Saturday Morning With Coach Stirling and Claude Loiselle

I was fortunate enough to be invited down to The Scope before Saturday morning’s optional skate to talk to Norfolk Head Coach Steve Stirling and Norfolk General Manager Claude Loiselle. At about 9 am I made my way down to the building in the heart of a quiet downtown Norfolk. The hockey operations staff were in a good mood after beating the Binghamton Senators 5-1 in the Admirals’ home opener, and there was a feeling in the building that things were starting to get on the right track.

Coach Stirling was good enough to oblige me by participating in a very lengthy and very detailed 50 minute sit down that gave an excellent lay of the land of the prospects in the organization. After congratulating Coach Stirling on last night’s victory, the coach pointed out that in his opinion Norfolk’s scheduling is the most difficult in the league because the way opposing teams come in for weekend sets makes it very hard for the team to put together home winning streaks because it’s hard to beat the same team on back to back nights.

I started by asking the coach about the goaltending situation and about Ryan Munce’s strong start to the season. Coach praised Munce for being in, “Full control in the crease. He’s not all over the place.” Munce, said Coach Stirling, appears to be sound positionally, is controlling his rebounds, and above all is making key saves at key junctures of the game. “I would say he’s been a pleasant surprise.”

On Jonathan Boutin, Coach Stirling said the decision to send the young goaltender down came down to a toss up between Boutin and Morgan Cey and that it appeared to him that Boutin mentally was not sharp from the start of Norfolk camp and was trying to ease his way into the season rather than coming to camp ready to go from day one. Since returning to Norfolk, “Boots has gotten better every day in practice, which is a good sign.” He’s been working this week with Lightning minor league goaltending instructor Corey Schwab and all indications are that when he finally does get back onto the ice he will be ready to play.

When asked where goaltender Karri Ramo falls in relation to young goaltenders Stirling has coached in the past like Rick DiPietro and Roberto Luongo, Coach Stirling paused to think carefully before offering, “He’s up there. He’s a really talented kid. He’s really mature.” Coach went on to suggest that if Ramo had gotten a few more starts down the stretch last season he might be closer to where DiPietro and Luongo were developmentally at the same age. “Karri’s a real fiery, competitive kid, that’s what I like about him the best.”

Shifting gears to talk about the defense the discussion turned to defenseman Vladimir Mihalik the morning after he scored his first professional goal. Stirling recounted how Mihalik had, in his opinion, an average Traverse City tournament and that the decision to not take Mihalik to Lightning camp probably paid off for Mihalik in keeping his confidence level high. “He might have been overwhelmed up there. Might not have had as much success as since he’s been down here.” Coach Stirling went on to say, “Every practice he’s gotten a little better and a little better.” Stirling is already using Mihalik on a regular shift and on the penalty kill, an area of the game which Coach Stirling feels he can accel at, and plans to eventually utilize Mihalik and his big shot on the power play. On theme with both Stirling and Claude Loiselle was the idea of weaning Mihalik onto the professional game and not overloading him with too much responsibility so early in his rookie season. The biggest praise of Mihalik came when Stirling stated, “With his play, he’s asking for more ice time.” In other words, the more Mihalik plays well the harder it will be for the Admirals to not use him on the power play and in bigger minutes. When talking about the common criticism about Mihalik’s reticence to use his size in the physical game Stirling recounted his days in Lowell when he coached a young Zdeno Chara. According to Stirling, the Islanders organization traded Chara over similar concerns about Chara’s lack of consistency in the physical game and paid the price for it. “I don’t think Vlady has any idea how strong he is. He’s just 20 years old. He’s just a puppy.” Later in the conversation Stirling again turned his attention back toward Mihalik in praising Vladimir’s ability to read the play. “His best assett may be his ability to jump into the play.”

After talking about the improved mobility, stick skills, and poise of the blueline overall versus the team the Lightning organization iced a year ago in Springfield the conversation turned to Andy Rogers. “The good news is he’s healthy. His Traverse City was average. His biggest assett is his size and mobility. He’s 6’5” and he can skate.” Stirling praised Rogers’ play without the puck and his ability to defend down low in the defensive zone. “The biggest area of concern is when he has the puck his decisions with the puck right now aren’t very good. They weren’t good a year ago and they’re getting better but they still have a long way to go. That’s a big concern.” Stirling attributed much of Rogers’ slow development to the fact he’s lost large portions of the last two seasons to injury, and even in the games he played last season Stirling intimated he wasn’t 100% physically. “He’s a couple of years behind his contemporaries because of the lack of experience.”

