This Week in TampaCuse - February 19, 2014

Another week of hockey season is in the books, though the Lightning weren’t in action as a team due to the Olympic break. Syracuse paused for the All-Star break (congrats, Brett Connolly), then resumed with two close losses to former affiliate Norfolk.

Random thoughts on the week:

1. Superman just bought himself Kristers Gudlevskis pajamas. I said in a previous blog entry that Kristers Gudlevskis had the most to gain from his Olympic appearance and today’s 55-save, 2-1 loss to Canada was the perfect example. Now every notable hockey person and a few hundred thousand fans know who he is, and there’s an overwhelmingly positive opinion attached. He was the story of the day and maybe the story of the tournament so far. Carey Price said it was the greatest performance he’s seen. Martin Brodeur also gave him props, as did Canadian astronaut Chris Hatfield. What an exceptional performance. Easily one of the greatest moments I’ve had in 15 years following Lightning prospects.

2. Former Lightning playoff hero Brad Richards (who’s Memorial Cup run was another top prospect-following moment) has always been known for his mantra of not getting too high or not getting too low when it comes to hockey. I’ve tried to adopt that in my life, actually, when applicable. I think Gudlevskis’ performance today is a perfect example. Many Lightning followers took to social media during and after that game, immediately shipping Anders Lindback out and putting Gudlevskis in Tampa already. Or at least next year. Let’s all just slow down. He’s 21. TWENTY-ONE. He’s also super athletic and highly competitive, which is why he was drafted. He’s going to be a good goalie, and we just watched what he is capable of. However, again, he is 21. If you’ve watched him this season in Syracuse (and I’ve seen about 20 or so games), he’s shown these flashes many times before. He also gets moving a little too much at times, loses focus, and gives up rebounds he probably won’t when he’s 24. Why? Because he’s 21 and that’s what young goalies do. Rebound control and consistency are always the big “problem areas” when it comes to young goalies. Let’s just enjoy the moment for all it’s worth and give him the proper time to develop.

3. Bob McKenzie of TSN tweeted earlier today that Gudlevskis was a few minutes from starting against the Red Wings when Bishop said he could go. That would have meant Gudlevskis would have played in the ECHL, AHL, NHL, and Olympics this year. Impressive. I do think Gudlevskis’ performance today means he’s most likely to get the next start for the Lightning should a goaltender from Syracuse be needed.

4. Syracuse season ticket holders probably don’t feel they’re getting their money’s worth this year with a last place club, but with Vasilevskiy and Gudlevskis penciled in as the Crunch’s goaltender duo next year, that should change. Those two will be fun to watch, and with so many back-to-back games and a few three-in-threes, there’s plenty of blue ice to keep them happy. Don’t forget who’s running the show. Steve Yzerman will always error on the side of patience with prospects.

5. Where does Gudlevskis fit in on the future goaltender depth chart? I don’t know. Yzerman doesn’t know. He’s just going to let things play out. None of the young goalies are ready for NHL time now or will be next year and Bishop needs someone behind him who is okay playing 1/3 of the games. That player is Anders Lindback, like it or not. He’s a restricted free agent this summer and as we’ve been saying, look for him to be re-signed for a minimal (standard) raise and be Bishop’s No. 2. Look at 2015-2016 for Vasilevskiy, Gudlevskis, Wilcox, Janus, or … Bishop again (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Janus was probably 5th on Slovakia’s Olympic list for goalies (he was in Sochi) and Wilcox is making a run at the Hobe Baker for Minnesota. You don’t plan for the future now because you don’t have to. Let it play out. For next year, taking Janus out of the equation, whether Vasya or KG is No. 1 or No. 3 overall could be dependent on what day you’re asking.

6. I’ve often thought that Jon Cooper as coach of the Lightning was the most advantageous for Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat. Both have had to prove themselves over and over again, but Cooper already knew what they could do so the two didn’t have to gain his trust. We saw in Sochi that Palat had to start from scratch with much-maligned Czech coach Alois Hadamczik. Palat was a healthy scratch twice and used sparingly all but one game. It’s almost as dumbfounding as Victor Hedman not even making the Swedish reserve list. Not surprisingly (and not just because of Palat), the Czechs bowed out in the quarterfinals to USA, 5-2.

