Only six teams surrendered more than the 241 goals Tampa Bay Lightning allowed in 2006-07. The Lightning gave up more goals than any other team that qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, so there is a legitimate concern about the defensive play of the Lightning.
Appropriately, help is on the way. The Lightning are looking at two big defensemen, Andy Rogers and Matt Smaby, who could crack the lineup out of training camp. In addition, two young Finnish goaltenders are working their way toward NHL careers and a tough Slovakian defender is coming over for a season of Canadian junior hockey.
Lightning GM Jay Feaster is excited about the prospects for Smaby and Rogers, two players who struggled, for different reasons, last season with the AHL Springfield Falcons.
Smaby has to adapt to the more rigorous professional conditioning standards, while Rogers has to avoid the injury bug that has sidetracked his career on a couple of occasions.
Matt Smaby -- After a couple years at Shattuck-St. Mary's, Smaby played three years at the University of North Dakota and, as a junior, captained their 2005-06 Frozen Four team. Smaby, a 6-foot-5, 240-pounder, played in 129 games over three seasons for UND, scoring six goals and 23 assists. He had a career-best 19 points (4 goals, 15 assists) in 2005-06. Smaby suffered along with the rest of Springfield last season. He had two goals and 14 assists, but was minus-24.
"The biggest thing with Matt is he needs to realize that what it took to play college hockey, in terms of conditioning and commitment, isn't even close to what it takes to play professionally," Feaster said. "He has all the physical tools. He thinks the game well. He has to decide that conditioning is important and get on board with John Tortorella's conditioning program.
”If he commits and comes in here in the best shape of his life, show that he took the summer seriously, he has a great shot to be our No. 6 defenseman this season. When we brought him up last year, that was the thing that 'Torts' was concerned about, that he still doesn't know how to train and get in shape to play in our system in the NHL."
Andy Rogers -- Rogers, the 30th-overall pick in the 2004 Entry Draft, might already be a Tampa Bay regular if not for a series of leg injuries. Alas, they continued last year when he suffered a hip pointer at the Traverse City prospects competition and then another leg injury in his seventh game with Springfield. A big body at 6-foot-5 and 206 pounds, Rogers is a defensive defenseman with good crease-clearing skills. In 48 games with the Falcons, Rogers had seven assists and 39 minutes in penalties. He's never racked up a lot of penalty minutes.
"Andy is working hard this summer because his big challenge is getting through a season healthy," Feaster said. "He's been keeping in touch with our strength and conditioning coach. Andy desperately wants to please the organization. It's not an issue of whether he cares or his committed. Can he stay healthy? That was the challenge last year in his first professional season.
"We told him, 'Here's the program you need to follow if you are going to get in position where you don't get hurt as frequently.’ We think he thinks the game well. He has a big body. He understands positioning. He's good at that aspect. Andy is a big man with good wheels. He can skate the puck up ice or make the first pass. He does a lot of things well."
Vladimir Mihalik -- Mihalik started putting his game together three years ago when he split the season between the Presove junior and Czech Elite League teams. He played a season with the Red Deer Rebels and last season with the Prince George Cougars, his best yet. The 6-foot-8, 241-pound defender has gotten increasingly physical and has been used, like Zdeno Chara, as a goalie screener on power plays. He had his most productive season offensively last season with seven goals and 19 assists. He was also plus-2.
"He had a very good training camp a year and he's another big body who skates very well," Feaster said. "He had a very good season in juniors this year. We're pleased with his progress. He's very serious about hockey. Vladimir will get a chance to compete for the sixth defensive spot we have open. He doesn't play very physically and he doesn't show a lot of emotion. That's obviously a concern -- scouts have mentioned it -- but we're making sure he is ready to play in the NHL. We like him a lot and think he will play for a long time."
Blair Jones -- After being taken with the 102nd overall pick in 2005, Jones exploded for 50 goals and 35 assists while helping lead the Moose Jaw Warriors to the WHL finals. The 6-foot-2, 206-pound center got off to a slow start in Springfield last season, but the Lightning needed help at center and brought him up. He alternated between the teams over the course of the seasons, scoring five goals and adding 16 assists in 45 games at Springfield and one goal and two assists in 20 games with Tampa Bay.
|Center Blair Jones played 20 games for the Lightning in his first professional season. |
"We think Blair can play as a third-line center for us," Feaster said. "Candidly, he surprised us last year. Nobody expected him to play in the NHL in his first professional season, but he played 20 games. He's a big guy at 6-foot-3 and over 200 pounds. He's a player that we think hasn't scratched the surface of being an NHL regular. He gets serious about his conditioning and the game. Blair Betts would be a good comparison. Jones can win faceoffs. We think he can chip in the odd goal. He's not going to be an offensive juggernaut, but he has the ability to generate some offense. He's a big body to play against, a tough guy to play against."
Karri Ramo -- Ramo fills up a lot of net at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds. He is a butterfly goalie who represented Finland at the World Under-18 and World Junior Championships, winning a bronze medal in the WJC. He faced adversity early when, as the third-string goalie in the Lahti organization, he was thrown into the Elite league behind a bad team. But he helped Hameenlinna to a championship two years ago and came over for an AHL season with the Springfield Falcons, in which he went 15-24-1 with a 3.13 goals-against average. He was widely credited with saving a weak AHL from a worse record.
"We think he's our goaltender of the future," Feaster said. "From a mental standpoint, he might be the most mentally tough goalie in the organization, including the guys who have played in the NHL last year. He's a quick learner and a kid that has no fear. He has ice water in his veins. He did a good job at the American League level without a great team in front of him. When we brought him up and dressed him in the Stanley Cup Playoff series against New Jersey, he wanted to play! We are very high on him. He'll come into camp with an opportunity to compete with Johan Holmqvist and Marc Denis. We're very bullish on his future."
Riku Helenius -- With Tuukka Rask tending net for the Ilves team in the Finnish Elite League, Helenius was assigned to the junior club last season and suffered a season-ending injury in the second game.
Helenius was the 15th overall pick in 2006 after he posted a 2.68 goal-against average and a .919 save percentage in 26 games with the Ilves Tampere junior team during the 2005-06 season. He was the top-rated Finnish goaltender in the draft. Helenius was drafted by the Western Hockey League's Seattle Thunderbirds.
"He was injured last season and he had surgery on his shoulder," Feaster said. "For him, this year is about coming to North America and getting that experience of North American junior hockey. That would be best for his development. We're pleased he has decided to do that. It's a great situation for us. He'll be playing in Seattle. We know Russ Farwell, the GM there, very well and Cory Schwab, our goaltending coach, lives out there and can see him on a regular basis. Riku came back at the end of the season. The injury is no longer a problem and to have him play a year in Canadian juniors is a real plus."