When the discussion turned to the forwards the critiques of the players got a little more pointed. Consistency in work ethic was a constant theme that was raised when talking about the forwards starting with Blair Jones and Marek Kvapil. Stirling talked about Blair Jones’ lack of consistency having to do with a more laid back attitude which gave the false impression of laziness. “He needs to show some emotion. He’s a real emotional kid, but it’s all inside. So I don’t see it and his teammates don’t see it and at times it looks like he’s lazy. But he’s not lazy. He just has to show it.” Stirling praised Jones’ recent work ethic in practices and the fire he played with over the previous three games. “He’s got to find a way to do that shift in, shift out, period in, period out, game in, game out.”

For Kvapil, the comments got even sharper. Stirling quite matter of factly said Kvapil’s skills are of no value until he plays harder skating, pursuing the puck, and forechecking to get the puck back. “The offensive skills don’t take over because he doesn’t do those things therefore he doesn’t put himself in a position to get more scoring chances.” The coach then went on to critique Kvapil’s play last season and how the young forward continuously turned the puck over in sensisitive areas of the ice leading to far too many odd man rushes the other way. “He tried to do too much and his turnover ratio was out of control. Do that for Torts once and you’ll be in the minors forever and you should be because the turnovers are top of the circle in our own end or top of the circle in the offensive zone.”

The discussion then turned to the new signees Klinkhammer and Taylor and without a doubt, the Admirals hockey operations people were raving about Klinkhammer’s play. In fact, Stirling brought Klinkhammer’s name unsolicited when talking about Kvapil as the model of how Marek needs to play. “Klink’s been real good. There’s an upside there with that kid.” Taylor, similarly, was praised for his work ethic and being strong on the puck. Coach Stirling said he plans to use Taylor standing in front of the net on the power play and intends to make him into a penalty killer as the season goes on.”Taylor’s a better skater than Trent Hunter and Trent Hunter’s one of the better penalty killers in the (NHL).”

Speaking about Chris Lawrence, Stirling praised him for his willingness to learn to play a third line type checking game. He said he intends to keep Lawrence on the wing and said Lawrence continues to get better and better down low. “He’s doing ok.”

On Justin Keller’s game, coach said, “Little bit (stronger on the puck). Still has a way to go.” He went on to say that Keller’s skating has shown the same incremental improvement but that the biggest thing Keller still needs to do is make plays along the wall, especially in the defensive third.

The winner of the harshest criticism prize goes to Radek Smolenak, who both Stirling and Loiselle panned for his unwillingness to compete physically along the wall. “Radek’s biggest challenge is not his skill level, because he has an immense amount of skill.” But, according to the coach, Smolenak currently combines the worst qualities of Keller’s average skating, Kvapil’s poor decision making in turning over the puck, and a complete lack of willingness to compete physically. “I don’t think Radek knows his battle level has to go up ten fold.”

Zbynek Hrdel drew praise for his ability to play a quiet, responsible game in all phases of the game. While he isn’t much of an offensive player in Stirling’s view, he is a versatile complimentary player who the coach feels comfortable with. “There’s just a real steady, sneaky, responsible player.”

Mike Egener at forward seems to be a sensation among the Admirals hockey operations people. Stirling told me that Eggs was unfortunately out of the lineup this weekend due to a slight groin pull but that with his intelligence in playing a simple forechecking game and the fact he really understands the strength of his game is his skating and his willingness to take the body. “He’s an NHL skater and he loves to agitate and finish checks.” According to Stirling’s role, Egener won’t be a pure enforcer with Angel and Elliot in Mississippi, but he did compare Egener’s future role to that of Andre Roy as an energy player who will take the body in limited minutes and drop the gloves when called upon.

On Jay Rosehill, Stirling said Jay can be a sixth defenseman type guy who will play a simple, physical game an occassionally drop the gloves but his stick skills are limited.

When I asked Coach Stirling about Lightning prospect Dana Tyrell, he started by first, unsolicited, praising Mitch Fadden’s performance at Traverse City. “I walked away from Traverse City saying wow, this kid’s got something.” Turning back to Tyrell, he praised the young forwards maturity, tenacity, and speed. “He’s quick as a cat. He’s able to dart into holes and create scoring chances.” Tyrell’s heart is what most impressed the coach though. “He’s a compeititor and he’s got the skill.”

That concluded the interview with Coach Stirling and after watching a little bit of the Admirals practice I got the chance to talk to GM Claude Loiselle who spent part of the morning pow wowing with Bill Barber who is also in town. I asked Claude if he had heard anything new regarding the Vasily Koshechkin situation. As Bolt Prospects learned earlier in the week, the Lightning are still looking for, “Good, accurate information” as Loiselle put it. When I asked if the Lightning had any interest in signing Koshechkin Loiselle said, “You never say no to another good goalie.”

