On paper, the Norfolk Admirals are playing out the string. A second consecutive season out of the playoffs means the campaign's final games will take place Friday in Binghamton and Saturday in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. In reality, however, there's a lot at stake for both Norfolk's players and management.
“This could be the best opportunity some guys will get in their careers, even if they don't realize it yet,” said captain Zenon Konopka, who is signed for next season. “You get older and you go through summers waiting for phone calls and contracts and hoping things work out, but how you played back during the season is what decides things.”
As for who decides things, that would be Brian Lawton, general manager of the parent Tampa Bay Lightning. Lawton attended last weekend's home series with Philadelphia and spent much of it in murmured conference with Admirals General Manager Mike Butters in the Scope Arena press box.
“They're not talking about where to get a beer after the game, I can guarantee that,” said Admirals coach Darren Rumble. “It's about who we're interested in keeping around, who's a quality person and who competes night in and night out.”
Lawton said he was pleased with the Admirals' efforts, despite a pair of losses to the streaking Phantoms. But he emphasized there will be changes for next season, starting from the day Norfolk and Tampa Bay candidates arrive for preseason sessions.
“This season's team played quite a bit harder after 20 games but that's too late,” Lawton said. “This team will be very well-conditioned from the start next season and the common message between here and Tampa is that we'll be running one of the toughest training camps the NHL has seen in some time.
“You have to have a great start, because it's way too hard to play catch-up later on.”
A Norfolk fan base that had seen playoff hockey every season since the pro game returned to Scope in 1989 is becoming restless with the Lightning affiliation, which is concluding its second year. Lawton thanked Admirals backers for their patience and promised a much improved product for 2009-10.
“None of us are happy about this season's record and I can assure you there's no way [the current Lightning administration] will have two losing seasons in a row with this team,” he said. “We've got a lot of work to do but we have every intention of delivering a team that will compete for a playoff spot next season.”
On the bright side, the Admirals have produced several promising prospects and sent them to Tampa, including forward Paul Szczechura, defenseman Matt Smaby and goaltender Karri Ramo. Lawton is high on Ramo despite his struggles in the AHL this winter.
“He's played really well the last third of the season,” said the general manager, who met individually with roughly a dozen Admirals during his Norfolk stay. “He's a good player and a good person and I like his long-term future in the NHL.”
In the short term, the Admirals must bear down and end the season with authority. All three of their games this week will factor into the East Division playoff race and wing Brandon Segal said that will have to be his team's playoffs for now.
“Going into the season, there were huge expectations for us and I honestly believed we had a team on paper that could contend for a championship,” Segal said. “But we have to finish strong. We have to do our jobs.”