Erik Erlendsson of the Trib blogs some kudos to Bolt Prospects in his Tuesday entry on the Lightning's offseason and the possibility of re-signing prospect defenseman Andreas Holmqvist. We blog kudos back to his blog, which has come along nicely over the past year.
Specifically regarding Holmqvist: suffice it to say he has some significant support behind him in the organization. And, considering the scouts who followed the Swedish league and Swedish World Championships team last season did deliver Johan Holmqvist and Andreas Karlsson to the team last season, it's not out of the realm of possibility to see an Andreas Holmqvist comeback on the horizon. I think the only thing that is precluding it might be a sense in the front office that they've already been fooled once by Andreas before. The former 2001 2nd round draft pick got a very lucrative one-way deal to come to North America the year before the lockout and was utterly putrid. The scouting report from that juncture of his career was not exactly glowing. His ability to play in his own third of the ice often took on the appearance of a deer trapped in headlights. Few who were there will forget his rookie training camp pairing with Mike Egener and how the two youngsters were abused shift after shift by the likes of Dimitry Afanasenkov (they made Affy look like Pavel Bure) in preseason scrimmages. Andreas also lacked anything resembling upper body strength. It's not that he didn't try to use his frame to body up people. He would lean on opponents and try to work along the wall. But the average ten year old could probably bench more than Holmqvist when he came across the Atlantic. Andreas also needed to work on his first step acceleration, but that was a minor point in comparison to the previous two strikes. The Lightning scouts around that time truly believed at the time Andreas' offensive skill set was NHL caliber. The young man is an incredible sight to behold when he runs a power play. Crisp skater. Sharp passer. Thunderously heavy shot. So Jay Feaster gave him the money, and probably felt luck a sucker every day for the next two years straight until Andreas went back to Sweden to play for Linkopings in the Elitserien. I don't blame him for being hesitant.
But, since going back to Sweden, Holmqvist has done just about everything you could ask of a young player to burnish his credentials for a comeback. He's had two solid offensive seasons and has been a semi-regular fixture on Sweden's Euro Tour teams. He even got a medal playing on the bottom pair for Sweden at last year's World Championships. This season he was mercilessly consistent the second half of the Elitserien season and had a strong playoffs helping Linkopings advance to the league finals before being knocked off by MODO for the championship.
To me, there's not a lot of risk in re-signing Holmqvist and it's a little bit of a no-brainer. I presume he can't command much more than a one-year, two-way, league minimum contract. If his agent can get anything more than that, well, then I want his agent to be my agent too. So if it's not a money issue then it comes down to organizational needs and the 50-man roster. From an organizational standpoint, in case anyone hasn't noticed, there's not a lot offensive defenseman prospects in this organization right now. There are even less right handed point shots. God forbid if Dan Boyle should ever get hurt. Holmqvist potentially kills those two birds and another: since Andy Delmore was traded to the Thrashers the Lightning have been lacking someone to run their power play at the AHL level. Holmqvist would probably spend at least the first half of the season in Norfolk and could handle the role. He was ruthlessly efficient on the power play during Linkopings' playoff run.
The 50-man roster might be the hurdle. The Lightning have a potentially large class of incoming prospects: as many as ten by my count if they can find a way to wrangle Vasily Koshechkin out of the last year of his rumored deal with Togliatti. Between players moving up to Tampa and prospects who probably won't be asked back I only see six or seven spots as definitely opening up. Whether or not the other three the Lightning would need to clear can become available might ultimately make the decision on a Holmqvist comeback.
This is a tough pill to swallow. For the first time in franchise history the team has lost a series where I really believed they were the better team.
Johan Holmqvist allowed 3 goals on 26 shots in the loss. He did allow a bit of a softie on the short side for Jersey's first goal, but he was good. After his horrible Game One performance, I think Johan did a lot to regain the confidence of the franchise going into an offseason where decisions need to be made concerning the netminder's job. Brad Richards had both Lightning goals on the power play. Filip Kuba had a pair of assists in the game to atone for accidentally knocking over Holmqvist after a Tim Taylor turnover that resulted in the game winning goal. Vaclav Prospal and Vincent Lecavalier also had assists.
Going into the offseason, I feel a lot better about the team's blueline than I did 3-4 months ago. Dan Boyle is one of the best defensemen in the league and Filip Kuba earned every penny of his free agent deal from this summer. I was impressed with how Shane O'Brien quickly factored into the mix and Paul Ranger will be approaching 250-300 pro games by the end of next season so he should start to really hit his comfort zone as a player. It will be difficult if not impossible to retain Cory Sarich and the team might do well to find a younger, more mobile replacement for Nolan Pratt. Now is the time for one of the Lightning's young defensive prospects like Matt Smaby or Vladimir Mihalik or Mike Egener to step up as a player.
In net, Holmqvist probably did enough in the playoffs to earn the starting job going into next season. Marc Denis' nearly $3M per year contract is unsustainable from a budget standpoint and he may be traded or even bought out before next season. That leaves young Karri Ramo in the Lightning's backup role and, mark my words, he could be a Calder contender next season.
I think the most amount of work for this team needs to be done up front this summer. Lecavalier, Richards and St. Louis showed why they're paid premium dollars in this playoff series. The core is sound. The supporting cast, however, is horrible. There was no greater endictment of the Lightning's lack of offensive depth than the fact Andreas Karlsson spent all of today's game playing on the Lightning's second line and second power play unit. What do you do if you're the Lightning? That's got to be the biggest question of this offseason. They have some decent fourth line type pieces (Andre Roy, Nick Tarnasky, Evgeny Artyukhin) and some decent third line type pieces (Ryan Craig, Eric Perrin, Jason Ward should they retain him). The question is whether they can find a couple of more forwards with the skill to play on the scoring lines and possibly a natural third line center.
It's going to be an interesting offseason. If I was a young forward who hasn't fully established himself as a scorer in the league, I'd take a long hard look at Tampa. I have a feeling Lecavalier and Richards could make some young man a lot of money if they latch on here.
Game sheet from NHL.com.
The Springfield Falcons have announced they have signed defenseman Justin Fletcher to an amateur tryout agreement. Fletcher, who will turn 24 this week, is a 5'11" 202 lbs. blueliner out of St. Cloud State in the WCHA. As a member of the Huskies, Fletcher led all St. Cloud defensemen in scoring during his sophomore, junior and senior campaigns. This year, Fletcher had 5 goals and 23 points in 37 games, one year removed from his career season of 6 goals and 27 points in 40 games as a junior. Prior to his NCAA career, Fletcher spent three seasons with the Sioux City Musketeers of the USHL scoring 12 goals and 43 points in 60 games in his final year of junior.
The Illinois native made his Falcons debut tonight against Manchester playing on the top pairing with Mike Egener. Fletcher was -1 with 1 shot on goal in the game.
In his Friday column Erik Erlendsson of the Tampa Tribune speculated the team's cap situation may force the Lightning to carry one or two rookie defensemen on the roster on opening night. That's a pretty fair expectation and at the very minimum I suspected the Lightning would put one of the rookies into the #7 defenseman slot at the league minimum for economic reasons. Erlendsson lists several prospects as potential options and, in particular, highlights Swiss stay-at-home defenseman Timo Helbling. Helbling, you might remember, checked in at #5 on my personal list of overage Lightning prospects. Here's my handicapping of the situation: