Czech Hockey site hockejportal.cz is reporting that Avangard Omsk of the KHL has signed Lightning goaltender Karri Ramo to a two-year contract. Terms of the agreement are not known at this time, or whether Ramo has an NHL "out" in the contract.
Ramo's three-year entry-level contract with the Lightning expired at the end of the season and remains an NHL restricted free agent with Tampa holding his rights provided that the team issues a qualifying offer prior to the June 29th deadline. The Lightning have also lost forwards Radek Smolenak and Johan Harju to KHL contracts earlier in the summer. At this point, one might be led to speculate that a general lack of attention to prospect signings might be occuring in the vacuum left when the Lightning decided not to renew the contract of AGM Claude Loiselle.
BoltProspects contacted the Lightning for a comment about the Ramo signing but the team indicated they are not issuing any kind of formal statement at this time.
Damian Crisdotero of the St. Pete Times has confirmed with Ramo's agent that Ramo has signed a deal with Omsk. The deal includes an out clause that will allow Ramo to leave Russia after one season, but Ramo is indeed gone for the 2009-2010 campaign.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Ramo's agent is Mark Gandler, of Evgeny Artyukhin contract squabble fame.
Hereâ€™s a bold statement: the Tampa Bay Lightning are fully capable of becoming Stanley Cup champions within the next five seasons. With two legitimate franchise centers in longtime stalwart Vincent Lecavalier and star wunderkind Steven Stamkos and a bevy of young goaltenders headlined by the ultra-competitive Mike Smith, the Lightning actually have many of the key components necessary to become an elite NHL team. That may seem like an insane statement coming off of a year that the Lightning finished second-to-last in the league, but between their core pieces and a bevy of other young complimentary players like Paul Ranger, Andrej Meszaros, and Matt Lashoff, the future in Tampa Bay is brighter than anyone is giving the team credit for. However, for the Lightning to reach their full potential, they must keep Lecavalier and they must capitalize on their draft position in the deep 2009 NHL Entry Draft.
Make no mistake about it: this is the most important draft for the Lightning in 11 years. The 1998 draft was critical for the 2004 Stanley Cup team in supplying two core players (Lecavalier and Richards) and four players (including Dimitry Afanasenkov and Martin Cibak) overall to that championship roster. That draft seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime talent grab for the team, but with three picks in the top-60 in a talent rich year for youth, the new Lightning scouting staff might be set up to bring in an equally impressive fistfull of NHL talent. If they do, the Lightning may be just a few years away from reclimbing the ladder into the ranks of the NHL elite.
WGGB-TV out of Springfield, MA is reporting that Lightning University of Massachusettes-Amherst prospect defenseman John Wessbecker has been named to the HEAST All-Academic Team for the fourth consecutive year, earning him the Distinguish Scholar Award. Wessbecker, 22, completed his senior season at UMass-Amherst with 1 goal and 4 assists in 35 games as a stay-at-home blueliner. The Lighting have until August 15 to sign Wessbecker to an entry-level contract or he becomes a free agent.
Loosely translated, Smolenak admitted his decision to accept an offer from the Nizhnekamsk Neftekhimik of the KHL "...was not easy decision. If I felt the chance that I will be in the first team and spend the entire season in the NHL, I would definitely stay. But more than to stay on the farm, I prefer to give priority to Russia. I had offers from other leagues, but the Continental League attracted me a lot..."
Smolenak declined to comment on the Lightning's embarrassing finish to the 2008-09 indicating that he only played a few games with Tampa and that was a question better suited for the executives and owners. Smolenak did suggest, "The fact is that the change was really a lot, maybe it could even wait a little." He did, however, address the question that many followers of Bolt prospects are wondering -- will he consider returning to North America? To that question, Radek indicated that he will play a season in the KHL to satisfy his curiosity and give the league a try, but that he certainly would like to return overseas.
According to a Regina, SASK based sports blog, rodpederson.com, the Tampa Bay Lightning are considering hiring Regina's Jamie Heward as a player/assistant coach, presumably with their AHL affiliate in Norfolk.
Not sure how reliable this news is, as technically the Toronto Maple Leafs retain Heward's rights until July 1. However, it is possible the Leafs could have given the Lightning permission to speak with Heward, but that seems doubtful considering the public sparring that has gone on between the GMs of the two clubs over Tampa's #2 overall pick in the upcoming NHL entry draft later this month.
