by Keith Phillips || AHL On The Beat Archive
When you think of the best players on the ice in a game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Pittsburgh Penguins, the names Lecavalier, Crosby, St. Louis and Malkin quickly spring to mind.
But on Dec. 23, 2008, it was Lightning forward Paul Szczechura with first-star honors in Pittsburgh.
It is remarkable to think of how far Szczechura has come in the span of a little over a year. In early 2008, Szczechura was toiling on an AHL contract with the Iowa Stars, with just two goals and five points to his credit in 29 games.
On Jan. 15, 2008, all of that changed when he was traded to the Norfolk Admirals.
For Admirals fans, the biggest news of that day was that captain Dan Jancevski had been traded by the Lightning to Dallas in exchange for former Hobey Baker Award winner Junior Lessard. Norfolk’s acquisition of Szczechura from Iowa flew under their radar.
However, Admirals fans didn’t have to wait too long to realize that Szczechura was something special.
Given a fresh opportunity to prove himself with a new team and additional ice time, the pro rookie registered points in his first 10 games as an Admiral, doubling his season point total in just five games. Szczechura racked up 14 goals and 26 points in just 24 games with Norfolk for the rest of 2007-08.
Despite appearing in just over a quarter of the team’s games, Szczechura ended the season as Norfolk’s leading rookie scorer, was tied for the team lead in game-winning goals and ranked second with a plus-10 plus/minus rating.
"It’s all about opportunity," said Szczechura. "I was given the opportunity to play in Norfolk and kind of work my way up."
Norfolk’s season ended on Apr. 12 with Szczechura netting an overtime game-winning goal against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Twelve days later, he signed his first NHL contract – a two-year deal with Tampa Bay.
"Once I got an NHL contract and went to [Lightning] training camp, I told myself, ‘I can play in that league.’ I was determined to get [to the NHL]."
Szczechura was assigned to the Admirals at the beginning of the 2008-09 season. He was leading Norfolk and ranked among the AHL leaders with 11 goals and 24 points through 23 games when Admirals general manager Mike Butters called him into his hotel room in Hershey on Dec. 1.
He was told that he and teammate Radek Smolenak were driving to Philadelphia that night to meet the Lightning, who played the Flyers the next day. Both would make their NHL debuts.
Szczechura netted his first NHL goal three games later in Boston and had his magical night in Pittsburgh in his 10th game. The Lightning won that game 2-0. Just over eight months after netting the game-winning goal against the Baby Penguins in Wilkes-Barre, Szczechura scored the game-winning goal against the parent club and assisted on the Lightning’s other goal.
"Being named first star [in a game that included] Crosby, Malkin and all of those guys was just awesome. It was pretty exciting, and that is the highlight of my NHL career so far."
For Admirals fans, Szczechura is one of the first "home-grown" players to make it to the NHL in the two seasons since Norfolk has been affiliated with Tampa Bay Lightning. They were able to witness a young man who, through hard work and determination, metamorphosized before their very eyes from a relative unknown into an NHL player in less than a year.
"Looking back on it, it’s kind of unbelievable the turn my career took after being traded. I never thought that I would end up in the NHL not even a year later. I was determined to get here and I guess all of my hard work and determination is paying off right now."
It makes you wonder what the next year has in store for Paul Szczechura. Look out Sidney Crosby.