With the Tampa Bay Lightning’s AHL affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals, clinching a spot in the 2011 Calder Cup Playoffs, it has become even more evident just how much this organization has revamped itself in just one short season. Instead of laying the groundwork for the upcoming years the Admirals, in similar fashion of the Lightning, have decided to raise the bar for future expectations. Along the way, they have also revealed yet another glimpse at what is turning out to be a rapidly evolving franchise. In the broad scheme, making the playoffs is also an indication of the organization’s burgeoning depth and what appears to be a promising future.
For the first time since the Stanley Cup-winning 2003-04 season, both Lightning affiliates (the Admirals in the AHL and the Florida Everblades in the ECHL) and the Bolts themselves, are all headed to the playoffs at the same time. That accomplishment itself has not happened since the 2003-04 season in which the Hamilton Bulldogs made it to the playoffs as the then-Lightning affiliate in the American League.
Needless to say, this is an exciting transformation for the Lightning’s minor league affiliations. Having competitive teams not only makes for an exciting season for both the team and its fans, but it is also indicative of the quality of players that are developing in the club’s system.
“That’s important on so many levels,” Admirals general manager Julien BriseBois said. “It’s hard to put together a competitive NHL team that can sustain success without having a good pipeline of players that are ready to come into your lineup year in and year out.
“That is where you get your call-ups throughout the season. Those players come in and help a team win games.”
The Lightning certainly have already begun to reap the benefits of their organizational depth. On several key occasions throughout the course of the season they have called upon players in Norfolk to fill in. They have even been fortunate enough to get key contributions from those players.
Among Admirals players who had notable stints for the Lightning this season are goaltender Cedrick Desjardins, who stepped up with two wins in as many starts, while maintaining a stingy .968 save percentage and a 1.00 goals-against average. There was also forward Mattias Ritola, who recorded two game-winning goals in the time he spent with the team. The Lightning recorded four wins and eight points in the standings with those two players in the lineup; points they may not have otherwise earned.
Right now those eight points are the exact difference between being in fifth place in the Eastern Conference or being tied for eighth place.
Although those results reveal that the Admirals have players that are capable of contributing at the NHL level, it does not indicate that they are ready to step into the faster and more competitive game quite yet. Keeping young prospects in the AHL affords them the opportunity to develop at a rate that is suitable for their caliber of play.
That is a luxury that not all NHL teams have. In fact, some organizations rush their prospects directly to the NHL because of their desperate need to compete. In turn, those prospects miss crucial development opportunities that they would otherwise have if they played in the AHL.
“A very large portion of a player’s growth comes from the experience that they gain playing at the AHL level,” said BriseBois. “Some players need time in the minors before they can step in to the NHL. Each player and each situation is different. But, if players are put into a situation that they can’t succeed, it’s very hard for them to ever get better. So, playing for a quality AHL program like the Admirals really pays off for them, once they come up to the NHL.”
Not only does it pay off for the players, it is also beneficial for the teams. By developing players that will have success in the NHL, teams can forego pursuing costly free agents during trade deadlines and the offseason. Instead, they can rely on filling those voids internally.
Still, the players in the AHL have the goal to one day graduate to the NHL and that presents a number of challenges to everyone involved.
“That is definitely one of the challenges we face as coaches in the AHL, realizing that guys do have individual contracts and that their ultimate goal is to make it to the NHL,” said Admirals head coach Jon Cooper. “As a coaching staff we help our players understand that we are trying to develop them and put them in a position to eventually play for the Lightning. We want to help make them better by challenging them with adversity, and challenging them with different aspects of what goes on in the game.
“I think that, based on our results, we were able to do that here. Players have come to trust us when we tell them, ‘what benefits the team is also going to benefit you as individuals’.”
Even so, with the adversity that the Admirals have faced, because of the constant barrage of players that shuttle between both teams, it is impressive that they have made the playoffs. That truly is a testament to the players’ ability to strike the proper balance between vying to become permanent fixtures in the NHL and still maintaining that team- first mentality and chemistry.
“We are fortunate enough to have a great group of individuals who have really bought into that mentality,” said Cooper. “Not to mention, we have a great captain (Chris Durno) who has done a tremendous job reinforcing those things in the locker room.”
That’s an important factor for not only the Admirals, but also the entire franchise. Having a great leader whom is committed to instilling those qualities that the organization find important can have an enormous positive influence on the team.
“I think that it’s important, as a player, to accept whatever role the coach feels is necessary to help the team have success,” said Durno. “I’m appreciative of my role on the team. I try to show that every day by working hard, killing penalties and doing all of the little things.”
Along the way, following that example may also be instrumental in helping them reach their ultimate goal of playing for the Lightning.
“You have to play your game each night if you want to move to the next level,” Durno added. “Guys have to understand that in order to get the next level, you don’t necessarily have to score 100 points in a season. It’s the other things. Whether it is finishing all of your checks or back checking, whatever your job is, you just have to embrace it.”
For now, the Admirals role is to embrace the fact that they will be in the playoffs. Even so for BriseBois, reaching the playoffs is really only the first step.
“At the beginning of the season, general manager Steve Yzerman and I made it an objective to at least make the playoffs,” said BriseBois. “Obviously we are happy to have been able to do that, but now that we have, we’re just looking forward to the next challenge of hopefully winning the first round. Then we’ll go from there.”
Similar to the sentiment that Lightning captain Vincent Lecavalier shared after the Bolts made the playoffs, Durno is also happy, but doesn’t really consider making the playoffs a reason to get too excited.
“We aren’t celebrating quite yet. Making the playoffs is great, but that definitely is not our final goal,” said Durno. “Right now we are just working hard because we want to be a successful playoff team. There is still a lot of hockey to be played.”
Despite their refusal to accept what they have already accomplished in such a short time, the reality remains that the Lightning are beginning to develop a winning culture from top to bottom. The momentum from that winning mentality also seems to be rippling its way throughout every crevice of the organization.
“We wanted to get it in our players’ minds early on that making the playoffs was the bar,” said Cooper. “As an organization we aren’t just trying to develop great players, we are also trying to develop winners. A part of that is making sure the team makes the playoffs, so that they can be battle tested. Our model and our entire development plans are centered on winning.”