Prospect rankings need perspective

Published February 6, 2006

The Hockey News published its annual "Future Watch" last week, and the Lightning did not fare well. The self-proclaimed "Bible of Hockey" lists the Lightning dead last with a grade of D+.

The Hockey News solicited the opinions of 21 unidentified talent evaluators and asked them to rank each team's top 10 prospects and the 21-and-younger players on the NHL rosters. None of the Lightning's top 10 prospects was listed among the league's top 50.

It should be noted, however, Ryan Craig was listed as the Lightning's 10th-best prospect, and since the list was assembled, the savvy rookie has made a successful jump to the NHL with eight goals in 20 games. It also should be noted that two other players - defenseman Paul Ranger and power forward Evgeny Artyukhin - have come up from the minors and made significant contributions to the Lightning this season.

Still, it cannot be ignored that the Lightning system is at a crossroads. Look at its top five prospects:

Defenseman Vladimir Mihalek (first-round pick in 2005) remains raw and a project.

Defenseman Andy Rogers (first-round pick in 2004) has had a chronic ankle problem.

Defenseman Matt Smaby (41st overall pick in 2003) is still in college and remains unproven at the pro level.

Defenseman Mike Egener (34th overall pick in 2003) has struggled with confidence and landed back in the ECHL this season.

Defenseman Doug O'Brien (192nd overall pick in 2003) is coming along but showed in a cup of coffee with the Lightning recently that he has plenty of work to do.

Then look at what is going on with Springfield, the organization's top minor-league affiliate.

Springfield is 22nd overall in the 27-team league with 42 points in 48 games. It's true Springfield has been hurt by the Lightning calling up Craig, Ranger and Artyukhin, but every team plucks away the top talent from their minor-league teams. Last week, Springfield shipped out goalie Brian Eklund to Johnstown and brought up goalie Jonathan Boutin just to shake things up.

"We've had some personnel changes there, and as much as anything, we're hoping we can get a spark," Lightning general manager Jay Feaster said. "We need to start winning some games if we're going to make the playoffs there."

The good news for the Lightning is it isn't in any rush to bring up kids. The prospects can continue to get the proper seasoning in the minors because the NHL's nucleus is so young. Stars such as Vinny Lecavalier , Brad Richards , Fredrik Modin , Ruslan Fedotenko , Pavel Kubina , Cory Sarich and even Marty St. Louis and Vinny Prospal have plenty of prime years left in their tanks.

The other glass-half-full scenario is maybe the Lightning knows a few things others don't. After all, Craig, Ranger and Artyukhin were not on anybody's radar a year ago, and they have proved to be reliable NHL players.

MINOR SWAP: In another attempt to jump-start Springfield, the Lightning loaned veteran forward Jim Campbell to the Philadelphia Phantoms and took back Dan Cavanaugh . Campbell remains Lightning property, but it's never a good sign for a player's career when he is loaned to another organization's minor-league team. Needless to say, Campbell did not impress the Lightning during a brief callup this season.

"Jimmy, when he was here, didn't show anywhere near the desperation that we needed him to," Feaster said. "We were a little disappointed. Actually, we were a lot disappointed in that. Then he went (back to Springfield) and became very much a perimeter player. We can't have guys playing on the perimeter. So the feeling was maybe a change of scenery was something he needed."

And apparently, a change of players is something Springfield needed.

LIGHTNING FLASHES: Saturday's attendance of 21,219 was the sixth largest in franchise history. ... Richards' fourth short-handed goal of his career Saturday tied him for seventh on the franchise's all-time list with Marc Bureau . St. Louis is the leader with 16.