Deadline for Jung, Ward Looms

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.

Portage Terriers Goalie Gets Camp Invite

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.

Smolenak Jumps to KHL

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.

Crisdotero: Seems Like the Lightning Will Keep the Pick

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).

Bolt Prospects 2008-2009 Final Rankings

With the elimination of Rimouski in the Memorial Cup tournament, the 2008-2009 season has finally come to a close for all of the prospects of the Tampa Bay Lightning organization. While the Lightning's record in 2008-2009 at the NHL was disappointing with the team finishing second to last in the league, the play of the team's youth was a bright spot. The team graduated three prospects this season: star center Steven Stamkos, physical defenseman Matt Smaby, and athletic netminder Karri Ramo. In addition, several other prospects made their NHL debuts this season, and most did not look out of place at hockey's top level. As a result, even with the graduation of three prospects, our Final Rankings for 2008-2009 reflect a solid roster of talent among the team's top prospects, which will only be added to in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft where the Lightning will hold three picks in the top sixty of the draft including the second overall pick.

As is customary, for those who have never read our rankings reports before, Bolt Prospects' rules are fairly simple. For skaters, a player is considered a prospect if they are less than 24 years of age on opening night of the Lightning's season and if they have not played 41 or more NHL games in a single season or 82 or more career NHL games. The same age standard applies to goaltenders, but their thresholds for graduation from prospect status are different: 30 or more NHL decisions in a single season, or 41 or more career NHL decisions. NCAA players are still considered prospects at the age of 24 or older for as long as they remain in school. Bolt Prospects will issue a Supplementary Rankings Update in late June after the 2009 NHL Entry Draft.

Without further ado, here are Bolt Prospects' 2008-2009 Final Rankings:

Rimouski's Season Ends with Third Period Collapse

[b][i]N.A. Juniors Memorial Cup Game Night: 5/21[/b][/i] [b] Windsor Spitfires 6 vs. Rimouski Oceanic 4 [/b] (Tiebreaker) [i]W/C [b][url=/luca-cunti]Luca Cunti[/url][/b], RIM: 0-0-0,+1, 0 PIM, 0 SOG [/i] MemCup totals: 4 GP, 2-0-2, -2, 2 PIM Playoff totals: 13 GP, 4-5-9, -2, 12 PIM Season totals: 57 GP, 20-25-45, +10, 32 PIM Rimouski couldn’t hold on to a 4-2 lead entering the third period - giving up three quick goals to the Spitfires in just over 3 ½ minutes - and now their season and Memorial Cup experience is officially over. Cunti was rather quiet on the night, but did create some scoring chances with his vision and speed. He had at least one Grade A scoring chance when he broke in alone on Windsor goalie Andrew Engelage, but he failed to shoot quickly and had the puck knocked off his stick. Cunti’s first full season of play since his time in Europe two years ago started slowly, but when he got going, Cunti was a force offensively. He has a large mountain to climb to learn the physical, 2-way North American game that the Lightning would like to see from him, but he certainly has a foundation to work with. He is eligible to be signed and spend next year in the minors, but his next step remains up in the air right now.

Dominant Oceanic Falls in OT

N.A. Juniors Memorial Cup Game Night: 5/20

Drummondville Voltigeurs 3 vs. Rimouski Oceanic 2 (OT) (Round Robin)
W/C Luca Cunti, RIM: 1-0-1,-1, 0 PIM, 3 SOG
MemCup totals: 3 GP, 2-0-2, -3, 2 PIM
Playoff totals: 13 GP, 4-5-9, -2, 12 PIM
Season totals: 57 GP, 20-25-45, +10, 32 PIM

Rimouski dominated the Volts – who had dominated them in a 4-0 playoff sweep weeks earlier – but they simply couldn’t figure out Volts goaltender Marco Cousineau (Ducks). Cousineau was outstanding in this game, making up for a very sub-par effort against Windsor the previous night.

