“It's really exciting after last year, when it was a struggle just to get two wins in a row,” said forward Bracken Kearns. “It seems like this season, we've come out of the gates just flying.”
The Admirals will need to keep that momentum going despite a tough early portion of the schedule. After this weekend's two-game set with visiting Hershey, Norfolk plays 12 of its next 17 games on the road, including trips to Canada and the Midwest.
“A quick start is going to be key,” said first-year coach Darren Rumble, the team's assistant last season. “You want your guys playing important games down the stretch, so we need to pick up points in October and November for that to happen.”
Last season's Admirals won only three of their first 11 games, but that team didn't have anywhere near the talent that this season's squad can muster. Veteran forwards Zenon Konopka, Wyatt Smith and Brandon Bochenski all boast significant NHL experience, as does defenseman Andrew Hutchinson, last season's AHL defenseman of the year. None of those players were with Norfolk last winter.
“We know on paper we've got a good team here,” Kearns said. “You can tell we have some born leaders and they're going to get the best out of us.”
Konopka, with a vocal presence and a warrior mentality, will captain Norfolk, while Smith is a full time alternate and Bochenski and Hutchinson will share a second alternate role. Last season's Admirals seemed to lack dominant, veteran personalities but Rumble said that's not a problem this time around.
“The dressing group has a good group of leaders and a keen group of young players who want to soak it all up and learn,” he said. “Winning breeds development. You want your guys to expect to win and to learn how to be professionals and we've got capable teachers in that department.”
Chief among those young prospects is goaltender Karri Ramo, whose absence because of an early ankle injury last season was a major factor in Norfolk's unsatisfactory campaign. The Finnish native said he's on board with Tampa's plan to have him spend a majority of the season in the AHL, racking up the experience vital to a netminder's progress.
“When I went to Tampa my goal was to play there but they decided I'm not ready yet,” Ramo said. “Here, I'm able to play on a good team and play two out of three games every week and I'm ready for that challenge. I'm a pro hockey player so I do the best I can to win games and be a better player every day, no matter where I am.”
The Lightning hope that mature viewpoint rubs off on prospects such as goaltender Riku Helenius
, defenseman Ty Wishart and forward Juraj Simek, the latter recently acquired from Vancouver in a trade.
Falling between the categories of rookies and veterans are players such as goaltender Mike McKenna, who played well last winter for AHL Portland, defensemen Matt Smaby, Vladimir Mihalik and Andy Rogers and forwards Paul Szczechura, Radek Smolenak, Blair Jones and Justin Keller. Each of those players has reached a stage where a strong performance could result in a promotion to the NHL.
Bochenski, who produced 66 points in only 35 Admirals games two seasons ago, will be counted on for offense, along with Konopka and Hutchinson. Their presence will take pressure off the likes of Jones, Kearns and Keller, who could flourish while playing in complementary roles.
“We're working on the power play more at practice and it's already clicking a little better than last year,” said Jay Rosehill, who can play wing and defense and serves as the team's primary enforcer. “I don't think goal scoring is going to be as big an issue as it was last year.”
Mihalik, one of the AHL's most improved players during the second half of last season, should lead the defense with Smaby. Ramo has the potential to be one of the league's best goaltenders.
As improved as the Admirals' skill set promises to be, the team's mental approach might be its biggest asset.
“The attitude on the ice and in the locker room is a lot more positive and guys are playing like they've been together for awhile,” Rosehill said. “Our coaching staff seems to have a different outlook and it's showing in a more positive feeling.”
Of course, every team begins October in an optimistic frame of mind. The goal is to retain that feeling when the dog days of January and February roll around. Kearns slogged through that stretch on a losing Admirals club last winter but doesn't think he'll have to do so in 2008-09.
“We definitely needed a change here and from Tampa on down, it's just a totally new vibe,” he said. “It's like playing for a different organization.”