Despite the large void the NHL lockout created, the hockey season is already long underway. Various amateur and professional leagues throughout North America and Europe have wrapped up their preseasons and are set to begin or are already in the thick of regular season action.
The Lightning's new AHL affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, open their 2012-2013 season tonight with an impressive roster that boasts the nucleus of last season's Calder Cup-winning roster and an infusion of talent with varying professional experience: (J.T. Brown, Brett Connolly, Danick Gauthier, Riku Helenius, Dmitry Korobov, Vladislav Namestnikov, Jared Nightingale, Matt Taormina and J.T. Wyman). In the absence of big-league action, watching much of the (currently foreseeable) lifeblood of the Lightning's future skate and bond together is a much-welcomed tonic.
The Tampa Bay Lightning assigned 18 players to the Syracuse Crunch of the AHL ahead of what appears to be an NHL lockout, vice president and general manager Steve Yzerman announced.
Among the players moving to New York are reigning AHL Most Valuable Player Cory Conacher, former No.6 overall pick Brett Connolly, and last year's late-season signing, J.T. Brown. Others include recently signed prospects Vladislav Namestnikov, Danick Gauthier, Dmitry Korobov, and Riku Helenius. The additions of Connolly, Brown, Namestnikov, and Korobov will make the Crunch a stronger team, which is scary considering they were already among the favorites to claim the Calder Cup.
The full list of new Syracuse residents includes forwards Brown, Conacher, Connolly, Gauthier, Alex Hutchings, Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, Namestnikov, Ondrej Palat, Richard Panik; defensemen Mark Barberio, Radko Gudas, Korobov, Charles Landry, Dan Milan; and goaltenders Helenius, Dustin Tokarski, and Pat Nagle.
We'll offer some opinions shortly on who could end up in ECHL Florida with the Everblades and who likely stays in Syracuse.
The strength of the Lightning organization remains at the forward positions, where the team still boasts an impressive mix of star veterans like Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, and Ryan Malone, and the game's best young star, Steven Stamkos. The team will spend some of its offseason tweaking its third line, and they made overtures to Swiss star Damien Brunner to try to improve their scoring depth on the wings. But, ultimately, the team should feel pretty solid offensively. Keeping the puck out of the back of their own net has always been the bigger challenge.
With the Lightning prospect season finally completed, it is now time to turn our attention to the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. While the team's prospect system enjoyed unprecedented success, the team's struggles at the NHL level last season left the Lightning with a draft pick bonanza after a bevy of pre-deadline deals. Heading into the draft, the Lightning currently holds a pair of first round picks, and at least one second round pick following the trade of picks 37 and 50 to Nashville in the Anders Lindback trade.
2012 MasterCard Memorial Cup
Shawinigan Cataractes 2 vs London Knights 1 (OT)
C Vladislav Namestnikov , LDN: 0-0-0, -1, 2 SOG, 2 PIM (holding), 0 Hits
MemCup Totals: 4 GP, 2-0-2, -3, 4 PIM
Playoff Totals: 19 GP, 4-14-18, +10, 18 PIM
Season Totals: 63 GP, 22-49-71, +15, 50 PIM
Shawinigan won the Memorial Cup for the first time in their history (43 years) when undrafted Russian import player Anton Zlobin, a 40-goal scorer in the regular season, scored late in the first overtime for the Cats. It was Zlobinâ€™s second goal of the game. He will re-enter the draft this year.
Columbus prospect Michael Chaput, a former Flyers draft pick acquired in a trade, was named the tournamentâ€™s most valuable player. Lightning prospects Brad Richards and Dustin Tokarski have won it in the past.
Shawinigan was only the second team to win the tiebreaker, semifinals, and finals en route to the championship (Windsor Spitfires).
Current Lightning prospect Vladislav Namestnikov was involved in three prime scoring chances, including one in overtime when he was stationed at the side of the net and he had the puck bounce over his stick. Earlier in the game he set up longtime linemate and former Lightning camper Seth Griffith for a nifty one timer that was saved. Namestnikov used his speed to chase down Coyotes first rounder Brandon Gormley, but instead of beating him to the puck he faked like he was going to challenge for the puck from the inside, then darted around him to the outside, lifted Gormleyâ€™s stick, stole the puck, pivoted, and found a trailing Griffith for the shot.
Early in the third period Namestnikov was the victim of a late hit and he hit the boards hard â€“ possibly his head. He remained on the ice for a few minutes before being escorted to the bench by a trainer. He was out on the power play seconds later, but had a bad giveaway then looked shaky on his skates as he prevented a scoring chance at the other end of the rink. He didnâ€™t see the ice again until overtime, and he didnâ€™t look like himself in the extra session.
Next year Namestnikov will be in the AHL or back in the Ontario Hockey League. His skill set, speed, and vision project as first-line quality, but his frame is slender and he will be knocked around easily at the NHL level. Plus, Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman likes his prospects to patiently develop if the situation allows it. Namestnikov is already signed to an NHL contract. He has a long offseason of weight training ahead of him.