Further bolstering their defensive corps via free agency, the Lightning have signed stay-at-home veteran backliner Matt Walker. Walker played one year for the Chicago Blackhawks last season after spending 8 years in the St. Louis Blues organization. Walker has 2 goals, 23 assists, and 354 penalty minutes in 240 career NHL games.
â€œMatt [Walker] is the big, physical, intimidating presence that we lacked on the blue line last season,â€ said Lawton upon making the announcement today. â€œHe is a high-character, team-first player and he demonstrated that last season, going right back in a playoff game after suffering an ugly, ugly broken finger. He is just the type of player that we were looking for to fill a specific defensive need.â€
TSN.ca is reporting that the Tampa Bay Lightning have struck first in this year's NHL free agency by signing free agent veteran Swedish defenseman Mattias Ohlund to a 7-year, $26.5M contract. A Swedish-born veteran defenseman seems like the perfect fit for a team that not only struggled last season without a veteran presence on the blueline, but also just drafted Swedish defensive phenom Victor Hedman.
â€œWe are thrilled Mattias [Ohlund] elected to sign with the Tampa Bay Lightning today,â€ said Lawton upon making the announcement. â€œWith so many options in front of him, having him elect to play in Tampa demonstrates the faith he has in our teamâ€™s strategy and vision for success, which should be exciting for our fans. This signing accomplished two primary goals for us. First, we have added the top-two defenseman we coveted to lead our blue line and second, we have found a leader and a mentor for Victor Hedman as he prepares to play in the NHL this fall.â€
Ohlund is a 12 year veteran of the Vancouver Canucks, drafted by the Vancouver 13th overall in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft. In 770 career regular season games, Ohlund has 93 goals and 232 assists for 325 points. He the leads the franchise all-time for defencemen in goals and points.
Players receiving qualifying offers were defensemen Lukas Krajicek, Matt Smaby, Matt Lashoff and Mike Lundin; forwards Martins Karsums, Blair Jones, Radek Smolenak and Lauri Tukonen; and goaltender Karri Ramo. Both Smolenak and Ramo have signed contracts to play in the KHL next season.
Czech Hockey site hockejportal.cz is reporting that Avangard Omsk of the KHL has signed Lightning goaltender Karri Ramo to a two-year contract. Terms of the agreement are not known at this time, or whether Ramo has an NHL "out" in the contract.
Ramo's three-year entry-level contract with the Lightning expired at the end of the season and remains an NHL restricted free agent with Tampa holding his rights provided that the team issues a qualifying offer prior to the June 29th deadline. The Lightning have also lost forwards Radek Smolenak and Johan Harju to KHL contracts earlier in the summer. At this point, one might be led to speculate that a general lack of attention to prospect signings might be occuring in the vacuum left when the Lightning decided not to renew the contract of AGM Claude Loiselle.
BoltProspects contacted the Lightning for a comment about the Ramo signing but the team indicated they are not issuing any kind of formal statement at this time.
Damian Crisdotero of the St. Pete Times has confirmed with Ramo's agent that Ramo has signed a deal with Omsk. The deal includes an out clause that will allow Ramo to leave Russia after one season, but Ramo is indeed gone for the 2009-2010 campaign.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Ramo's agent is Mark Gandler, of Evgeny Artyukhin contract squabble fame.
According to a Regina, SASK based sports blog, rodpederson.com, the Tampa Bay Lightning are considering hiring Regina's Jamie Heward as a player/assistant coach, presumably with their AHL affiliate in Norfolk.
Not sure how reliable this news is, as technically the Toronto Maple Leafs retain Heward's rights until July 1. However, it is possible the Leafs could have given the Lightning permission to speak with Heward, but that seems doubtful considering the public sparring that has gone on between the GMs of the two clubs over Tampa's #2 overall pick in the upcoming NHL entry draft later this month.
Heward was an anchor for the Norfolk blueline early last season before injuries in Tampa led to his recall and eventual season-ending head injury from a controversial check by Capitals megastar Alexander Ovechkin. Controversy continued around Heward when the Lighting traded him along with injured goalie Olaf Kolzig, prospect bust Andy Rogers, and a 2009 draft pick to the Leafs at the trade deadline. Though approved by the league, the trade was heralded by pundits and fans as a rather obvious deal by Leafs GM Brian Burke to "purchase" a draft pick from the Lightning.
In just a few short hours, the two year run of goaltender Torrie Jung and defenseman Michael Ward as Tampa Bay Lightning prospects could end. As 2007 draftees out of Canadian juniors, both players are facing a June 1 deadline to be signed to entry level contracts by the Lightning or be returned to the 2009 NHL entry draft later this month in Montreal. The Lighting have already signed fellow 2007 draftees Dana Tyrell and Mitch Fadden, along with 2008 draftee Dustin Tokarski to three-year rookie contracts. Jung, who had a spectacular comeback season for the Edmonton Oil Kings, has seemingly played well enough to earn a contract, but faces considerable depth in the Lightning system behind Mike Smith, Karri Ramo, Riku Helenius, and the highly touted Tokarski. Ward, while showing a more pedestrian development and is considered somewhat of a longshot to earn a contract, would seemingly benefit from a general lack of blueline depth in the Lightning system.
