Lightning Crafting a Development Machine Top to Bottom

It's a story we didn't really cover a week ago, but the Lightning [url=http://www.tbo.com/sports/lightning/MGBOP3QIBQE.html]have named Ryan Belec their new VP of Hockey Operations for the Johnstown Chiefs[/url], a sort of hockey liason similar to the role Claude Loiselle has been assigned with the Springfield Falcons. Not so coincidentally, the move was made around the time of the Lightning's prospect camp, an affair which cost the team $100,000 as they assembled not only many of their own top draft choices for conditioning and evaluation but 20 tryouts vying for potential contracts organization wide. It's not until you look at the numbers game playing out in the organization that you fully understand where this is headed. The Lightning are turning their entire minor league organization top to bottom into a developmental machine for young prospects. Last season the Johnstown Chiefs did what they've always done under the command of GM Toby O'Brien. They scrambled to recruit journeymen ECHL players to add to a group of regular Johnstown based players in the hopes they'd gel with a sprinkling of players that might trickle down from the AHL. Not so this season. Already, with the number of contracts already held by Lightning players/prospects as well as contracts held by the Springfield Falcons it appears at least a dozen prospects are already pencilled in for jobs in Johnstown. That makes no mention of potential signees out of the group of players the Lightning invited to their Traverse City team as well as to Springfield Falcons training camp. It would be no surprise if as many as 3 or 4 other prospects were signed by the Falcons or Chiefs and placed in Johnstown. That means this year's edition of the Johnstown Chiefs will be dominated by youth with only a smattering of veteran players around them. The skill level of the team should increase although there will be a corresponding loss in experience. The goal, however, is clear. The team appears to be serious in their move to identify and develop as many potential NHL talents as possible with a view towards finding players they can plug in to the big club at a moment's notice. And, given the nature of the salary cap in today's NHL, it seems a wise move. Young talent plays at a cheaper price and having young talent is the only sustainable way to keep a high priced core with players like Lecavalier and Richards taking such a large percentage of the budget over the long term. The biggest hurdle the Lightning will have to jump to make this new model of development successful is to get their players to disregard the stigma that has long been held about the ECHL being an inferior league. Already the team's goaltenders have seen the benefits of playing at the ECHL level but will these benefits become apparent in their ECHL level skaters as well? The Lightning are apparently banking on it with high profile prospects like [url=radek-smolenak]Radek Smolenak[/url] looking more and more like they will be in a Chiefs uniform to start the year. If they can convince these prospects of the benefit of playing on a scoring line at the equivalent of the AA level rather than sparing checking line ice time at the equivalent of AAA the Lightning may very well succeed in crafting what could be a model developmental system for the rest of the NHL to emulate.