On the eve of the Tampa Bay Lightning 2009-10 season opener in Atlanta Saturday night, General Manager Brian Lawton continues his contract-happy week by inking 2009 1st round draft pick Carter Ashton to a three-year entry level contract. Following a strong training camp, Ashton was returned to his WHL junior team in Lethbridge last weekend, and is expected to play the balance of the 2009-10 season with the Hurricanes.
Lawton also signed former NHL All-Star Adam Oates to a contract as a Lightning assistant coach under Rick Tocchet. Oates, widely regarded as one of the all-time best set up players, has been working with the Lightning coaching staff and team during training camp as an unpaid assistant and and advisor. During the exhibition season, under Oates' guidance, the Lightning power play has shown marked improvement over last season featuring a top unit comprised of Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Steven Stamkos, Ryan Malone, and Kurtis Foster.
Lawton may not be done with his signing spree following Thursday's signing of Mitch Fritz and today's inkings, as 2009 6th round pick Jaroslav Janus is rumored to be the next target of Lawton's pen. Lawton has stated that Janus had a strong training camp and is trying to get an entry-level deal done with his agent. Meanwhile the Slovakian netminder has not been returned to his OHL junior team in Erie and continues to practice with the Norfolk Admirals squad as an unsigned player.
Fritz, 29, spent three seasons as an enforcer in the Tampa Bay Lightning organization from 2004-07, playing 174 games and racking up 435 penalty minutes during three seasons for the Springfield Falcons. Last season, the 6'8" and 258 lbs. left winger played 20 games for the New York Islanders and 36 additional games for their AHL affiliate in Bridgeport.
During his tenure in the Lightning organization at Springfield, Fritz was the recipient of the AHL's Yannick Dupre Memorial award for the 2005-06 season as the AHL Man of the Year for his community involvement work in Springfield, MA. Fritz was traded to the New York Rangers by the Lightning in July 2007 for Bryce Lampman and played just 11 games in an injury shortened season for the Ranger's AHL affiliate in Hartford.
The Tampa Bay Lightning has tweeted that they have signed prospect forward James Wright to a three-year entry level contract. Wright has been the surprise of the 2009 Lightning training, flying virtually under the radar after missing the prospect's camp with a groin pull. His play throughout camp and exhibition play has drawn praise from both GM Brian Lawton and head coach Rick Tocchet. Wright's entry level contract is a strong indicator that the Lightning likely intends to carry Wright on the team's NHL roster for upwards of 9 regular season games before making a decision to return him to his WHL junior squad in Vancouver. Wright doesn't turn 20 until March 2010, so an AHL assignment in Norfolk is not an option for the 2008 4th round pick.
Erik Erlendsson of the Tampa Tribune is reporting that the Tampa Bay Lightning have inked prospect forward Radek Smolenak to a one year contract pending the receipt of a document from the KHL indicating his freedom from any contractual obligations. The gritty Czech winger, dubbed with the nickname "Smoke", signed a contract with a KHL team for the 2009-10 season back in May after his three-year entry-level contract with the Lightning had expired. However, Smolenak was recently cut from his KHL team during its exhibition season reportedly due to the team's limited number of import player roster slots. Tampa had retained Smolenak's NHL rights in June by filing a qualifying offer to the player. It seemed a contract was imminent when Smolenak's name appeared on the Lightning's 2009 training camp roster on Wednesday.
Stay tuned for more details as this story develops.
Two very interesting and unrelated things happened today with the signing of Bolt Prospects #2 rated prospect Matt Lashoff and the release by KHL club Nizhnekamsk Bolt Prospects #17 rated prospect Radek Smolenak. Despite the wide disparity in terms of where they sit on the rankings, both prospects could still find themselves making significant contributions to the Lightning this season.
First, about Smolenak: the rumors I have heard suggest that Radek was pretty upset about not getting a recall in the second half of last season and I suspect that may have come up prominently in his discussions with the team before he left North America for the offseason. Given how quickly he signed with Nizhnekamsk once he left, I also suspect it would be fairly easy for there to be some bruised feelings on the Lightning's side too. With all that said, though, Smolenak's unexpected dismissal from Nizhnekamsk should be seen as an opportunity for both sides to potentially benefit after a short divorce, and I hope the Lightning are reaching out to Smolenak and his agent to let him know that there is still a place for him in the organization.