According to Loiselle there is no time frame at present for a forward to be sent to Norfolk now that Andreas Karlsson is healthy again in Tampa. In addition, the team is also waiting to see what will happen when Dan Boyle returns later this week and does expect to get another defenseman back at some point.

Contractual and roster issues asside, when talking about the team Loiselle spoke passionately about the need to have “20 guys pulling together” toward the same end, whether that be 20 guys chipping in offensively or 20 guys providing physical toughness. Loiselle is very different from Stirling in that Stirling is very calm and has a been-there-done-that sort of demeanor. He tends to deliver his thoughts analytically, and with the authority of having coached and coach well for a very long time. Loiselle’s more fiery and he expanded several times on Stirling’s previous themes about the need for a consistent work ethic out of his players. “Everyone has the goal of winning a Calder Cup” Loiselle said when I asked him what his goal was for the season but above all he said he wants an honest effort from his players every night. If they are willing to work hard on the forecheck, take the body, and fight for each other when called upon, he said, he expects the fans in Norfolk to embrace the team.

Loiselle also reiterated some of Stirling’s comments about the need for improved work ethic from Kvapil and Smolenak and had glowing praise similar to the coach’s for Ryan Munce and Rob Klinkhammer. One interesting note when I asked about Mike Egener: Loiselle said according to Mike Egener’s agent, who was in attendance today, “For the first time in three years he loves playing hockey.” The GM suggested that he could possibly see Egener playing a prominent role on the power play standing in front of the net and glowingly compared Egener’s work on the forecheck last weekend as reminiscent of future hall-of-famer Gary Roberts.

One other note, Loiselle said there are no plans at current to pursue another scoring forward for the Admirals, but if they could get a player with NHL upside for very little they'd certainly take a look at it. By and large the response I got indicated the team intends to go forward with what they have right now and that the solutions to the team's scoring need to come from within the locker room. Bear in mind, the team just got Klinkhammer, Taylor, and Collymore into the lineup last night, there eventually will be one more forward coming down from Tampa (Darche, Karlsson, or MacDonald most likely), and there will be one more defenseman (Smaby or Janik) eventually coming down from Tampa so all the pieces to this Admirals team are still not completely set.

So concluded my morning. I’d like to thank Keith Phillips of the Admirals front office for facilitating the interviews today and our own Tim Bennett here at Bolt Prospects for helping to line everything up.

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Well Done

Nice job Pete. You definitly cleared up some things, unfortunately, like how disappointing our young forwards are. It seems if and when TB decides to draft forwards either they are hard workers with limited skill sets or high skills with little work ethic. Why can't they just comprise and get a forward or two with decent skills and work ethic??? Who knows, maybe we can convert all of our dmen to forwards, they seem to be doing a better job -Eggs.

At least our D will be looking mighty fine for the next few year. Potential lineup in two years:

Ranger - Mihalik
O'brien - Lundin
Smaby - *Rogers
Quick

Goaltending should be right up there as well:

Ramo
Helenius
*Kosheckhin
*Boutin
& now *Munce - maybe

* These players aren't as likely to make it to the Show

Future D...

FWIW, and this is getting WAY ahead of things, but Feaster offered up some future D projections to us recently and he had Quick way up there. The organization is head over heels for this kid. Rogers was never mentioned.

Ranger, SOB, Lundin, Quick, Smaby, and Mihalik are a very good and diverse top-6 if everything pans out as planned. Rogers, Crowley, Rosehill, Ward.... all on the fringe with Rogers likely a 6/7 guy at the least.

Now, about those forwards....

It was encouraging to hear the comments on both Fadden and Tyrell. As for the rest.... hopefully a healthier veteran situation for NF helps them along.

Just from what I saw there:

Just from what I saw there: Mihalik and Jones will probably make the league. Boutin and Munce might have a chance.

The rest have a ways to go.

It Fairly Points Out the Shortcomings

Thanks for an excellent piece there. But I think the Bolts have neglected their minor league system for a number of years now and it really caught up with them last year in Springfield.

There are some good young players on the horizon in the system and hopefully we can see some in Norfolk as early as next year. Fadden and Tyrell seem to have a big upside and Quick is talked about by everybody.

As for this year's edition, when they play hard and follow their system, like they did Friday night, it can gloss over their weaknesses. But we need to continue to get scoring from many different areas on this year's team. Saturday shows that when they don't play their system, it's lights out. Also I think they were physically intimidated by Bingo Saturday. We have some dropping the gloves who have no business at this stage of their careers doing this, Mihalik comes to mind. Klinkhammer needs to stay out of fights as well. Unlike the Bolts, we don't have the offense to negate this type of stuff, so some protection is warranted.

