he’s been down here.” Coach Stirling went on to say, “Every practice he’s gotten a little better and a little better.” Stirling is already using Mihalik on a regular shift and on the penalty kill, an area of the game which Coach Stirling feels he can accel at, and plans to eventually utilize Mihalik and his big shot on the power play. On theme with both Stirling and Claude Loiselle was the idea of weaning Mihalik onto the professional game and not overloading him with too much responsibility so early in his rookie season. The biggest praise of Mihalik came when Stirling stated, “With his play, he’s asking for more ice time.” In other words, the more Mihalik plays well the harder it will be for the Admirals to not use him on the power play and in bigger minutes. When talking about the common criticism about Mihalik’s reticence to use his size in the physical game Stirling recounted his days in Lowell when he coached a young Zdeno Chara. According to Stirling, the Islanders organization traded Chara over similar concerns about Chara’s lack of consistency in the physical game and paid the price for it. “I don’t think Vlady has any idea how strong he is. He’s just 20 years old. He’s just a puppy.” Later in the conversation Stirling again turned his attention back toward Mihalik in praising Vladimir’s ability to read the play. “His best assett may be his ability to jump into the play.”

After talking about the improved mobility, stick skills, and poise of the blueline overall versus the team the Lightning organization iced a year ago in Springfield the conversation turned to Andy Rogers. “The good news is he’s healthy. His Traverse City was average. His biggest assett is his size and mobility. He’s 6’5” and he can skate.” Stirling praised Rogers’ play without the puck and his ability to defend down low in the defensive zone. “The biggest area of concern is when he has the puck his decisions with the puck right now aren’t very good. They weren’t good a year ago and they’re getting better but they still have a long way to go. That’s a big concern.” Stirling attributed much of Rogers’ slow development to the fact he’s lost large portions of the last two seasons to injury, and even in the games he played last season Stirling intimated he wasn’t 100% physically. “He’s a couple of years behind his contemporaries because of the lack of experience.”

When the discussion turned to the forwards the critiques of the players got a little more pointed. Consistency in work ethic was a constant theme that was raised when talking about the forwards starting with Blair Jones and Marek Kvapil. Stirling talked about Blair Jones’ lack of consistency having to do with a more laid back attitude which gave the false impression of laziness. “He needs to show some emotion. He’s a real emotional kid, but it’s all inside. So I don’t see it and his teammates don’t see it and at times it looks like he’s lazy. But he’s not lazy. He just has to show it.” Stirling praised Jones’ recent work ethic in practices and the fire he played with over the previous three games. “He’s got to find a way to do that shift in, shift out, period in, period out, game in, game out.”

For Kvapil, the comments got even sharper. Stirling quite matter of factly said Kvapil’s skills are of no value until he plays harder skating, pursuing the puck, and forechecking to get the puck back. “The offensive skills don’t take over because he doesn’t do those things therefore he doesn’t put himself in a position to get more scoring chances.” The coach then went on to critique Kvapil’s play last season and how the young forward continuously turned the puck over in sensisitive areas of the ice leading to far too many odd man rushes the other way. “He tried to do too much and his turnover ratio was out of control. Do that for Torts once and you’ll be in the minors forever and you should be because the turnovers are top of the circle in our own end or top of the circle in the offensive zone.”

The discussion then turned to the new signees Klinkhammer and Taylor and without a doubt, the Admirals hockey operations people were raving about Klinkhammer’s play. In fact, Stirling brought Klinkhammer’s name unsolicited when talking about Kvapil as the model of how Marek needs to play. “Klink’s been real good. There’s an upside there with that kid.” Taylor, similarly, was praised for his work ethic and being strong on the puck. Coach Stirling said he plans to use Taylor standing in front of the net on the power play and intends to make him into a penalty killer as the season goes on.”Taylor’s a better skater than Trent Hunter and Trent Hunter’s one of the better penalty killers in the (NHL).”

Speaking about Chris Lawrence, Stirling praised him for his willingness to learn to play a third line type checking game. He said he intends to keep Lawrence on the wing and said Lawrence continues to get better and better down low. “He’s doing ok.”

On Justin Keller’s game, coach said, “Little bit (stronger on the puck). Still has a way to go.” He went on to say that Keller’s skating has shown the same incremental improvement but that the biggest thing Keller still needs to do is make plays along the wall, especially in the defensive third.

