With the emergence of Mike Smith as a solid No. 1 last season and the addition of Antero Niittymaki, who earned at least a point in 21 of 29 decisions last season, the Lightning are bullish about their goaltending this season.
The future looks just as bright.Riku Helenius
, a first-round pick in 2006, Memorial Cup and World Junior Champion Dustin Tokarski, and 2009 draftees Michael Zador and Jaroslav Janus
all made strong impressions at the Lightning’s Young Guns Camp.
“This is a good group to work with,” Lightning Goaltending Coach Cap Raeder said. “I get excited when I see these kinds of kids with this kind of talent.”
It will take time. Raeder said patience is best course with young goalies. Few jump right into the big leagues and play consistently.
When Raeder was with San Jose, Evgeni Nabokov played 98 games and Miikka Kiprusoff appeared in 87 in the minors over about three years before being ready for the NHL.
“I’m a big believer in learning your trade,” Raeder said. “You make your mistakes and learn how to be a pro in the minors. That’s so important.”
Raeder said Helenius and Tokarski, who are expected to play most of this season in the American Hockey League with Norfolk, Zador and Janus, got off to a good start at camp.
“I was extremely happy with their approach to the game,” Raeder said. “They were very focused during the week and they are all very coachable.”
Helenius, 21, had a difficult beginning to last season. He played eight games with Augusta of the East Coast Hockey League, but the team folded. He moved over to Mississippi in the same league and played just three games.
When injuries struck the Lightning later in the season, Helenius got his chance to play more in Norfolk and responded. He finished with a .918 save percentage and 2.72 goals-against average, winning nine games.
“Even when he wasn’t playing, he worked very hard in practice,” Raeder said. “He’s still got a ways to go, but he’s heading in the right direction.”
Helenius, who played for Finland in the 2008 World Juniors, got to play 6:52 in the NHL in relief of Mike Smith January 30 against Philadelphia, making two saves on two shots.
“He relies a lot on his wingspan,” Raeder said. “He’s so lanky. What I’ve tried to do is get him a little bit more under control and stronger on his edges.”
Tokarski, who turns 20 on September 16, had an outstanding season in 2007-08 for Spokane of the Western Hockey League. He went 30-10-3 in the regular season with a 2.05 goals-against average and .922 save percentage then led the Chiefs to the Memorial Cup Championship.
The Saskatchewan native topped it last season, winning 34 games in the regular season with a 1.97 goals-against average and .937 save percentage. He then led Team Canada to the World Junior Championship Gold Medal.
Now, he’s a pro.
“This is the hardest step of them all,” Raeder said. “There are a lot better shooters and more of them. But he’s got the make up for it.”
Raeder likes Tokarski’s instincts for the position and the economy of motion he uses to get the job done.
“He’s got a pro style, where it’s positioning and blocking,” Raeder said. “His demeanor is perfect. He’s going to be fun to work with.”
Both Helenius and Tokarski should get plenty of playing time in Norfolk, which often has one of the toughest travel schedules in AHL.
Janus, who will turn 20 on September 21, could play as an over-age player in the Ontario Hockey League next season or sign a pro contract. He was 25-20-4 and had a .908 save percentage with Erie last season and shined with Slovakia in the World Juniors, leading his team to the semifinals.
At 5 foot 11, 192 pounds, Janus is very quick and athletic, but needs to work on positioning.
“He’s a little too active right now,” Raeder said. “He’s one of those guys who reacts to everything and makes every save look spectacular. I’m going to try and quiet, simplify his game. He is a delightful kid.”
Zador, 18, played in 28 games for London and Oshawa of the OHL last season, and the Lightning is anxious to see his development in juniors in 2009-10. Zador, who wears No. 33 like his idol Patrick Roy did, won a Gold Medal for Team Ontario in the 2008 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge.
The 6-2, 172-pound Toronto native opened some eyes at prospects camp.
“I like the way he positions himself,” Raeder said. “He’s got some good instincts and a nice foundation. There’s not a lot to change with him. It’s just getting everything stronger and quicker.”