While the Tampa Bay Lightning players and coaches earn their paychecks on the ice during the season, it is during the heat of summer when the front office really gets cookin’. Tampa Bay assistant general manager and Norfolk Admirals general manager Claude Loiselle intends to help Lightning executive vice president & general manager Jay Feaster put all the right ingredients together this summer to cook up success on the ice when the puck drops on the 2008-09 NHL and AHL seasons.
“It’s a scary proposition right now,” Loiselle said of this summer. “We have a lot of work to do, basically rebuilding with our young kids. You want to have two to one-and-a-half players make the NHL every year, as far as your draft picks. So it’s important to surround them with good players [in the minors].”
Even though they have shown flashes of brilliance this season including a 6-2-0 streak to begin the month of February, the Admirals have posted a 19-30-6 overall record in the first season of their affiliation with the Lightning.
It isn’t that hard to diagnose some of the problems plaguing the Admirals this season, whether it was the injury that sidelined 2007 AHL All-Star goaltender Karri Ramo before he ever got started or a lack of scoring. Both of those problems now seem to be a thing of the past.
“The one thing we’ve improved midway through the season in Norfolk is our compete-and-battle level,” Loiselle said. “I think the combination of bringing in Junior Lessard and Paul Szczechura, along with bringing Marc Denis down helped in turning things around. We didn’t recover from [Ramo’s injury]. By the time Ramo came back and played some good games then was called up with Marc coming down - that coincided with a turnaround up there. Those first two months were critical and it killed us.
“Our scoring was a little spotty at the beginning of the season because of having Craig MacDonald and Mathieu Darche in Tampa. But again, since the addition of Lessard and Szczechura, it’s picked up.”
That fact is not lost on Loiselle as he plans on attempting to re-sign both Lessard, acquired from Dallas in exchange for defenseman Dan Jancevski, and Szczechura, acquired from the Iowa Stars for future considerations, during the summer.
Szczechura particularly has found his game since landing on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. In 15 games since joining the Admirals he has scored 10 goals and recorded 18 points. On top of that he has recorded a point in 14 of his first 15 games and has more points than any other rookie since January 15.
Looking forward to next season it appears Matt Smaby, who made his NHL debut this season, may be ready to make the jump to the NHL following his best AHL season to date according to Loiselle.
“Smaby has really played well of late,” Loiselle said. “I’m really impressed with the way he’s been playing. He’s taking over; he’s becoming more mature, moving the puck well and being a presence out there.”
As for some other highly-touted Lightning prospects?
“[Vladmir] Mihalik [Tampa Bay’s first-round pick in 2005] is growing, he’s developing at the right pace and we’re hoping he’s going to have a good camp in Tampa next year,” Loiselle continued. “[Mario] Scalzo is playing better of late, he’s got a lot of risk in his play, and so there’s a lot of coaching there that needs to be done. He’s a good skater and moves the puck real well.”
It appears help is on the way for the Lightning and the Admirals as was evidenced during Feaster and Loiselle’s trip out west to see the CHL Top Prospects game and visit some prospects playing in the Canadian junior leagues.
Dana Tyrell, the Lightning’s second-round pick in 2007, has made quite an impact in his third full WHL season with 24 goals and 57 points in 58 games with the Prince George Cougars.
“I was very impressed with Tyrell, very impressed with him because there’s a guy who competes and battles every single shift,” Loiselle said. “Every time he’s on the ice he’s on that puck. He’s fore-checking and back-checking. We were fortunate to have him at our training camp in Norfolk this year. He came for three days and was exciting to watch. He’s not a big guy, he’s a good skater, but he battles and he competes, and that is what we’re looking for.”
Tyrell has another year left in junior but could make an appearance at Lightning training camp in the fall of 2008 if he spends the summer working hard and getting stronger. He will get his shot at impressing the Tampa Bay brass at the Traverse City (Michigan) Prospect Camp.
Feaster and Loiselle also got the chance to see center Mitch Fadden, Tampa Bay’s fourth-round pick in 2007, of the Lethbridge Hurricanes, and defenseman Dane Crowley, the Lightning’s sixth-round pick in 2006, of the Everett Silvertips.
Fadden, a native of Victoria, British Columbia, ranked eighth in the WHL and led the Hurricanes with 71 points as of February 20.
“He’s got great hands and is a power-play specialist,” Loiselle said of Fadden. “He has great hockey sense and sees the ice and his line-mates well. He needs to work on his battle and compete level and needs to get a little more physical.”
Crowley, a native of Winnipeg, Manitoba, ranks second on the Silvertips in points by a defenseman with 10 goals and 25 points. The 21-year-old will turn pro next season.
“Crowley battles and competes, he’s starting to make better decisions with the puck, but he’s pretty much a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy up and down. He’s physical in front of the net. It’s going to be a battle for him to come in to Norfolk next season, but obviously you look at Mike Lundin this year, the players are the ones that make or break it. He’s a competitor and that’s important.”
If all goes to plan there will also be a European invasion of sorts in the Lightning system this summer. Among those players on the fast track to North American hockey are goaltender Vasily Koshechkin of Russia and left wing Johan Harju of Sweden.
Koshechkin, an eighth-round pick at the 2002 draft, switched teams in 2007-08 from his hometown team, Togliatti, to Russian Super League powerhouse Ak Bars Kazan. There he has posted a 2.85 goals-against average in 19 games played while battling for playing time with former NHLers Robert Esche (Phoenix, Philadelphia) and Mika Noronen (Buffalo, Vancouver).
“He’s a guy that we’re going to try and sign for sure next year and bring him into our organization and the North American game,” Loiselle said. “He could very well start off in Norfolk.”
Harju, the Lightning’s sixth-round pick in 2007, has a career-high 19 goals for Lulea of the Swedish Elite League to date this season, also tying his career high with 27 points in 43 games. The 21-year-old is currently in his second full season in Sweden’s top professional league.
“We’re going to try and sign him for sure,” Loiselle said. “We tried signing him last summer but he wanted to stay in Sweden and play.”
A recent European import, Luca Cunti, who was committed to St. Cloud State of the WCHA, hit a road block when the NCAA failed to approve him for play. He has since grabbed a roster spot with the Chicago Steel of the USHL. Since joining the Steel he has five goals and 14 points in 17 games. Although he could turn pro, he has not contacted the team with his intentions and could again try to be approved by the NCAA next season.
Either way, it seems the off-season will be anything but for the Lightning hockey operations staff as they try and re-tool for 2008-09.