Over on the admiralszone.com, there is a pretty spirited discussion over the lack of true enforcer in Norfolk whose job it would be to respond to the physicality on the ice. Many are concerned that, if not addressed, we will be bullied by every team that they play. I would like to see them recall Brett Angel who has a fighting pedigree for this weekend to see how he does in that area. We don't need Mihalik getting his head handed to him in a fight and then spending 5 minutes in the box for the whipping he took. He needs to be out on the ice doing other things.

But most importantly, they need to not pack it in like they did in the 3rd period Saturday. They need to play hard all three periods irregardless of the score. Because right now Bingo thinks if they can get them down, they will stay down and not get up. A better response Saturday was to play hard and let them know they won't lay down for anyone, especially in their own barn.

If they play their system and play hard, we will see some modest success this year.

I dont mind..

I really dont mind seeing Mihalik getting into a scrap here and there. His physical intensity has been questioned in the past, so a good smack in the face every now and again is good motivation. It will lead him to one of two decisions: A)he'll just keep getting pushed around or B) he'll decide to pick up his skirt and hit back.

Whats everyones feel on the system??? Is it poor organizational management, a bad drafting philosophy, or something else that has lead to, what I believe is, a weak talent pool - offensively?? Craig and Tarns, aside, have we really produced anything in the last 6-7 or how many ever years Feaster has been around?? Im sorry that just seems a little bit too long without producing sometype of Forward talent. Like Pete said we only have one - Jones - thats is close right now and who knows when the next one will be ready???? When you haven't produced a bonafide top-2 line forward in what might be close to a decade that seems just a little SCARY.
Oh, and for a team that only drafts high character/hard working players someone sure forgot to tell the majority of our prospects about that.

Many reasons

This is an annual discussion on here it seems (and nothing wrong with that).

So many reasons:

They're still trying to rebuild a developmental system that, as Pete has said, "was completely dysfunctional for about a decade after the Atlanta Knights of the IHL moved to Quebec City and the Lightning had to get into a split affiliation with the Wings in Adirondack in the AHL. In the past, the guys the Lightning drafted had to be close to NHL ready by age 20 or they would have zero chance of developing into an NHL player."

Then you've got the Dudley years, where draft picks were either colossal busts or European guys who never panned out if they even made it to North America.

IMO, because Dudley was so European-heavy in his drafting, either by preference, or because he didn't have the minor league system to properly develop North Americans... and because he failed so miserably at it (really, people, just click on the Draft History tab at the top of the page and look at the 99-01 drafts and see how many have even sniffed NHL ice - and this, despite a supposed scouting budget double what it is today), I think Feaster had to look at the state of the farm when he took over and nearly start from scratch WHILE doing whatever it took to make the NHL club a contender.

So there's the hoard of first and second rounders traded for the Stillmans, Prospals, Fedotenkos, etc of the world. That means very few high-end skill guys coming through the system. This is huge.

IE: Tyrell was taken at No.47. He's the highest drafted forward for Tampa Bay since Alex Svitov in 2001 (Polushin taken at 47 that same year).

Early round picks that were retained were used pre-lockout on specified needs like D and GT -- AKA areas that he will say are the hardest to acquire and went with the grow-your-own and strength-in-numbers combined philosophies.

We should be seeing a lot from the 02-04 drafts ideally right now and there are some success stories, but there were very few skill forwards in these drafts to even give a chance. The two forwards chosen early by Feaster in the first 3 rounds between 2002 and 2004 fizzled out (Henrich, Tobin). But again, there were only 2 to choose from here and while Henrich was a bust, Tobin was a reach and at the bottom of the 2nd anyway.

Despite all this, Feaster has 5 NHLers between 02-04 with Ramo and possibly Koshechkin, Egener, and Rogers likely.

I think it will be a couple years before the areas even out developmentally, and by then the farm should sustain itself like a healthy farm should.

I Might Write More on This Later

But I'll add one other thing to what Chad's written:

The Lightning have always had a habit, even back in the Espo/Donny Murdoch days, of being overly enamoured with size and there's been more than one occassion where they'll take the 6'3" guy and leave the 5'10"/5'11" guy on the board even if the little guy has more heart/speed/skill.

That's not to say I want to be like New Jersey and have a bunch of lilliputians running around, but I think it's fair to say things had gotten stale for the past two years while the Lightning time and time again stuck to that formula.

This year they switched it up. Guys like Tyrell, Cunti, Killorn, and Fadden aren't these hulking linebacker-like characters. Instead of looking for a mold they were looking for hockey players, and I would not be surprised if five years from now we're talking about the 2007 draft being the best draft since that 1998 draft when they got Lecavalier, Richards, Afanasenkov, and Cibak (which might be the best draft anyone's had since the Islanders put together their dynasty).

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