In, Out, Up and Unsigned
There's been a pretty healthy conversation underway in the comments regarding the fate of Adam Henrich within the Lightning organization. One of the things I think that has been missing from the debate is a look at the bigger picture under the 50-man roster limit that the new CBA imposes on the NHL parent club. Prospects like Henrich who are in the final year of their NHL entry level contracts face the chance of being squeezed out by the new limits where they wouldn't have been under the old CBA. So, in order to understand the way the numbers game might play out, I think it's instructive to look at what prospects could be on the way in for next season:
1. D Vladimir Mihalik, Prince George (WHL)
This is a no-brainer. The Lightning have very high hopes for their 2005 1st round pick and Vladimir has shown solid development this season.
2. RW/C Chris Lawrence, Mississauga (OHL)
Another no-brainer. Lawrence will likely finish this season in the top-20 in scoring in the OHL for an organization that is trying to rebuild its skill level at the forward position. Moreover, Lawrence can play center which is one of the Lightning organization's thinnest positions.
3. D Dane Crowley, Everett (WHL)
Crowley, who was passed over in his draft year, turned 20 in January so he actually is the same age as several of the 2005 draft picks. Crowley has kicked the door in this season by proving he can not only play a rugged defensive game but also anchor a power play at the junior level. He should be in for next season.
4. D Mike Lundin, Maine (HEast)
Not as much of a sure thing as some of the other potential signees, but Lundin is a smart, heady puckmover in an organization that is also looking to upgrade its offensive capabilities on the backline as well.
5. D PJ Atherton, Johnstown (ECHL)
Atherton accepted a minor league deal with the Springfield Falcons this season in order to try to prove himself to the Lightning organization and get an NHL contract. Considering Atherton's surprising offensive contributions in Johnstown the first half of 2006-2007, he may have accomplished that.
6. C/LW Dimitri Kazionov, Kazan (RUS)
Word on the street is that the Kazionov brothers want to come over to North America next season. Given the Lightning's goal of rebuilding their forward depth and skill, they may very well accomodate.
7. C Denis Kazionov, Tver (RUS)
The younger Kazionov is considered a bigger, stronger version of his brother and may have the greater long term upside of the two which is why the Lightning may be eager to get him in a Falcons or Chiefs jersey next season.
8. D Andreas Holmqvist, Linkopings (SWE)
Not only is the Lightning organization short on offensive defensemen, but they're also very short on right handed defensemen. They've never had a doubt about Andreas' offensive upside and word is after some solid play in the Elitserien and on the Euro Tour the Lightning think he might be 'getting it' defensively. If he does manage to find his way back to North America, I think Andreas owes a debt to Nikita Alexeev's success in boomeranging back to the NHL after a stint with Omsk in Russia last season, proving older draft picks who go to Europe might not be lost causes after all.
If you have as many as eight players coming in next season under the 50-man limit, then some space will have to be cleared out in the organization to make room for them. With that in mind, these are some of the players who may be on the way out:
1. RW Stephen Baby, Springfield (AHL)
I struggle to think of a scenario where the Lightning would use a 50-man roster spot on a 27 year old who is a marginal AHL player.
2. D Brady Greco, Johnstown (ECHL)
The fact Greco couldn't stay healthy was bad enough. When he had his run in with the law (something that had occured before in college) it sealed his fate.
3. C John Toffey, Johnstown (ECHL)
Toffey has struggled just to get consistent ice time at the ECHL level. As hard as it is to conceive of a reason to use a 50-man roster spot on Baby, it may be even harder to find a reason to use a spot on Toffey.
4. LW/C Adam Henrich, Johnstown (ECHL)
Let me preface this by saying I think Adam has improved this season. He's playing on the perimeter less this season and that has translated into better numbers in Johnstown. Still, the fact remains that the former 2002 2nd round pick has failed to even establish himself as a full time AHLer in two and a half years as a professional. In the end equation, the Lightning may logically decide it's better to use that spot on a player like Lawrence who has an upside similar to what Henrich had coming out of junior and none of the baggage.
