With the off-season in full swing and not a lot going on prior to the draft and free agency, bloggers like me don’t have a lot to talk about. So, in an attempt to generate some interest I’ve reached out to my Twitter followers for blog suggestions. Today, courtesy of @AlexMacLean4 and @_ConnorAndrews – I’ll be taking a look at two topics of conversation. First up, Connor Andrews would like to get my thoughts on Keith Aulie and Brian Lee. How much potential is there sitting in these two men right now? Secondly, Alex MacLean wants to know who from the Norfolk Admirals could be getting a shot in the NHL next season!
Keith Aulie and Brian Lee
On deadline day 2012, many fans were hoping that the Tampa Bay Lightning would go out and make a big splash to acquire a young goaltender like Cory Schneider or Jonathan Bernier. It was thought that a young goaltender could potentially lead this team into the playoffs for the second straight year. While that didn’t happen, the Lightning were one of the more active teams on deadline day. Two of the more intriguing moves made by Steve Yzerman were the moves to acquire Keith Aulie and Brian Lee. When the Aulie deal went down, I was thrilled. Ashton, while a good player, didn’t seem to gel with the Lightning organization. It was hard to picture where he was going to fit in long-term. Aulie, on the other hand, brought NHL experience and a lot of size to our desperately weak blue line.
When the Lee deal went down, my initial reaction was one of shock. Trading Matt Gilroy, who was certainly a work in progress, didn’t make a lot of sense to me at first. In Ottawa, Lee really struggled to live up to his billing as a high first round draft choice. It was kind of difficult to fathom this sort of deal as from the outside, it didn’t look as though Lee was going to be anything more than a number 6/7 D-man for the Bolts.
Well, with a couple of months in Lightning colors behind them, Lee and Aulie are both proving to be incredibly valuable pieces to this franchise as we move forward. Lee, in particular, really turned some heads with his play. In just 20 games with the Lightning, Lee was credited with 8 assists. While Lee certainly isn’t known for his offensive output, it was nice to see him move the puck well and generate chances with the high-powered forwards the Lightning boast. From the looks of things, Lee in Ottawa can be likened to a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. It just wasn’t working for him. Down in Tampa, the 25 year old D-man has blossomed into a reliable, hard-working, tough, big blueliner who has the ability to be a top-flight NHL guy. Lee was most impressive during his short audition with the Bolts and fans should fully expect another solid campaign from him next season.
As a right-handed defenseman, Lee is quite valuable. His ability to play the puck on the boards and make smart plays was increasingly noticeable during his short time with the Lightning this season. All indications would point to this trade being a WIN for Steve Yzerman and the Lightning. If I were to sit down and project where Lee fits in long-term, I would probably say that he is a solid 3/4 guy on this team.
The other player mentioned, Keith Aulie, had a much different experience with the Lightning. Compared to Lee, 25, Aulie is only 22 years old and he definitely showed that he is a work in progress. His age, combined with him playing in a Toronto system that didn’t exactly preach defense, proved to be obstacles that Guy Boucher was forced to work with. Still, it’s hard to argue with potential and talent; Aulie certainly boasts both of those things. At 6’6”, Aulie is one of the bigger players in the National Hockey League. In terms of winning puck battles in front of the net and along the boards, that’s a huge plus. With an off-season of training and development and a full camp with the Lightning coaching staff, Aulie is poised to make some big steps next year.
In terms of potential, it’s funny. Watching the Lightning play through the end of the season, it was hard not to wonder what an Aulie/Lee pairing would look like. Both guys can move the puck well and they are both HUGE bodies. So, in essence, Aulie projects to be a 3/4 guy next season. Long-term, Steve Yzerman would probably like to add a little more talent and experience to the roster (a true number one guy) in which case Brewer would probably slide down to play with Lee and Aulie would be the number five guy.
Overall, these two deals really shaped the Lightning defense for years to come. Steve Yzerman really did pull of two of the most underrated deals at the 2012 deadline. It’s an exciting time to be a Lightning fan as these deals give the team a great deal of flexibility at the draft. Do the Lightning really need the 10th overall pick with their new look defense? Could it be worked into a huge trade that could potentially put this team over the top? Only time will tell.
The Admirals have had a remarkable season in the American Hockey League. Whether that is a testament to the great coaching staff down there, the great Lightning draft picks and signings just starting to blossom of a combination of the two is a completely subjective call to make. In all likelihood, the Admirals are going to walk away with the AHL Championship this season. It’s hard to argue with their success including a record-breaking win streak, great offensive totals and some NHL talent on the roster. When you watch the Admirals, think of the Lightning in a few years; there’s a pretty strong message that this is a team and organization worth getting excited about. In my non-expert opinion, three players on the Admirals are poised to come to Lightning camp next season and make an impact. Those three players would be Mark Barberio, Cory Conacher, and Radko Gudas. There are others who could get a shot or two during the season, but these three guys are definitely primed and ready for a chance at the show.
In Barberio, the Lightning would have a solid PP quarterback to direct all the offense. Barberio’s offensive instincts are well-documented but it’s really his vision that should be lauded by fans. He sees the ice so well and is consistently making offensive plays and breakouts that have me shaking my head. When you look at the Lightning defense, he is everything it is missing right now. Sure, Victor Hedman is a smooth-skater and a good passer but he doesn’t bring the same flash that Barberio brings night in and night out. With 61 points through 74 games this season with the Admirals, it would be foolish of Guy Boucher not to give this kid a real shot through training camp and the pre-season. The question becomes, can his defensive play warrant a continued role in the NHL?
The second player mentioned was Cory Conacher. While he many not technically be physically ready for the NHL, it is imperative the Lightning give him a shot. Scoring over a point-per-game in the AHL this season, Conacher is as offensively dynamic as they come. The issue with him is his size. Standing 5’8”, Conacher has definitely proved a lot of people wrong to make the pro ranks. Does that sound like anyone else the Tampa Bay Lightning are familiar with? Why, yes it does. Marty St. Louis and Conacher share similar stories of perseverance and determination. It’s important that the Lightning get Conacher into the dressing room with St. Louis while Marty is still at the top of his game. Show the kid what it takes to be a professional in the NHL and prove to him that size doesn’t matter if your heart is in the right place. There isn’t a better mentor that Martin St. Louis for this young man.
The third player is Radko Gudas. Now, it’s important to note that there is probably only one spot available between Gudas and Barberio so it will be up to Boucher as to which one fits the team’s needs better. My personal belief is that Barberio is what the Lightning need to shore up the back-end but that opinion may not be shared by Yzerman or Boucher. So, what does Gudas bring? Well, he’s very similar to Brian Lee in that he is tough, hard to play against and quite physical. Throughout his junior career, Gudas was always counted upon to take a penalty….all the time. He’s hard-nosed, arguably ready for the NHL and one tough customer. Still, he tends to exemplify a lot of what the Lightning already have on the back-end. That will make it infinitely tougher for him to crack the roster out of training cap. Despite that, it would be wrong not to give him a shot to fight for that number 6 spot. If there’s one thing to know about Gudas, it’s that he will definitely put a great effort to make the show.
Anyways, folks, that’s all for now. I’d like to thank Alex and Connor for their Twitter submissions. If you have anything you’d like me to blog about over the coming weeks, be sure to send me a Tweet or leave you suggestion in the comments section below!
Thanks for reading.