Cunti scored the Oceanic’s opening goal when he darted through the blue ice and knocked a rebound under Cousineau. The 'Nics outshot the Volts 41-20 and out chanced them by a large margin, also. Gabriel Dumont (N.A. No. 153 for 2009 draft) scored the OT winner on one of the few Drummondville chances when he won the puck along the sidewall from Felix Lefrancois (undrafted, unranked), darted into the middle, eluding Rimouski’s top defenseman Marc-Andre Bourdon (Flyers), who tried to knock him over but missed horribly, then proceeded to get multiple shots on sprawled-out Rimouski goaltender Maxim Gougeon (undrafted) while Cunti weakly attempted to tie up his stick. Dumont’s second shot went in over the outstretched arm of Gougeon, and Drummondville was sent on to the semifinals.

Rimouski (1-2) will play in a rematch with Windsor (1-2) – a hard-fought 5-4 Oceanic win days ago – in a tiebreaker game to produce the second semifinalist. NHL Network will have the game Thursday night.

For more on Cunti’s performance, see Pete’s blog.

Note: Current Bolt Vincent Lecavalier and Lightning Conn Smythe winner Brad Richards were honored before the game by the Oceanic for their contributions to the team. Former Lightning Michel Ouellet was also present for the ceremonial face-off. Richards' No.39 and Lecavalier's No.4 are hanging in the Rimouski rafters. Both are considered legends in the small Quebec hockey-heavy city. Richards won MVP as he led the Oceanic to a Memorial Cup championship in Halifax in 2000.

Even More Thoughts on Luca Cunti

Luca Cunti's such a mixed bag it's maddening.

Once again, Cunti showed himself to be an impact player offensively in Rimouski's 3-2 overtime loss to Drummondville tonight. At the opening of the game, he really put his playmaking skills on display setting up at least 5 scoring chances early on, by my count, with several crisp, long tape-to-tape passes in the offensive zone. In the second period he scored Rimouski's opening goal poking in a rebound after a nice forechecking shift by his line. He's not exactly known for his physical bravery, and in fact in the first period he had a clear opportunity to step out in from of the Volts net for a stuff attempt and he shied away from it, but he went to the net for a little drive by and got a rebound to poke in for his goal. Shortly after that he almost set up another goal on a rush where he got a step on Dimitry Kulikov, who fell down on the play, around the corner with his speed and sent a nice, soft saucer pass to Keven Veilleux who was stopped cold on the bid. My one criticism of him early on, aside from his unwillingness to step out for the stuff attempt, is that he hesitates when he has a shot available. He looks to pass first, and he needs to understand that if you have the puck open in a scoring position, you have to shoot the puck. Force the goaltender to make a stop and give yourself the possibility of a rebound for your teammates. The stat page doesn't care if your assist comes from a brilliant cross ice pass across the seam or a rebound that becomes a garbage goal. An assist is an assist, so shoot the puck.

Unfortunately, Cunti was partially to blame for Drummondville's tying goal and no one picked up Jonathan Brunelle going to the net and taking a pass from behind the Rimouski cage. I'm not sure, watching the replay, that Brunelle was actually Cunti's responsibility. However, if he's open and you're right there, you take the guy and ask question later. And the soft play continued in the third period, as Cunti was clearly the weak link for Rimouski on the forecheck. He simply won't turn his back and take a hit to keep possession of the puck. Won't do it. So, as well as his line played, he was the weak link that would often cause them to lose possession. Now, on the good side, he was single handedly beating Drummondville's trap with his speed and stickhandling ability just to get his line into the zone in the first place.

In overtime, Cunti's night ended badly as Gabriel Dumont beat two Rimouski defenders to get to the front of the net where Luca, much like the Brunelle goal, pretty much stood there and watched him score the goal from point blank range. Cunti has to eliminate Dumont physically on that play. At the very least tackle the guy, but preferably lower the boom and knock the guy down. Instead Cunti vacantly tried to tie up his stick and that was it. Now Rimouski has to play a tiebreaker game tomorrow night against Windsor just to get to the semifinal game. That's not good, especially considering what a tough game Windsor was for Rimouski to pull out the last time.