Heward was an anchor for the Norfolk blueline early last season before injuries in Tampa led to his recall and eventual season-ending head injury from a controversial check by Capitals megastar Alexander Ovechkin. Controversy continued around Heward when the Lighting traded him along with injured goalie Olaf Kolzig, prospect bust Andy Rogers, and a 2009 draft pick to the Leafs at the trade deadline. Though approved by the league, the trade was heralded by pundits and fans as a rather obvious deal by Leafs GM Brian Burke to "purchase" a draft pick from the Lightning.
In just a few short hours, the two year run of goaltender Torrie Jung and defenseman Michael Ward as Tampa Bay Lightning prospects could end. As 2007 draftees out of Canadian juniors, both players are facing a June 1 deadline to be signed to entry level contracts by the Lightning or be returned to the 2009 NHL entry draft later this month in Montreal. The Lighting have already signed fellow 2007 draftees Dana Tyrell and Mitch Fadden, along with 2008 draftee Dustin Tokarski to three-year rookie contracts. Jung, who had a spectacular comeback season for the Edmonton Oil Kings, has seemingly played well enough to earn a contract, but faces considerable depth in the Lightning system behind Mike Smith, Karri Ramo, Riku Helenius, and the highly touted Tokarski. Ward, while showing a more pedestrian development and is considered somewhat of a longshot to earn a contract, would seemingly benefit from a general lack of blueline depth in the Lightning system.
Defenseman John Wessbecker, a 2007 NCAA draftee out of the University of Massachusettes-Amherst, faces an August 15 deadline as a graduating senior to sign an entry level contract or be released as an unrestricted free agent.
According to a story in the Daily Graphic/Central Plains Herald out of Manitoba, Portage Terriers goaltender Bryan Mountain has received an invitation to attend the Lightning rookie and prospect camp in mid-July. Mountain, who backstopped the Terriers to a second-straight MJHL Championship in 2008-09, will suit up for the Northeastern University Huskies next season, an NCAA Division 1 school out of Boston.
There's a similar story on the Portage team web site regarding Mountain's camp invitation complete with photos of the goaltender receiving the Turnbull Trophy as the MJHL playoffs top goaltender.
According to a story released today on the team's official website, the Nizhnekamsk Neftekhimik of the KHL have signed Lightning left wing prospect Radek Smolenak to a contract for next season. Smolenak's three-year entry level contract with the Lightning expired at the end of this season, although Tampa could retain his NHL rights as restricted free agent by tendering a qualifying offer.
Smolenak seemed poised to push for a roster position next season with the Lightning next season after having a breakout season with Tampa's AHL minor league affiliate the Norfolk Admirals. Smolenak posted career highs in nearly every statistical category by posting 24 goals and 25 assists in 71 AHL games while amassing 165 penalty minutes. Smolenak recorded 1 assist in 6 games with the Lightning during a brief mid-season recall.
There is no word regarding the length of the contract Smolenak signed with the Petrochemists or whether the contract contains an "NHL out", and there is no word yet whether Tampa intends to retain his rights by tendering a qualifying offer to the tough left winger. Hat tip to the members of the BoltProspects message board for the heads-up on this story.
Damian Crisdotero speculates on his blog that the Lightning seem to be inclined to keep their second overall pick even if Swedish defenseman Victor Hedman goes off the board to the Islanders with the first overall pick. I somehow doubt the 300 percent increase in calls the Islanders are receiving for tickets is because of Hedman rather than John Tavares. Best of luck to Garth Snow trying to explain to the angry villagers with the tar and feathers why he didn't take a guy who scored 215 goals and 433 points in 247 career junior games for a team that finished second to last in the league in goals scored. Not that I'm trying to steer your decision, Garth. Crisdotero also cites the affordability of a capped entry level contract as one of the central reasons. I would cite Brian Burke's unwillingness to deal off Luke Schenn in a package for the pick.
He also includes the first full list of the Lightning's picks in this draft that I've seen with the overall pick numbers: Round 1 (No. 2 overall): Round 2 (32 and 52); Round 3 (75); Round 4 (93); Round 6 (161); Round 7 (182).