THE FARM REPORT
Players shuttle between those minor leagues daily but when it's a former No. 1 draft pick heading down, questions arise and assumptions come quickly. Rogers, Tampa Bay's top pick and the 30th overall in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, nearly made the Lightning in 2005 and here he was en route to a circuit where most players weren't selected by an NHL team.
Six weeks later, the hulking 21-year-old is back and playing well for Tampa Bay's top farm club, the Norfolk Admirals. Contrary to popular belief, the defenseman's ticket to join the Mississippi Sea Wolves wasn't a slap in the face but a pat on the back.
“When we sent him to the East Coast, the message was we're sending you down because you need to play and it's not a demotion,” said Claude Loiselle, who serves both as Tampa Bay's assistant general manager and Norfolk's general manager.
“He went down with a great attitude and he's been a really nice surprise of late. I'm impressed by his level of commitment and by his poise.”
Rogers' dedication to his trade has never been questioned but being cool under fire wasn't one of his strong points early this season. Pro defensemen must smoothly retrieve the puck and turn it up ice while simultaneously deciding where to send a pass and how best to get it there.
“When he's at his best, he's getting the puck and moving his feet,'' said Norfolk coach Steve Stirling. “When he's not at his best, he's not moving the puck and not getting separation from fore-checkers. Then there's a ton of pressure on him and he's painted himself in a corner.”
Once that error's been made, the last thing a rearguard should do is throw the puck away softly. It almost always creates an opponent's scoring chance. Rogers struggled in that area as well, and Admirals veteran Jay Leach has been working to rid him of the panicky habit.
“If he's going to make a pass, at least make it hard and if he misses, at least it goes down the ice and it's not a turnover,'' said Leach, who's been paired with Rogers of late. “With that will come more confidence, because you're making decisive plays.”
Rogers didn't get to play much at all after he signed a three-year entry-level contract with the Lightning in October, 2005. Because of Tampa's salary-cap constraints, he accepted almost $1 million less than the maximum then allowed over the course of the deal and some observers questioned if he'd made an expensive mistake.
However, Rogers soon needed surgery on a chronically bad ankle and played only 21 games his last junior season with Prince George of the Western Hockey League. Had he not been signed, his situation would have been uncertain at best, but he accepted the Lightning's suggestion for surgery and was back preparing for his first pro season six months later.
A tweaked groin that summer morphed into a full-blown injury. Battling it and other health problems limited Rogers to 48 games (no goals, 7 assists) with the AHL's Springfield Falcons during the 2006-07 campaign. Rogers began the current season without participating in Lighting training camp, but doing so wouldn't have made much sense. Coach John Tortorella wanted a small camp roster and the organization's defensive corps had a number of older and more experienced players than Rodgers, including Leach and Dan Jancevski, signed to play at Norfolk and provide Tampa with depth.
“It's been a struggle the last few years to stay healthy but this year is probably the best I've felt and I feel myself slowly starting to progress,'' said Rogers, adding that his ankle didn't feel fully healthy until the summer of 2007.
Rogers didn't dress for the Admirals' season opener in Philadelphia and was a healthy scratch 12 more times before going to Mississippi on Dec. 5. There, he had a goal and 10 penalty minutes and was rated a minus-2 in four games. Recalled to Norfolk two weeks later, he's played in all 12 subsequent games.
“He works hard and listens well and now he's getting a chance to play,” Stirling said. “He's making very good progress.”
“I've been real impressed with Rog in his own end,” Leach said. “He's a big body and he's a good skater and he closes on guys real quick. That's his strong suit.”
He’s still working on improving his decision-making with the puck.
“Things happen very fast at the pro level and I'm realizing to go with my first instinct,” said Rogers, who has no points, a minus-2 rating and 27 penalty minutes in 23 Admirals games. “I have to trust it and know what's going to happen before it happens.”
As for what occurs down the line, Rogers doesn't speculate or focus on it. The stark reality is he must become better in the remaining season-and-a-half remaining on his contract to earn another one and have a shot at making his NHL debut with Tampa Bay. But fretting over it won't help.
“I don't really think about contracts and that stuff, because if you work hard I think they take care of themselves,” Rogers said. “What I've learned this season compared to last season is amazing. I hope I stay on this pace and continue to progress.”
