On a rather sad note, today will mark the final game for the ECHL's Johnstown Chiefs in Johnstown, PA. The franchise, owned by former NHL GM Neil Smith, has been plagued by financial problems for years and will be moving to Greenville, SC next season. Johnstown was the Tampa Bay Lightning's ECHL affiliate for three years between 2004-2005 and 2006-2007. Three of the Lightning's prospects who played in Johnstown have since seen time in the NHL: Radek Smolenak, Jay Rosehill, and Andre Deveaux.
I can honestly say that, outside of Norfolk Admirals fans, I don't think there's been an affiliate's fan base that was more supportive of their club than the fans of the Johnstown Chiefs. I'm sure this is a major blow for a town that has had some challenges over the past few years. Bolt Prospects salutes the fans of the Johnstown Chiefs and we hope that Johnstown, PA gets another franchise soon.
We're seeing a narrowing and tightening in the field of teams vying to make the postseason in the AHL's Eastern Conference. Three teams look pretty much guaranteed to be in: Hershey (109 pts, 1st in East), Worcester (89 points, 1st in Atlantic), and Portland (86 points, 2nd in Atlantic).
Albany (84 points, 2nd in East) is probably a very good bet to hang onto a playoff spot, but they're not a lock to remain in 2nd place in the East. The Admirals, for instance, are 6 points back of Albany with 1 game in hand and 1 game head-to-head remaining on the schedule. So, things could tighten up even more very quickly, especially if the Rats keep stubbing their toes against teams like Binghamton.
They're the first of six teams, including the Admirals, fighting for five playoff spots. Typically, they'd be treated separately by division, but with the crossover rule potentially vaulting a 5th place Atlantic team over a 4th place East team, we should treat them as lumped together. The other five teams are: Manchester (79 points, 3rd in Atlantic), Lowell (79 points, 3rd in Atlantic), Norfolk (78 points, 3rd in East), Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (77 points, 4th in East), Bridgeport (75 points, 5th in Atlantic).
Here's what's left for the six teams:
The KHL's regular season came to a close Sunday, the NCAA is in the midst of its conference playoffs, and Canadian junior regular seasons will be closing next weekend. So, it's getting close to signing season, and I figured I'd post a little on the blog about some of the players who will potentially be joining the organization in the coming weeks and months. Before I do, though, I wanted to quickly address the new ownership situation.
Norfolk coach Darren Rumble said he was going with the goalie who showed more consistency and wins. With Dustin Tokarski and Riku Helenius both splitting time at the net, Tokarski has emerged lately as the go-to guy.
As Pete reported, Tokarski allowed one goal on 26 shots Friday against Binghamton, and shutout Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Wednesday. Heâ€™s currently tied for third among AHL rookies, and is ranked ninth among the league with 10 wins.
Antero Niittymaki is currently tied for the best save percentage in the NHL with Ryan Miller of Buffalo with a .939 mark. He's also second in the league in goals against average at 1.93.
We give props to the Turku mobster.
Here's your stat of the week:
Through six games, Norfolk's goaltenders have a combined 2.19 GAA and .925 save percentage. Mind you, they're 2-4-0 as a group, but you'd have to believe that if Tokarski, Helenius, and Janus keep this up the Admirals are going to be in great shape.
I mean, it's not like Martins Karsums can stay scoreless forever, right?
Just a reminder that tonight is opening night for the Lightning and Admirals, and Bolt Prospects chat will be open. It's available to anyone registered on the BP message board, and registration is free.
Training camp is just around the corner for the Lightning, and in about a month they'll be dropping the puck on the 2009-2010 NHL season. But, for Lightning prospect followers the season starts Thursday, September 10, when Dimitri Kazionov and Kazan square off with Yaroslavl. It will be Bolt Prospects' fifth season of covering the team's prospects, and one of the most interesting in the past half decade. Here's a quick preview of the year ahead:
We're still about a month away from the puck dropping on another NHL season, but the prospect season begins this week when Dimitri Kazionov's Ak Bars Kazan club lets the KHL regular season out of the barn. Shortly thereafter the Lightning will open camp for one of the most interesting and promise-filled seasons they've embarked upon in some time. There are still a few finishing touches that need to be put on the work, as there will likely be some key waiver decisions and possibly another trade, but now seems as good a time as any to evaluate what sophomore GM Brian Lawton did this summer.