That still leaves as many as four spots that may need to be cleared for potential signees. Some of those spots may be freed up by the promotion of some of the Lightning's prospects to the NHL level. Here are some of the players who may be on the way up:
1. G Karri Ramo, Springfield (AHL)
With PS&E looking to reign in payroll next season, the Lightning will need to look for the least painful way to cut the fat going into next year. Right now, the Lightning are paying goaltender Marc Denis over $3M a season to serve as Johan Holmqvist's backup. At the same time, they have wunderkind Karri Ramo waiting in the minors who, by all appearances, looks like a future NHLer and the future might be as soon as the trade deadline.
2. C Blair Jones, Tampa Bay (NHL)
Jones is already up in the NHL getting his second tour with the big club and fitting in pretty well. If all goes to plan, Jones will spend his offseason bulking up to handle the rigors of the NHL and by next year he'll be a full time player in Tampa.
3. D Matt Smaby, Springfield (AHL)
Smaby's ascension to the NHL is less of a sure thing than Ramo and Jones' and he could see his spot scooped with a strong camp by Andy Rogers or Mike Egener. However, Smaby has shown steady progress in his rookie season with Springfield and right now should rightfully be considered as the favorite of the three. If there is a spot on the blueline open in Tampa next year, Smaby may have the inside track.
So, right now I project 8 players in and 7 players out. The Lightning will also have to make some decisions at the NHL level on UFA's like Ruslan Fedotenko and Cory Sarich as well as at the AHL level with veterans like Eric Healey, Daniel Corso, Norm Milley and Kyle Wanvig. There's also little doubt they will try to bring hulking winger Evgeny Artyukhin back from Yaroslavl of the Russian Superleague.
With all of that in mind, here are the players who will come up for signing decisions this summer who I feel are unlikely to receive NHL level contract offers:
1. D Jan Zapletal, Brno (CZE3)
He's playing third tier hockey in the Czech Republic. 'Nuff said.
2. G Joe Pearce, Boston College (HEast)
Given the logjam that has suddenly developed in net for the Lightning organizationally, it's hard to see Boston College's backup getting any kind of deal to play in Springfield or Johnstown.
3. D/RW Arthur Femenella, Vermont (Heast)
I think it's pretty certain Femenella won't get an NHL contract under the 50-man limit. But, because he is in my view a solid enforcer prospect, I could definitely see the Lightning extending Arthur a minor league deal with Springfield a la Atherton to see if they can develop him as a pro. Think younger Mitch Fritz.
4. RW Dustin Collins, Northern Michigan (CCHA)
Like Femenella, I can't see Collins getting an NHL contract, but as a character energy guy I can see him getting a minor league deal with Springfield to see if they can develop him as a pro.
5. RW Marek Bartanus, Owen Sound (OHL)
Marek has been a flat out disappointment. He was supposed to be the best Slovakian player in his age group and has the athleticism to match up well in the OHL but he's done nothing since the first month or two of the season this year. If there was ever an example of how not to perform in your signing year, Bartanus' season has been it.
6. G Kevin Beech, Erie (OHL)
I think this comes down to whether the Lightning would rather have Beech or Morgan Cey in Johnstown. I'm leaning towards re-signing Cey for another season, especially considering signing Beech would be a three year commitment at a time when the Lightning are probably going to try to make a run for Vasily Koshechkin and should sign Riku Helenius both in the summer of 2008.
I also think, given the Lightning's need for some scoring help up front prospect-wise, they shouldn't be afraid to pursue some free agents coming out of the college and junior ranks at the end of this year. Because their 2006 draft class was so small, there's not much in the way of forward help coming right after Lawrence. In that light, perhaps investing a couple of years in a scorer out of the NCAA ranks who may have slipped through the cracks probably isn't such a bad idea. Consider, for instance, a player like seniors Josh Soares or Michel Leveille of Maine or Paul Szczechura of Western Michigan; players who have proven they have the ability to score in some of college hockey's most competitive conferences. Diminutive WHL dynamo Colton Yellow horn of Tri-City might also be someone to consider.