Defenseman John Wessbecker, a 2007 NCAA draftee out of the University of Massachusettes-Amherst, faces an August 15 deadline as a graduating senior to sign an entry level contract or be released as an unrestricted free agent.
According to a story released today on the team's official website, the Nizhnekamsk Neftekhimik of the KHL have signed Lightning left wing prospect Radek Smolenak to a contract for next season. Smolenak's three-year entry level contract with the Lightning expired at the end of this season, although Tampa could retain his NHL rights as restricted free agent by tendering a qualifying offer.
Smolenak seemed poised to push for a roster position next season with the Lightning next season after having a breakout season with Tampa's AHL minor league affiliate the Norfolk Admirals. Smolenak posted career highs in nearly every statistical category by posting 24 goals and 25 assists in 71 AHL games while amassing 165 penalty minutes. Smolenak recorded 1 assist in 6 games with the Lightning during a brief mid-season recall.
There is no word regarding the length of the contract Smolenak signed with the Petrochemists or whether the contract contains an "NHL out", and there is no word yet whether Tampa intends to retain his rights by tendering a qualifying offer to the tough left winger. Hat tip to the members of the BoltProspects message board for the heads-up on this story.
After watching Rimouski's opening game of the Memorial Cup Tournament tonight, I felt compelled to write a little about Luca Cunti.
Cunti didn't score tonight and Rimouski was clearly overmatched by the better team in Kelowna, but there's definitely something there with Cunti: speed. He has raw, pure, and undeniable speed. It's world class skating ability; a gift that simply can't be taught. There were times tonight where Rimouski's best and only chance of getting the puck out of their own end was to have Cunti carry it out himself, and his speed generated several scoring chances. Bear in mind, Kelowna's defense is very good (Tyler Myers is going to be an awesome NHL player), and there were times Cunti made them look like they were standing still. It was a 2000% improvement over the way Cunti looked at the start of the season at Traverse City. Sure, some of the same old criticisms of Cunti are still valid. He tended to float in the defensive zone, although he wasn't overtly cherry picking. He looked uncomfortable digging in the corners. He hogged the puck a bit (although that's partly due to the lacking quality of his linemates and the fact they simply couldn't keep up with his speed). There's definitely holes in his game and he's definitely a project. But, my word, he will back opposing defenses off the blueline with his speed. If you put him and Steven Stamkos on the same line 2-3 years down the line, I promise you there will be opposing defensemen going prematurely grey. Speed kills, and I'm closing my eyes and imagining what a line of Cunti, Stamkos, and maybe Dana Tyrell could do together. Have mercy.
There's some ambiguity, on our end at BoltProspects, as to whether Cunti's rights will be retained after June 1st or whether he's considered to have defected status as a player who was drafted out of Switzerland. It's one of the joys of the breakdown of the IIHF transfer agreement coupled with the new rules that were supposed to be enacted in the new CBA. We believe his rights will be retained past June 1st if he isn't signed. However, if the Lightning do indeed need to sign him before the end of the month in order to keep him, count me among the people who think that they should. The same is true for Edmonton goaltender Torrie Jung, whose rights definitely will be lost after June 1st. Both players could be returned to junior if there isn't room for them in Norfolk, and both players, in my mind, have the kind of athleticism the Lightning just shouldn't let get away.
In an article for the Lightning's website, GM Brian Lawton praised late round picks Dustin Tokarski and Johan Harju. In particular, the article states there is a "strong opportunity" Harju will be signed for the 2010-2011 season. The money quote from Lawton regarding Harju:
â€œI wasnâ€™t here or part of it, but he fits the late-round mold,â€ Lawton said. â€œMaybe he is a little older, for whatever reason hasnâ€™t been drafted, but you can see he is coming. I commend the staff for a pick like that. We need to have more of them.â€
BoltProspects respectfully poses the following question to Brian Lawton: while you're at it, why not acquire the rights to Harju's talented lifelong teammate Linus Omark from Edmonton? Just a thought.
(Tampa Bay/Norfolk release) The Tampa Bay Lightning have signed center Mitch Fadden to a standard, three-year rookie contract today, Executive Vice President and General Manager Brian Lawton announced.
â€œWe are excited for Mitch to begin his professional career next season,â€ Lawton said. â€œHe had multiple 30-goal seasons in the WHL and is also responsible in his own end. Mitch adds depth to our organization at the center position.â€