Prospect tournaments are a very important part of the developmental apparatus of an NHL organization. I made this case pretty emphatically a few years ago on another website in another job: there are few better diagnostic tools for an organization than a prospect tournament to help evaluate the relative strength of a crop of players as well as to sort out their initial place inside an organization.
The Relative Strength of the Lightning Organization
You know, truthfully, I wonder when the conventional wisdom of the media that covers this league is going to finally catch on to what is happening in Tampa. You would think after the organization had won a Stanley Cup the American and Canadian press would be more apt to give Jay Feaster and his front office more credit. They have not. In fact, it seems, as we turn towards another season after the endless strife of the lockout the media seems more comfortable trying to rationalize the Lightning's success as a stroke of luck for not losing many games to injury (an erroneous argument which doesn't take into account how many Lightning players were walking wounded in the playoffs or that the Lightning's youth and superior conditioning at the behest of Coach Tortorella is what helps keep Lightning players out of the trainer's room. Or, they are busy trying to fortell doom in the Lightning's future due to the loss of Nikolai Khabibulin (while ignoring the fact John Grahame's regular season statistics from 2004-2005 were actually BETTER than Khabibulin's).
The net effect is an international media that still operates partially in the mindset that had SI naming Jay Feaster the worst GM in hockey two years ago, and a ridiculous article from THN this month claiming the Lightning's prospects rate only a D+. Their charge: talent evaluation is abysmal but development is above average? To put it into an analogy, THN wants readers to believe Feaster and his team are good chefs but completely incompetent at choosing the ingredients.
In Traverse City the Lightning unseated the 12th, 14th and 25th ranked organizations in the league according to the Hockey's Future organizational rankings. That "outlet" (and given its precipitous decline in terms of quality over the past two years, that's likely a generous characterization) would have its readers believe the Lightning are the second worst organization in hockey in terms of its draft choices.
That's why I couldn't help but chuckle when the Lightning prospects thoroughly slaughtered the 14th ranked Thrashers' prospects 5-3 in Traverse City (a bit of inside dish: the "editor" of Hockey's Future is a Thrashers fan who has used her position to gloss over the Thrashers lack of prospect depth for years, so the ignominy of seeing her beloved Smirkin' Chickens plucked by the allegedly lowly Lightning certainly drove a stake into the heart of both her and Hockey's Future's credibility). People continue to underestimate the Tampa Bay Lightning's depth in the prospect system, and they do so at their own peril. You see, in rating organizations, the prevailing media wisdom has been to treat rankings more like beauty pageants than serious analyses of team's strengths from top to bottom. The organization that trots out the most well glossed high first round draft picks invariably siezes the lion's share of the accolades while a team like the Lightning which shrewdly positioned itself for Stanley Cup glory through trading down in numerous draft day maneuvers while at the same time plucking many late round gems is immediately to be stamped with a D+ without so much as a look.
The Lightning have depth. Period. They have depth in their prospect system few teams can compete with. After their haul in the 2005 draft I would count roughly 25 players who have legitimate opportunities if they work hard and develop properly of becoming NHL players. They aren't glamerous names. Few, if any, will become future 30 goal scorers or Vezina Trophy winners. However, these players will provide the affordable supporting cast around key core pieces like Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards for years to come. For years the New Jersey Devils have pursued a similar strategy and for years Lou Lamoreillo's system has always outperformed the prognostications of outlets like THN. The Lightning will be no different, I predict.
Placing Players in the Lightning Organization
In leading the team in scoring at Traverse City 2004 first rounder Andy Rogers showed a flash of offensive upside that few thought he had. His performance has earned him a place in Lightning camp this week and probably at least one exhibition game. Lacking a contract he probably is not a legitimate contender for the open 6th defenseman spot in Tampa, but he has set himself up well to seize a job on the Lightning blueline in 2006-2007 if he continues to develop at this pace. Other Lightning blueline prospects like O'Brien, Egener, Dicaire and Ranger need to take heed at the man from Prince George gaining steadily in their rear view mirrors.
