I was fortunate enough to be invited down to The Scope before Saturday morningâ€™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 Admiralsâ€™ 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 nightâ€™s victory, the coach pointed out that in his opinion Norfolkâ€™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 itâ€™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 Munceâ€™s  strong start to the season. Coach praised Munce for being in, â€œFull control in the crease. Heâ€™s not all over the place.â€ 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. â€œI would say heâ€™s been a pleasant surprise.â€
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, â€œBoots has gotten better every day in practice, which is a good sign.â€ Heâ€™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, â€œHeâ€™s up there. Heâ€™s a really talented kid. Heâ€™s really mature.â€ 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. â€œKarriâ€™s a real fiery, competitive kid, thatâ€™s what I like about him the best.â€
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. â€œHe might have been overwhelmed up there. Might not have had as much success as since heâ€™s been down here.â€ Coach Stirling went on to say, â€œEvery practice heâ€™s gotten a little better and a little better.â€ 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, â€œWith his play, heâ€™s asking for more ice time.â€ 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 Mihalikâ€™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 Charaâ€™s lack of consistency in the physical game and paid the price for it. â€œI donâ€™t think Vlady has any idea how strong he is. Heâ€™s just 20 years old. Heâ€™s just a puppy.â€ Later in the conversation Stirling again turned his attention back toward Mihalik in praising Vladimirâ€™s ability to read the play. â€œHis best assett may be his ability to jump into the play.â€
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 . â€œThe good news is heâ€™s healthy. His Traverse City was average. His biggest assett is his size and mobility. Heâ€™s 6â€™5â€ and he can skate.â€ Stirling praised Rogersâ€™ play without the puck and his ability to defend down low in the defensive zone. â€œThe biggest area of concern is when he has the puck his decisions with the puck right now arenâ€™t very good. They werenâ€™t good a year ago and theyâ€™re getting better but they still have a long way to go. Thatâ€™s a big concern.â€ Stirling attributed much of Rogersâ€™ slow development to the fact heâ€™s lost large portions of the last two seasons to injury, and even in the games he played last season Stirling intimated he wasnâ€™t 100% physically. â€œHeâ€™s a couple of years behind his contemporaries because of the lack of experience.â€
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 Jonesâ€™ lack of consistency having to do with a more laid back attitude which gave the false impression of laziness. â€œHe needs to show some emotion. Heâ€™s a real emotional kid, but itâ€™s all inside. So I donâ€™t see it and his teammates donâ€™t see it and at times it looks like heâ€™s lazy. But heâ€™s not lazy. He just has to show it.â€ Stirling praised Jonesâ€™ recent work ethic in practices and the fire he played with over the previous three games. â€œHeâ€™s got to find a way to do that shift in, shift out, period in, period out, game in, game out.â€
For Kvapil, the comments got even sharper. Stirling quite matter of factly said Kvapilâ€™s skills are of no value until he plays harder skating, pursuing the puck, and forechecking to get the puck back. â€œThe offensive skills donâ€™t take over because he doesnâ€™t do those things therefore he doesnâ€™t put himself in a position to get more scoring chances.â€ The coach then went on to critique Kvapilâ€™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. â€œHe tried to do too much and his turnover ratio was out of control. Do that for Torts once and youâ€™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.â€
The discussion then turned to the new signees Klinkhammer and Taylor and without a doubt, the Admirals hockey operations people were raving about Klinkhammerâ€™s play. In fact, Stirling brought Klinkhammerâ€™s name unsolicited when talking about Kvapil as the model of how Marek needs to play. â€œKlinkâ€™s been real good. Thereâ€™s an upside there with that kid.â€ 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.â€Taylorâ€™s a better skater than Trent Hunter and Trent Hunterâ€™s one of the better penalty killers in the (NHL).â€
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. â€œHeâ€™s doing ok.â€
On Justin Kellerâ€™s  game, coach said, â€œLittle bit (stronger on the puck). Still has a way to go.â€ He went on to say that Kellerâ€™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. â€œRadekâ€™s biggest challenge is not his skill level, because he has an immense amount of skill.â€ But, according to the coach, Smolenak currently combines the worst qualities of Kellerâ€™s average skating, Kvapilâ€™s poor decision making in turning over the puck, and a complete lack of willingness to compete physically. â€œI donâ€™t think Radek knows his battle level has to go up ten fold.â€
Zbynek Hrdel  drew praise for his ability to play a quiet, responsible game in all phases of the game. While he isnâ€™t much of an offensive player in Stirlingâ€™s view, he is a versatile complimentary player who the coach feels comfortable with. â€œThereâ€™s just a real steady, sneaky, responsible player.â€
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. â€œHeâ€™s an NHL skater and he loves to agitate and finish checks.â€ According to Stirlingâ€™s role, Egener wonâ€™t be a pure enforcer with Angel and Elliot in Mississippi, but he did compare Egenerâ€™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 Faddenâ€™s  performance at Traverse City. â€œI walked away from Traverse City saying wow, this kidâ€™s got something.â€ Turning back to Tyrell, he praised the young forwards maturity, tenacity, and speed. â€œHeâ€™s quick as a cat. Heâ€™s able to dart into holes and create scoring chances.â€ Tyrellâ€™s heart is what most impressed the coach though. â€œHeâ€™s a compeititor and heâ€™s got the skill.â€
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, â€œGood, accurate informationâ€ as Loiselle put it. When I asked if the Lightning had any interest in signing Koshechkin Loiselle said, â€œYou never say no to another good goalie.â€
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 â€œ20 guys pulling togetherâ€ 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. Loiselleâ€™s more fiery and he expanded several times on Stirlingâ€™s previous themes about the need for a consistent work ethic out of his players. â€œEveryone has the goal of winning a Calder Cupâ€ 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 Stirlingâ€™s comments about the need for improved work ethic from Kvapil and Smolenak and had glowing praise similar to the coachâ€™s for Ryan Munce and Rob Klinkhammer. One interesting note when I asked about Mike Egener: Loiselle said according to Mike Egenerâ€™s agent, who was in attendance today, â€œFor the first time in three years he loves playing hockey.â€ 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 Egenerâ€™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. Iâ€™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.