The winner of the harshest criticism prize goes to Radek Smolenak, who both Stirling and Loiselle panned for his unwillingness to compete physically along the wall. “Radek’s biggest challenge is not his skill level, because he has an immense amount of skill.” But, according to the coach, Smolenak currently combines the worst qualities of Keller’s average skating, Kvapil’s poor decision making in turning over the puck, and a complete lack of willingness to compete physically. “I don’t think Radek knows his battle level has to go up ten fold.”

Zbynek Hrdel drew praise for his ability to play a quiet, responsible game in all phases of the game. While he isn’t much of an offensive player in Stirling’s view, he is a versatile complimentary player who the coach feels comfortable with. “There’s just a real steady, sneaky, responsible player.”

Mike Egener at forward seems to be a sensation among the Admirals hockey operations people. Stirling told me that Eggs was unfortunately out of the lineup this weekend due to a slight groin pull but that with his intelligence in playing a simple forechecking game and the fact he really understands the strength of his game is his skating and his willingness to take the body. “He’s an NHL skater and he loves to agitate and finish checks.” According to Stirling’s role, Egener won’t be a pure enforcer with Angel and Elliot in Mississippi, but he did compare Egener’s future role to that of Andre Roy as an energy player who will take the body in limited minutes and drop the gloves when called upon.

On Jay Rosehill, Stirling said Jay can be a sixth defenseman type guy who will play a simple, physical game an occassionally drop the gloves but his stick skills are limited.

When I asked Coach Stirling about Lightning prospect Dana Tyrell, he started by first, unsolicited, praising Mitch Fadden’s performance at Traverse City. “I walked away from Traverse City saying wow, this kid’s got something.” Turning back to Tyrell, he praised the young forwards maturity, tenacity, and speed. “He’s quick as a cat. He’s able to dart into holes and create scoring chances.” Tyrell’s heart is what most impressed the coach though. “He’s a compeititor and he’s got the skill.”

That concluded the interview with Coach Stirling and after watching a little bit of the Admirals practice I got the chance to talk to GM Claude Loiselle who spent part of the morning pow wowing with Bill Barber who is also in town. I asked Claude if he had heard anything new regarding the Vasily Koshechkin situation. As Bolt Prospects learned earlier in the week, the Lightning are still looking for, “Good, accurate information” as Loiselle put it. When I asked if the Lightning had any interest in signing Koshechkin Loiselle said, “You never say no to another good goalie.”

According to Loiselle there is no time frame at present for a forward to be sent to Norfolk now that Andreas Karlsson is healthy again in Tampa. In addition, the team is also waiting to see what will happen when Dan Boyle returns later this week and does expect to get another defenseman back at some point.

Contractual and roster issues asside, when talking about the team Loiselle spoke passionately about the need to have “20 guys pulling together” toward the same end, whether that be 20 guys chipping in offensively or 20 guys providing physical toughness. Loiselle is very different from Stirling in that Stirling is very calm and has a been-there-done-that sort of demeanor. He tends to deliver his thoughts analytically, and with the authority of having coached and coach well for a very long time. Loiselle’s more fiery and he expanded several times on Stirling’s previous themes about the need for a consistent work ethic out of his players. “Everyone has the goal of winning a Calder Cup” Loiselle said when I asked him what his goal was for the season but above all he said he wants an honest effort from his players every night. If they are willing to work hard on the forecheck, take the body, and fight for each other when called upon, he said, he expects the fans in Norfolk to embrace the team.

Loiselle also reiterated some of Stirling’s comments about the need for improved work ethic from Kvapil and Smolenak and had glowing praise similar to the coach’s for Ryan Munce and Rob Klinkhammer. One interesting note when I asked about Mike Egener: Loiselle said according to Mike Egener’s agent, who was in attendance today, “For the first time in three years he loves playing hockey.” The GM suggested that he could possibly see Egener playing a prominent role on the power play standing in front of the net and glowingly compared Egener’s work on the forecheck last weekend as reminiscent of future hall-of-famer Gary Roberts.

One other note, Loiselle said there are no plans at current to pursue another scoring forward for the Admirals, but if they could get a player with NHL upside for very little they'd certainly take a look at it. By and large the response I got indicated the team intends to go forward with what they have right now and that the solutions to the team's scoring need to come from within the locker room. Bear in mind, the team just got Klinkhammer, Taylor, and Collymore into the lineup last night, there eventually will be one more forward coming down from Tampa (Darche, Karlsson, or MacDonald most likely), and there will be one more defenseman (Smaby or Janik) eventually coming down from Tampa so all the pieces to this Admirals team are still not completely set.

So concluded my morning. I’d like to thank Keith Phillips of the Admirals front office for facilitating the interviews today and our own Tim Bennett here at Bolt Prospects for helping to line everything up.