Adam Henrich, who was lambasted by the organization for playing soft last season in Springfield, was in some ways an odd choice for captain of this team but he showed himself worthy of the "C" in tying for the team lead in goals. It's a portent of good things to possibly come in Springfield this season. The goal for Henrich ought to be to have a sophomore "bounce" similar to the one Ryan Craig had last season. If he does, he could move into contention for a scoring line job in Tampa in 2006-2007 if players like Fredrik Modin and Vaclav Prospal become cap casualaties.
Justin Keller is one fabulous example of the depth the Lightning organization has accumulated over the past few years. He barely made my own top-25 Lightning prospects when the junior season ended at the start of the summer and yet he is an offensive force both in junior and now against higher competition at Traverse City. He's a hard player to read in terms of long term upside because of his size and relative skating ability, but he scores big goals and should be a big contributor in Springfield next season.
Marek Kvapil was a steal in the 2005 draft. A stone cold steal. Kvapil didn't just score, but he scored important goals during the Traverse City tournament including the game winner against Detroit. His speed and stickhandling ability are a delight to watch and he should be a treat to watch in Springfield this season.
The biggest surprise of the tournament was center Blair Jones of Moose Jaw who hit for a point a game in this tournament. Going into the 2004-2005 junior season Jones was ranked the 3rd best prospect in the WHL by Central Scouting. A rough start in Red Deer, however, derailed his bid to become a first round pick and he eventually fell to the 4th round where the Lightning selected him. Dogged by an attitude rap and the claim he lacks high end speed, Jones showed up in Traverse City with a chip on his shoulder and proceeded to outperform a lot of much more touted prospects in his path. Jones is now one to watch closely over the next two years in juniors as he tries to prove his critics wrong and reclaim his spot as one of the best prospects in the WHL.
Also performing well at Traverse City was sniper Radek Smolenak whose 3 goals did nothing to dissuade me he might be the best player the Lightning took at the 2005 draft table.
Disappointments coming out of Traverse City came foremost from center Chris Lawrence who went zero for the tournament just days after his junior coach blasted him publicly for his apathetic approach to the game. To see Smolenak and Jones play so well and Lawrence do so little is an ominous sign to say the least. Stanislav Lascek and Mark Tobin also did little to live up to their reputations in the tournament. Despite receiving plenty of ice time Lascek, who has drawn comparisons to Brad Richards coming out of junior, contributed just an assist. I know Brad Richards. I've covered Brad Richards. Stan Lascek is no Brad Richards right now, nor the Prospal clone I thought he could be when he was drafted. And Mark Tobin looked more apt to take a prominent role on the side of a milk carton than on a line in the NHL at this tournament. Much is expected of these three and much improvement needs to be made.
Also unfortunate was Maxime Boisclair's inability to gain traction in this tournment as an invitee.
Between the pipes very little was settled, except that Kevin Beech is the runt of the litter at this point. Seasoned 23 year old Morgan Cey won his first start and allowed only one goal that didn't deflect off of one of his own players in the win against Atlanta. Jonathan Boutin, perhaps the most naturally talented of the group, beat Minnesota allowing just two goals. The feat was duplcated the next night by Gerald Coleman against Detroit. So, in a virtual stalemate, the battle between these three moves to training camp and Brandon, Florida and may rage through exhibition games and possibly into Falcons camp before the final outcome becomes clear. That's a good problem to have, to be certain.
Now moving into Lightning camp, Henrich, Kvapil, Hrdel, Ranger, Rosehill, Elliot, Toffey and Greco will be joined by unsigned invitees Rogers, Keller and Mihalik. Scrimmages will be the next diagnostic phase for these players to possibly be followed by exhibition games. The experience is critical and this approach will undoubtedly yield dividends with these players over the next 3 or 4 years. So, onward to Brandon and then the first exhibition game against Carolina.