The Admirals aided breast cancer research during their Jan. 12 game against the visiting Hartford Wolf Pack by coloring Scope Arena's ice pink. The tint came out darker and more vivid than intended, but the AHL officials assigned to the game and both coaches signed off on the unusual ice.
Hartford goaltender Al Montoya was glad to participate but said he had trouble with the colored surface from the start.
“In warmups, I was definitely getting beat because I didn't know where I was and I couldn't play the angles right,'' he said, referring to the fact that the markings for the goal lines, crease and face-off circles pretty much disappeared into the reddish tint.
“It was like playing pond hockey for me, because you don't know where you are as you move about,” Montoya said. “You have to sit on the goal line and you can't really go out and challenge shooters. It's a good cause but I hope I never have to play on that again. Maybe next time, they can just put those little ribbons in the ice behind the nets.”
Friday against Hartford, Jancevski's team went down 2-0 quickly and the captain picked a fight with mammoth Wolf Pack forward Hugh Jessiman, who also won a clear cut victory.
“I'm 0-2 against ogres,” Jancevski joked after the game.
Former Lightning goaltender Marc Denis is 1-4-1 with the Admirals, but has played better than his record indicates. The veteran is being credited with directing and calming Norfolk's young defensemen during games. “You can hear him talking and see them playing more relaxed,” said Admirals general manager Claude Loiselle... Norm Milley extended his point streak to seven games (4G, 3A) with a Saturday goal, tying Kyle Wanvig for the team's longest point streak of the season. He also has points in eight of his last nine games (5G, 4A) … Jancevski is on a six-game scoring streak (2G, 6A) dating to December 31 at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Jancevski also has points in seven of his last eight games (2G, 8A) dating back to December 27 vs. Philadelphia … The Admirals have not been out-shot in their last four games (three times out-shooting opponent and one time with shots even). Prior to the run, the Admirals had been out-shot in 27 of 36 games … Forward Shawn Collymore remains out with a shoulder injury.
Mississippi Sea Wolves Notes
If it's Broke, Fix It
The start of a recent Sea Wolves game at Augusta was delayed more than two hours because a portion of the ice wasn't frozen. A broken pipe had caused a similar but shorter delay in a game the night before and repairs were finished only two hours before the start of the game with Mississippi.
The Augusta Chronicle reported the repairs to the broken pipe required a section of ice nine-feet long and two-feet wide to be removed entirely. The puck finally dropped to begin the game at 9:13 p.m. - two hours and eight minutes after the originally scheduled start time.
The host Augusta Lynx announced midway through the first period that those who remained in attendance would receive free soft drinks from the concession stands for the rest of the night.
He Shoots, He Fores
Sea Wolves forward Jason Tejchma, a Michigan native, is enjoying Mississippi, even if he took somewhat of a whirlwind route to get there.
Tejchma began 2007 as a captain for the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, then played a month for ECHL Fresno (Calif.) after the college season finished. He returned to conclude his degree in accounting and finance, got married and began his pro career with the ECHL's Wheeling (W.Va.) Nailers. A couple weeks into the season, he was traded to Mississippi, where he's enjoying the climate.
"It's different down here, being so warm in January,” Tejchma, whose younger brother, Jeremy, is playing Division I hockey at Wayne State in Detroit, told the Muskegon Chronicle. "I had to buy some golf clubs because the guys play almost every day we don't have a game."
Enforcer Brett Angel, who began the season with Norfolk, is wearing No. 0 ... Mississippi began the season 1-10-0-1 but ran off a five-game winning streak recently and passed Charlotte for seventh place in the South Division standings ... Goaltender Ryan Munce was recently named ECHL goaltender of the week and improved to 9-2 with the Sea Wolves ... Forward Ryan Menei will be Mississippi's lone representative at the league all-star game Jan. 23 in Stockton, Calif ... Sea Wolves athletic training intern Jody Green, 23, suited up for the team last month as the backup goaltender. He's done the same previously, twice for Mississippi and also for the now-defunct Louisiana Ice Gators and the AHL's Peoria Rivermen. Green graduated last month from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette and grew up in Gulfport, Miss., next to Biloxi. He began helping with the Sea Wolves' equipment staff in the team's first season, 1995-96, and picked up hockey at a local arena.