"We're going to spend more money, more time and a greater commitment into building a good foundation for Tampa Bay."
-- Barry Melrose
Despite finishing last in the NHL in 2007-08, the Tampa Bay Lighting have certainly been a hot topic of discussion this summer.
The selection of top-rated prospect Steven Stamkos with the first pick at June's Entry Draft, the announcement of a new eight-man ownership group, the re-signing of franchise player Vincent Lecavalier to a long-term deal and the naming of new coach Barry Melrose will certainly do that.
The powers that be are determined to make certain the depth chart remains fortified by reassessing its minor-league program. Tampa's American Hockey League affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals, finished last in their division. Their ECHL affiliate, the Mississippi Sea Wolves, finished second-to-last.
It's an area Melrose knows needs to improve if the team has any intention of exhibiting some consistency down the road.
"We're going to completely revamp our minor-league system," Melrose said. "Ownership realizes this is one of the main areas we must improve on. The minor-league teams are going to become much more of a focal point. We're going to spend more money, more time and a greater commitment into building a good foundation for Tampa Bay."
Here's a look at the Lightning's top prospects entering the 2008-09 season.
Dana Tyrell -- Drafted in the second round (No. 47) in 2007, the 5-foot-10, 185-pound center is as quick as they come. In 68 games with the Prince George Cougars of the Western Hockey League this past season, Tyrell compiled career-highs with 40 assists and a team-leading 65 points. He was invited to the Canadian World Junior selection camp and given an amateur tryout with Norfolk at the end of the 2007-08 WHL season, recording five assists and six points with a plus-1 rating in 11 games. In 2006-07, he totaled 30 goals and 56 points in 72 contests with Prince George. In 210 WHL games, Tyrell has recorded 62 goals, 77 assists, 139 points and 144 penalty minutes.
Blair Jones -- At 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, with skill to match, Jones has proven to be a smart player with plenty of upside. Drafted in the fourth round (No. 102) in 2005, Jones played 75 games with Norfolk this past season, registering 28 assists, 42 points and 50 penalty minutes. He also saw action in four games with Tampa Bay during the regular season. In fact, Jones, who is projected to be a future second-line center, played in 20 games with the big club in 2006-07 and had three points. He'll likely begin the season in Norfolk as the team's first-line center.
Mitch Fadden -- The fourth-round draft pick (No. 107) in 2007 had a great season in his second full year with the Lethbridge Hurricanes of the Western Hockey League. The 20-year-old center collected a career-high 89 points, including 34 goals, 72 penalty minutes and a plus-23 rating in 72 games. In 19 playoff games, Fadden scored five goals and 20 points. The Lightning drafted Fadden after he posted similar numbers at Lethbridge in 2006-07, including 36 goals, 84 points and a plus-9 rating in 71 appearances. He will likely start 2008-09 in Norfolk. He's not an overly physical player, but an excellent puck handler off the transition and under duress.
Luca Cunti -- The native of Zurich, Switzerland, spent the season in the United States Hockey League with the Chicago Steel, scoring 11 goals, 32 points and a plus-16 rating in 34 games. A third-round (No. 75) pick of the Lightning in 2007, Cunti is projected to someday be a second-line wing, perhaps for Stamkos. Until then, though, he'll have to continue his adjustment to the North American game. He had hoped to play for St. Cloud State as a freshman at the start of the season, but an extensive delay in getting cleared by the NCAA Clearing House resulted in his forgoing that decision and joining the Freeze in December. Cunti is a capable force on the power play, using his strong puck control and vision to find the open areas on the ice with the man advantage.
Matt Smaby -- Smaby, the first U.S. high school player drafted by the Lightning when they took him in the second round of the 2003 Entry Draft out of Shattuck-St. Mary's in Minnesota, actually made the Lightning out of training camp last season, but was sent to Norfolk after four games and a minus-6 rating. His 6-foot-6, 239-pound frame makes him a viable candidate for another call-up. He was recalled to the big club in mid-March and wound up playing 14 games with the Lightning. He could earn a top-six spot along the blue line in the fall.
Smaby spent three seasons with the University of North Dakota, totaling 23 points and 280 penalty minutes in 129 games. He then left for Springfield of the AHL in 2006-07 where he scored twice and dished 14 assists in 66 games.
Vladimir Mihalik -- At 6-foot-8, 222 pounds, the 21-year-old Slovak still needs time to grow into his body, but could still challenge for a roster spot in the fall depending on his conditioning in training camp. In 68 games with Norfolk this past season, the No. 30 pick in 2005 had 15 assists, 16 points and 68 penalty minutes with a plus-9 rating. In 2006-07, he racked up seven goals, 19 assists and 91 penalty minutes in 53 games with Prince George of the WHL.
Karri Ramo -- He's barely still able to be considered a prospect, having appeared in 24 NHL games (7-11-3, 3.05 goals-against average, .896 save percentage) with the Lightning this past season. The 6-2, 192-pound Finn, who exhibits a sound butterfly style with good size, was recalled to the Lightning in late December when Marc Denis was placed on waivers, appearing in 22 games and finishing 7-11-3 with a 3.03 GAA. Following the acquisition of Mike Smith from Dallas at the trade deadline, Ramo was demoted to full-time backup. With a determined effort and continued consistency, Ramo, drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the sixth round (191st overall) in 2004, will earn a key roster spot in 2008-09.
Riku Helenius -- After losing the 2006-07 season in Finland due to a shoulder injury, Helenius joined the Seattle Thunderbirds of the WHL this season and struggled with inconsistency. The Lightning's first pick (15th overall) in 2006 did finish 22-12-6 with a 2.42 GAA and .915 save percentage in 41 appearances in Seattle. In nine playoff games, he finished 4-4 with a 2.69 GAA and .911 save percentage. Helenius, who's 6-foot-3 and 202 pounds, signed a three-year contract with the Lightning last year -- which could mean that he'll see considerable time in the AHL next season.
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.