Two very interesting and unrelated things happened today with the signing of Bolt Prospects #2 rated prospect Matt Lashoff and the release by KHL club Nizhnekamsk Bolt Prospects #17 rated prospect Radek Smolenak. Despite the wide disparity in terms of where they sit on the rankings, both prospects could still find themselves making significant contributions to the Lightning this season.
First, about Smolenak: the rumors I have heard suggest that Radek was pretty upset about not getting a recall in the second half of last season and I suspect that may have come up prominently in his discussions with the team before he left North America for the offseason. Given how quickly he signed with Nizhnekamsk once he left, I also suspect it would be fairly easy for there to be some bruised feelings on the Lightning's side too. With all that said, though, Smolenak's unexpected dismissal from Nizhnekamsk should be seen as an opportunity for both sides to potentially benefit after a short divorce, and I hope the Lightning are reaching out to Smolenak and his agent to let him know that there is still a place for him in the organization.
Smolenak is a player who is on the cusp of being an NHL player. His deficiencies are clear: he needs to get better defensively in his third of the rink and he doesn't have world class speed. That said, his strengths are equally clear in that he possesses considerably grit and physical bravery, especially around the opposing team's net, and a finisher's touch with a quick release and a razor sharp shot. The Lightning go into the 2009-2010 campaign with very little for certain on their lower lines. It's hard to envision anyone other than Jeff Halpern, Stephane Veilleux, and Adam Hall having a lower line job locked up in Tampa this coming season. The other three or four spots on the roster are open to a world class free-for-all, and a player with Smolenak's peculiar combination of grit and skill could find himself drawing a big league paycheck with a good camp. True, that assumes Smolenak has been training and conditioning properly and can shift his mindset from the disappointment of his release from Nizhnekamsk and any hard feelings that still linger with the Lightning toward leaving it all on the line to make the team. It also assumes that there are no legal entanglements in Smolenak's Russian deal and that he is a complete free agent and that the Lightning are interested in bring Smolenak back across the pond. But it's a possibility, and it's a possibility with very little downside as the worst case scenario would be the Lightning having Smolenak waiting down in Norfolk again playing for an AHL club that could desperately use his 20-30 potential goals at that level. If it's possible, and both sides are willing, they should make a fourth year for Smolenak in the organization happen.
And then there's Matt Lashoff, who was one of the few exciting reasons to watch a Lightning game late in a failed season last year after he was acquired at the trade deadline for Mark Recchi. I mention Lashoff as a bubble player not because I think he'll be sent down to the AHL, but because the numbers game may make it difficult for Lashoff to receive the ice time he needs to reach his considerable potential. Make no mistake, the skating ability Lashoff possesses is a rare and breathtaking assett. The kind of smooth, powerful acceleration that Lashoff has is special, and the fact he possesses soft hands and an ability to distribute the puck well makes him a potential force for the Lightning. But he finds himself at the bottom end of a logjam that includes new addition Mattias Ohlund and the returning Paul Ranger and Andrej Meszaros, who missed the second half of last season with injury. Lashoff has the ability to every bit as good as those three players and it's not hard to envision a future where he could become a perennial 30-40 point a year defenseman who is well capable of playing 20-22 minutes a night. True, to get to that time Lashoff must commit to paying attention to detail in his own end of the rink and to showing more edge and willingness to battle to win puck battles. But, the possibilities are almost boundless for Lashoff, and so it would be foolish for the Lightning to not commit to making sure Lashoff recieves every opportunity to reach his potential and equally foolish for Lashoff not to step up and make sure he makes clear to Coach Tocchet that he refuses to slip off the bubble.
Smolenak and Lashoff are just two of a host of young players, from Steve Downie to Blair Jones, who have the potential to contribute greatly to a revival in Tampa Bay starting next season. And, starting next month with training camp, a great story is going to be written by some of these players, and it's a story that I can't even guess the outcome of. Maybe that's why two obscure transactions in the dog days of August made me excited for hockey, and the promise of a new season. Let's get it cranked up.