Smolenak is a player who is on the cusp of being an NHL player. His deficiencies are clear: he needs to get better defensively in his third of the rink and he doesn't have world class speed. That said, his strengths are equally clear in that he possesses considerably grit and physical bravery, especially around the opposing team's net, and a finisher's touch with a quick release and a razor sharp shot. The Lightning go into the 2009-2010 campaign with very little for certain on their lower lines. It's hard to envision anyone other than Jeff Halpern, Stephane Veilleux, and Adam Hall having a lower line job locked up in Tampa this coming season. The other three or four spots on the roster are open to a world class free-for-all, and a player with Smolenak's peculiar combination of grit and skill could find himself drawing a big league paycheck with a good camp. True, that assumes Smolenak has been training and conditioning properly and can shift his mindset from the disappointment of his release from Nizhnekamsk and any hard feelings that still linger with the Lightning toward leaving it all on the line to make the team. It also assumes that there are no legal entanglements in Smolenak's Russian deal and that he is a complete free agent and that the Lightning are interested in bring Smolenak back across the pond. But it's a possibility, and it's a possibility with very little downside as the worst case scenario would be the Lightning having Smolenak waiting down in Norfolk again playing for an AHL club that could desperately use his 20-30 potential goals at that level. If it's possible, and both sides are willing, they should make a fourth year for Smolenak in the organization happen.
And then there's Matt Lashoff, who was one of the few exciting reasons to watch a Lightning game late in a failed season last year after he was acquired at the trade deadline for Mark Recchi. I mention Lashoff as a bubble player not because I think he'll be sent down to the AHL, but because the numbers game may make it difficult for Lashoff to receive the ice time he needs to reach his considerable potential. Make no mistake, the skating ability Lashoff possesses is a rare and breathtaking assett. The kind of smooth, powerful acceleration that Lashoff has is special, and the fact he possesses soft hands and an ability to distribute the puck well makes him a potential force for the Lightning. But he finds himself at the bottom end of a logjam that includes new addition Mattias Ohlund and the returning Paul Ranger and Andrej Meszaros, who missed the second half of last season with injury. Lashoff has the ability to every bit as good as those three players and it's not hard to envision a future where he could become a perennial 30-40 point a year defenseman who is well capable of playing 20-22 minutes a night. True, to get to that time Lashoff must commit to paying attention to detail in his own end of the rink and to showing more edge and willingness to battle to win puck battles. But, the possibilities are almost boundless for Lashoff, and so it would be foolish for the Lightning to not commit to making sure Lashoff recieves every opportunity to reach his potential and equally foolish for Lashoff not to step up and make sure he makes clear to Coach Tocchet that he refuses to slip off the bubble.
Smolenak and Lashoff are just two of a host of young players, from Steve Downie to Blair Jones, who have the potential to contribute greatly to a revival in Tampa Bay starting next season. And, starting next month with training camp, a great story is going to be written by some of these players, and it's a story that I can't even guess the outcome of. Maybe that's why two obscure transactions in the dog days of August made me excited for hockey, and the promise of a new season. Let's get it cranked up.
The Tampa Bay Lightning have re-signed defenseman Matt Lashoff to a two-year contract, Lightning Executive Vice President and General Manager Brian Lawton announced today. â€œWe were extremely pleased to bring Matt into the fold at the trade deadline,â€ Lawton said. â€œWe are even more excited to get him under contract for the upcoming season. His signing today only further enhances the overall depth of our organization at defense as we head into training camp.â€
Lashoff, 6-foot-2, 204 pounds, has played in 58 career NHL games with the Lightning and the Boston Bruins, recording a goal and 15 points. The 22-year-old played in 12 games with Tampa Bay after being acquired from Boston, recording seven assists.
A native of East Greenbush, New York, Lashoff played in a career-high 28 NHL games during the season with the Lightning and Bruins, posting career bests for assists and points with eight. He averaged a career-high 23:46 in ice time with Tampa Bay and recorded a point in three of his first four games with the Lightning.
Tampa Bay Lightning, NHL parent club of the Norfolk Admirals, have re-signed right wing Martins Karsums to a one-year contract today, Lightning Executive Vice President and General Manager Brian Lawton announced.
Karsums, 5-foot-10 and 198 pounds, has played in 24 career NHL games with Tampa Bay and Boston. During his first NHL season in 2009-10, he amassed a goal and six points. He played in 18 games with the Lightning after being acquired from Boston in a trade along with Matt Lashoff in exchange for Mark Recchi and a second-round pick in 2010 on March 4, 2009.
The Tampa Bay Lightning announced today that Norfolk Admirals assistant coach Alan May has resigned his position effective immediately.
Lightning Executive Vice President and General Manager Brian Lawton has begun the search for a new assistant coach in Norfolk. He hopes to have the position filled by the end of next week.
May spent one year behind the Norfolk bench. The Barrhead, Alberta, native played 12 seasons professionally including 393 career NHL games between Boston, Edmonton, Washington, Dallas and Calgary.