I love his speed. I love his skill. I don't think he's hopeless defensively or even physically because his skating always puts him in the neighborhood he needs to be in. He's not so selfish that he's out at the red line constantly cherry picking and waiting for breakways. That's not what he does. But he has got to start to compete physically. He doesn't have to become Cam Neely overnight. That's not the point. But he's got to turn his back and take a hit to keep possession for his line on the forecheck. He's got to physically take out his man on coverage in front of the net if the puck comes to the front of the net. If he has a clear avenue to step out in front of the net, he has to show physical bravery to go there and score goals. Basically, he's got the athletic foundation to be a very good player. He just needs to man up. He's an NHLer if he grows some manhood. He'll be right back playing for a team like Bern or Lugano in the NL/A back in Switzerland if he doesn't.

'Nics Beat OHL Champs

N.A. Juniors Memorial Cup Game Night: 5/17

Windsor Spitfires 4 vs. Rimouski Oceanic 5 (Round Robin)
W/C Luca Cunti, RIM: 1-0-1,-1, 2 PIM (high sticking), 3 SOG
MemCup totals: 2 GP, 1-0-1, -2, 2 PIM
Playoff totals: 13 GP, 4-5-9, -2, 12 PIM
Season totals: 57 GP, 20-25-45, +10, 32 PIM

A fantastic game between the heavily-favored Spits and the host Oceanic. Cunti scored his first goal of the tournament on a one-timer down low off a nice feed from Kevin Veilleux (Penguins), after Veilleux performed a fancy toe-drag around the stick of a Windsor defender. Cunti nearly repaid him for the feed with a somewhat accidental set-up for a Grade A scoring chance late in the game. Veilleux's shot was stopped by Andrew Engelage, however. For a full report, see Pete's blog.

More Thoughts on Luca Cunti

Before I get into talking about how Luca Cunti played in today's game against Windsor at the Memorial Cup, I have to comment on what a great game Windsor and Rimouski played today. Unlike the snooze fest between Kelowna and Rimouski, l'Oceanic played with a lot of pride today in a game that had a little bit of everything: speed, hitting, lots of goals, a potential future #1 overall pick, and goal mouth thrills down to the wire of the game. People got their money's worth in this game.

Luca Cunti got a promotion in today's game to a line with 2007 2nd round pick Keven Veilleux, whose was selected by the Penguins. Their line came out really strong on their first shift to generate a scoring chance, but Veilleux got his teeth knocked out by Ryan Ellis on his second shift, so their line wasn't together for a good chunk of the first period. Cunti came out with the same speed be had against Kelowna early in the game, but Windsor seemed better prepared and wasn't giving him the corner. That really limited Cunti's effectiveness because he just didn't seem to be willing to fight through the opposing defenders to create chances. Rimouski really upped their physical intensity tonight over the opening game with Kelowna, but early on Cunti seemed to lack the same urgency. I said last game I'd like to see Cunti with better linemates, and that happened today. Now, I'd like to see Cunti play angry.

In the second period, it started out worse for Luca. He took a bad highsticking penalty against Ellis on a play at his point that resulted in an Ellis goal that tied the game at 1-1. He then took a big hit a shift or two afterward and made a bad turnover in his own zone. He made about two of those in the game. He tried to make up for it after a Windsor scoring chance by carrying it on a dangerous rush, but he sat for the next 5 minutes or so. When he got back out, the good Luca re-emerged. He got the puck on the rush and used his speed to swoop around the next on his first shift after getting back in to set up a chance on a pass across the crease at the far post. A shift after that he scored Rimouski's 4th goal on a nice give-and-go on the rush moving up through the neutral zone. He passed the puck in the neutral zone to Veilleux who crossed the blueline and drew the attention of Winsor's defenders because of his big shot. Cunti then cut right to the net with his speed and got a nice diagonal pass down low from Veilleux that he one timed into the net. Nice goal. In the third period he didn't get much ice time because Rimouski was on the PK most of the first half of the period and they were protecting a one goal lead late in the game. He almost set up Veilleux for an insurance goal on a play on the rush where he crossed Windsor's blueline and beat a defender with a nice inside-out stickhandling move. But, he lost control of the puck on the play and it ended up sliding to Veilleux who was going to the net and lifted it over the net.

He wasn't the fastest player on the rink today with Taylor Hall flying around for the Spitfires, and he was annoyingly passive at times, but once again Cunti's speed made a difference. He has game-changing speed the other team has to respect, and now Rimouski has an opportunity to advance in the tournament if they can knock off QMJHL champion Drummondville in their next game.

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