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€
According to posters right here on the BoltProspects Message Boards (namely Donnie D), Lightning GM Brian Lawton confirmed tonight at a Q&A session with fans that Lightning forward prospect Mitch Fadden has been signed to an entry level contract and that an official announcement would follow in a day or so. June 1 is the deadline for Fadden and fellow CHL prospects Michael Ward and Torrie Jung to be signed or return to the NHL draft. There was no word from Lawton on if Ward and Jung were also to be signed. It is also unclear whether or not Rimouski forward Luca Cunti's rights expire on June 1st along with Ward and Jung's.
Damian Crisdotero of the St. Pete Times is reporting on his blog that Boston University defenseman Matt Gilroy has been named the winner of the Hobey Baker Award, given to the NCAA's best player. Gilroy, who turns 25 this July, is a 6'2" 202 lbs. senior defenseman who will become an unrestricted free agent after BU's title game matchup with Miami of Ohio tomorrow. Gilroy has been courted by several teams, including the Lightning who have been heavily interested in Gilroy since last season. The team had Gilroy in Tampa last summer, and they have sent assistant coach and BU alumni Mike Sullivan to Boston to recruit Gilroy earlier this year.
Gilroy had 8 goals and 36 points in 44 games this season and has been lauded for his skating and passing ability. Of added interest to the team's pursuing Gilroy is that he is also the semi-rare and coveted right-handed shot. Because of his age, there is no limit to what Gilroy could earn as a free agent, and he is considered to be NHL ready right out of school. The question is: will Gilroy turn down bigger money from larger northern markets in order to have the opportunity to play in the NHL sooner with the Lightning?
According to Swedish newspaper Sportbladet, Lightning forward prospect Johan Harju has signed a one year contract with the Moscow Dynamo along with Lulea linemate and Edmonton Oiler prospect Linus Omark.
Since Lulea's exit from the SEL playoffs, rumors were rampant that the KHL were courting both Harju and Omark with promises of salaries in excess of the what the duo could get from the rookie maximum for an NHL entry level contract. The news is certainly a blow to a Lightning organization in the midst of rebuilding and a system largely devoid of elite offensive talent.
One really has to ask the question if anyone from the organization was camping in Harju's backyard since Lulea's exit from the SEL playoffs. Anyone? Bueller? Anyone?
The Swedish paper Norrbottens Kuriren is reporting that several teams in the Russian KHL are courting Lightning prospect Johan Harju and his teammate, Edmonton prospect Linus Omark. The Lightning reportedly had the inside track on signing Harju, who at 22 years of age was the second leading goal scorer in the Swedish Elitserien for Lulea, earlier in the season. However, the entrance of the Russian league into the equation complicates matters. NHL rookie contracts are capped at around $900,000, while wealthy Russian owners flush with cash are willing to spend lavishly on young stars like Harju, putting the Lightning at a disadvantage in a potential bidding war. The question is: will Harju choose the better lifestyle and top flight competition of the NHL, or will he choose to chase the big bucks behind the former iron curtain?
Harju is quoted in the report as saying, "The NHL is the dream and that is what I am aiming for." However, he didn't close the door completely, stating, "The way of life is a bit special in Russia, but it would also be an adventure in its own way."
More on this story as it develops...
The Swedish newspaper the Norlandska Socialdemokraten is reporting (link in Swedish) that the Lightning have signaled their intention to sign Swedish sniper Johan Harju at the end of this season. Lulea GM Lars Bergstrom is quoted in the paper as being resigned to the fact that Harju and his teammate, Edmonton prospect Linus Omark, will be headed to North America next season. Harju, who was drafted by the Lightning in the 6th round of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, has played much of this season at second line center for Lulea, but can also play left wing. The 22 year old, 6'3" 205 lbs forward is currently tied for 12th in the Elitserien in scoring with 20 goals and 34 points in 44 games. Those 20 goals are tied for 4th best in the league and his 9 power play goals are tied for 3rd best.
Hat tip to Sotnos from the message boards.