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December Trade Boosts Norfolk Admirals’ Defense

by Dan Marrazza / Tampa Bay Lightning
One of the biggest reasons for the Norfolk Admirals’ success this season has been the offensive contributions from the team’s rookies.

Norfolk has the AHL’s two highest-scoring freshmen in Cory Conacher and Tyler Johnson, while 115 of the team’s league-leading 250 goals have been scored by first-year players.

Receiving such sizable contributions from rookies has affected the Admirals in a couple ways.

The first and more obvious consequence has been that Norfolk’s overall goal-scoring abilities have been boosted, with the Admirals entering the weekend with at least 24 more goals scored than any other AHL team. The second and less obvious consequence of the Admirals’ rookie core’s emergence was that earlier this season, the team unexpectedly found itself with more quality forwards than available roster spots.

Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman managed Norfolk’s surplus in forwards to solidify the Admirals’ blue line and give the Lightning a better-rounded prospect pool, making a trade on Dec. 2 in which he dealt James Wright and Mike Vernace to the Florida Panthers for defensemen Evan Oberg and Mike Kostka.

“Defense was a position that we thought we needed to get a little bit deeper in,” said Admirals head coach Jon Cooper. “Adding those two guys has really added much-needed depth for us.”

Before the trade, the Admirals had a goals-against average of 2.86, which ranked 13th in the 30-team American Hockey League.

Norfolk’s defense enters this weekend having allowed at least 17 fewer goals than any other Eastern Conference team for the season, while yielding just 33 goals during the team’s record-breaking, 21-game winning streak.

“We’re being really disciplined in our system and picking up the loose guys,” said Evan Oberg. “Everybody is backchecking and we aren’t turning pucks over. Coach Cooper has been doing a great job making sure we’ve been tightening up defensively in all the ways we’re supposed to.”

The area where Oberg and Kostka have specifically paid the largest dividends is with their puck-moving abilities. Adding the pair to a group of Norfolk defensemen which already featured the league’s highest-scoring blueliner in Mark Barberio has improved the Admirals’ power play, which has scored in 17 of 21 games during the team’s win streak and ranks second in the AHL at 22.5 percent.

“Earlier in the season, we were really looking to spruce up our power play,” added Cooper. “Those two guys have been really good offensively for us. They also give our goalies the confidence that they don’t have to worry about rebounds as much, because of their abilities to move the puck up the ice and out of our zone so quickly.”

Lightning prospect Mike Kostka was acquired in December from the Florida Panthers (Photo by John Wright)
Of the pair of mid-season additions, Oberg is the more familiar name to Lightning fans. As the Bolts’ version of Carmen Sandiego, Oberg has been recalled by Tampa Bay from Norfolk 10 times and has logged 16,319 callup travel miles since December, posting a +2 rating over three games with the Lightning.

“It was tough at first to be going back and forth so much,” said Oberg. “But at the end of the day, hockey is hockey and I have to play the same game regardless of what team I’m with. That being said, I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable on the ice as I’ve gotten to know my teammates more.”

Although Kostka has yet to have been called up to the Lightning, he’s accelerated his development in Norfolk and is one of the highest-scoring defensemen in the American Hockey League over the past two seasons.

Kostka is the second-highest scoring defenseman in the AHL since the start of last season, producing 91 points during stints with the Admirals, San Antonio Rampage and Rochester Americans.

A former captain of the UMass-Amherst Minutemen, Kostka has partnered with the more defensive-minded JP Cote for most of the last three months, collecting 30 points (7g, 23a) in 45 games with Norfolk.

“I think our styles play off of each other really well,” said Kostka. “We communicate really well and playing together for probably the last 30 games has given us good chemistry. JP is more of a stay-at-home, defensive defenseman and that gives me the room to jump into the play a lot more.”

Meanwhile, Oberg has settled in as Mark Barberio’s defensive partner over the last few weeks, during which he has played in 12 straight March games for Norfolk after spending much of the last few months in the airways between Florida and southeastern Virginia.

“Everybody has played so well during the win streak that we’ve been able to keep the same partners the whole time,” said Oberg. “Mark (Barberio) and I try to get the puck up to the offensive zone as much as possible because the more we have the puck and the other team doesn’t, the less chances they’re going to have to score.”

The Admirals’ third regular defensive pairing is Scott Jackson and Radko Gudas, who serve as the team’s top shutdown pairing which thrives when matched against other teams’ top forwards.

Norfolk’s ever-improving defense handed Atlantic Division-leading St. John’s just its third shutout of the season on Wednesday night, during which Radko Gudas bloodied IceCaps captain Jason Jaffray out of the game with a shoulder-first, clean and devastating body check.

“He was carrying the puck up the wall,” commented Oberg. “He stopped up on the rush and tried to make a play. Gudas just stepped up and went directly through him. We pick up so much momentum every time Gudas throws hits like those.”

The Admirals used their 2-0 shutout win over the IceCaps on Wednesday night to run their unprecedented winning streak to 21 straight victories. Norfolk takes aim at 22 straight wins when it hosts second-place St. John’s again on Friday night.

“We’re on a good roll right now and want to be playing the way we are right now when the playoff start,” added Oberg. “If we can keep playing the way we are right now, we know that nobody is going to want to face us in the playoffs.”

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