7. I love the Olympics. I may like the Olympic hockey tournament more than the Stanley Cup Finals (if the Lightning aren’t in it). I love the natural pride that a player has playing for his country and the storylines that come out of the games. I hope the NHL keeps sending its players. I remember well the days when Canada (grew up in Ontario) would lose and I’d console myself by saying “if NHL players were allowed to be there, we’d have won gold.” I want the best vs the best. I think social media (especially Twitter) makes the experience more enjoyable. The USA-Russia game earlier this week was an outstanding online experience. My hockey follows were, of course, excited, but my non-hockey follows were also commenting every few seconds - and everyone was on the same "team." Great stuff. Oh, and TJ Oshie is good.

8. My eyeballs tell me USA should be the favorite over Martin St. Louis and Canada. USA seemed to gel right away and play a fast game. They’re finishing their chances. Canada has done exceptionally well structurally, shutting down the middle of the ice and keeping action to the outside in their own zone. Finland barely mustered a few chances 5 on 5 and Latvia had only a few scoring opportunities. Canada’s offense has been missing since the tournament began. It could come down to goaltending. I like Quick against Price, but we’ll see.

9. Brett Connolly played for Team AHL this past week in the All-Star game against Sweden professional club Farjestad. I liked the format in St. John’s because it wasn’t shinny. Both clubs competed, though maybe not their absolute hardest. At least you saw some effort. Connolly created a few chances. The format reminded me of Rendez-vous ‘87 when the NHL played the Russians in Quebec City. The NHL and Russia split the 2-game series. My, how times have changed.

10. JP Cote was suspended a handful of games for a vicious elbow while making a hit against Norfolk. Admiral fans weren’t happy with the former Norfolk Calder Cup winner. Understandable.

11. This week Crunch Coach Rob Zettler told Lindsay Kramer of the Syracuse Post-Standard that the blame for Syracuse’s underachieving season starts with him. That’s big of him, and it’s part of the business. There’s a lot of blame to go around for Syracuse’s poor season, but Zettler’s not at the top of the list. A massive graduation of prospects to the NHL all at once is. And that’s not something that may happen again in a dozen years. The Crunch will be fine in the long run.

12. Switching to Tampa, did you catch the article in the Tampa Bay Times on Jeff Vinik pledging to spend to the cap for the foreseeable future? Just stop and appreciate that. It wasn’t that long ago Jay Feaster was penny pinching trying to put a winning product on the ice. And that was just one of the many ownership issues that have plagued the Lightning over the years. When/if you say prayers with your kid at night, through a “Thank you for Jeff Vinik” in there.
13. In case you haven’t heard, your second place Lightning are about to add a well rested, motivated Steven Stamkos. Grab some popcorn and watch.

14. While Stamkos is the main Lightning (re)addition at the deadline, don’t be surprised to see some depth moves, especially on defense. In Yzerman’s first year the Lightning took hit after hit on defense and that off-season he loaded up on D. The d has taken some hits this year, obviously, and if Salo goes down again, the Lightning are playing Brewer, Barberio, or Aulie in their top-4. That’s above their current levels, in my opinion. I think there needs to be someone added, but the price may be too high. If Barberio continues to improve, perhaps he can be that person if Salo goes down. That’s a big if. And Barberio isn’t a righty.

15. Watching Shea Weber, Drew Doughty, Duncan Keith, Alex Pietrangelo, Ryan Suter, etc at the Olympics makes me crave for a true No. 1 defenseman for the Lightning. Hedman is almost there. He may be 1-2 years of consistent play away from having that reputation, but he’s crossing the line into that area right now. He may not reach the elite level of the defensemen mentioned above, but he’ll be All-Star caliber by next winter. Cooper’s green light is a big reason why. When a player is allowed to do what gives him confidence, his overall impact increases. Confidence is such a big ingredient for success.
16. Fantasy hockey is about to pick back up soon, so scan your waiver wires to see if someone tried to sneak someone into free agency while no one was looking. Keep an eye on Mikael Granlund of the Wild (who was great today for Finland vs Russia) and Mikael Backlund of Calgary, who has been hot. Olli Maata of Pittsburgh is a good pick up, too, especially with Letang sidelined.

17. This week’s Twitter recommendation is fantasy hockey related. I’ve enjoyed what @fantasyhockeyDK has had to offer, especially his #AMhattrick every morning. Good stuff. I also like that he’s a Valeri Nichushkin “fanboy.” Me, too. And so were the Lightning, per rumors. I’ll still take Drouin, though.