Lightning 2008 draft preview

By Phil Laugher

Lightning Top 10 Prospects

1. Karri Ramo, G
2. Matt Smaby, D
3. Riku Helenius, G
4. Dana Tyrell, C
5. Vladimir Mihalik, D
6. Blair Jones, C
7. Luca Cunti, LW
8. Mitch Fadden, C
9. Justin Keller, LW
10. Kevin Quick, D

The Tampa Bay Lightning went a long way in filling many of the holes in their prospect pool during the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. In dire need of restocking the offensive shelves, the Lightning used seven of their eventual nine draft picks on forwards. The Lightning added quality centers Dana Tyrell, Alex Killorn, and Mitch Fadden to the mix – with each bringing a great blend of skill, speed, and two-way ability to the table. They were able to accomplish that one-day restocking without a first-round selection.

That is not an issue for the Lightning this time around, as they hold the first overall selection in the draft, having won the NHL draft lottery – an opportunity granted them as a result of their holding the dubious distinction of having finished dead last in the NHL this past season. With the organization in flux – a new coach will be behind the bench after John Tortorella was removed, and a new ownership group is on the cusp of acquiring the team – the Lightning will look to make a splash.

It is no secret to anyone the player the Lightning will be making that splash with on draft day — Steven Stamkos.

Team needs

The Lightning’s biggest need was created as a result of the trade of Brad Richards to the Dallas Stars at this past year’s trade deadline. The long-time offensive stalwart, and member of one of the better three-way offensive punches in the league, was moved just before the deadline for a package that included goaltender Mike Smith, and forwards Jussi Jokinen and Jeff Halpern. Richards’s departure created a gargantuan hole in the center position of the Lightning second line. Playing above his ability for the rest of the 2007-08 regular season, one of those players coming the other way in the trade, Halpern, was able to fill that role admirably, scoring at nearly a point-per-game clip from the second line. Halpern will not be an option for the better part of this coming season, as he suffered a serious knee injury during the World Hockey Championships last month in Halifax that will keep him out until, at best, the midway point of the season.

Much to the chagrin of the Lightning, no player presently within the organization has the ability to step into a second line center role immediately (though the future of the center position among prospects in the Lightning organization has been vastly improved since this time last year).

Thankfully for the Lightning, the supposed best player available fits the criteria they seek. With all likelihood, that glaring hole will be filled a couple of minutes after Commissioner Gary Bettman finishes his opening speech.

The Lightning will also need some secondary scoring from the wings. Beyond Martin St. Louis and Jussi Jokinen, the cupboards are quite scant as far as scoring depth from the left and right flanks is concerned. There are a couple of prospects such as Justin Keller and Radek Smolenak who have taken steps forward in the past year, but are still a ways away from seeing duty in the NHL. Whether the Lightning look to address this growing need to the big squad through trades on the draft weekend, or whether they will wait until the free agency period opens, is up in the air.

Organizational strengths

Goaltending continues to be the biggest strength for the Lightning. Tampa Bay has four quality goaltenders under contract who are all under the age of 26, and all have very good upside. Mike Smith and Karri Rämo are the frontrunners to suit up with the Lightning again next season. With long-time waiter-in-the-wings Jonathan Boutin playing strong and patiently biding his time for his opportunity to graduate from the AHL, and Finnish prospect (and former first-round selection) Riku Helenius ready to enter the professional ranks after an up-and-down season in the WHL, all of the top goaltending positions within the organization should be already spoken for with Tampa Bay and Norfolk next season.

The center position has also rapidly become a strength among prospects. While the Lightning will likely use their first overall selection on a centerman, it is also one of the fastest-growing organizational strengths. The Lightning added three quality centermen in Tyrell, Killorn, and Fadden to their prospect group, which already included solid two-way pivots Blair Jones and Chris Lawrence. The off-season signing of Paul Szczechura further strengthened the potential from that group.

The left wing prospects for the Lightning have also taken a step forwarding the past 12 months. Radek Smolenak had been nearly written off after a terrible rookie season, but he bounced back with an excellent second half of his sophomore season. Justin Keller has continued to quietly score in the AHL, improving on all three major statistical categories from his rookie season. Overage Swedish draftee Johan Harju proved to be a bit of an offensive dynamo in the Swedish Elite League, finishing in the top 10 in league goals. And despite coming off what is considered a lost year (from none of his own doing), Luca Cunti has the Lightning salivating at his excellent scoring ability and his potential second line upside.

Organizational weaknesses

What had long been the Lightning prospect strength has slowly become a bit of a weakness, as their stable of big, physical, stay-at-home defensemen has thinned out. While Matt Smaby and Vladimir Mihalik are on the cusp of the NHL, two former top Lightning defensive picks have not lived up to their potential, and are struggling for playing time amid injuries and inconsistency.

Former first-rounder Andy Rogers has not yet been able to assert himself on the back end for Norfolk, nor has he been able to shake the injury-prone stigma that has dogged him since his days in the WHL. Former second-round pick Mike Egener, too, has had problems with injuries, and was a victim of the numbers game on the point in Norfolk. The Lightning tried experimenting with him as a fourth-line energy winger with the Admirals before injuries shut him down for the better part of the 2007-08 season. The most recent addition to the big defensive corps, Dane Crowley, was not signed to a contract before the June 1 deadline, and is no longer Lightning property.

Adding an able-bodied defenseman or two on draft day will be important to offset the likely graduation of Smaby to the Lightning, and Mihalik’s eventual long-term call-up.

The Lightning also need some serious help on the right wing in their system. The top Lightning right wing prospect is Matt Marshall. He has yet to play above the U.S. high school level, and will be heading off to college in the fall. Highly touted right-wingers Marek Kvapil and Stanislav Lascek have been abject disappointments during their minor-league duty in the past couple of seasons. The addition of new blood on the right flank will be a necessity at some point on draft weekend.

Doing to the right side this year what they did to the center position last year is unlikely, but adding a couple of right wingers with the potential for a more immediate impact (rather than the potential of four years’ waiting for Marshall to progress through the college ranks) would be beneficial to the Lightning system as a whole.

Draft Tendencies

In the past couple of NHL Entry Drafts, the Lightning have had the benefit of being able to use their first selection on not only the best player available at the time, but they have also been able to use said pick to fill a glaring hole in the system. The addition of the second-best goaltender in the 2006 draft in Helenius added some confidence to a goaltending corps that had not yet seen the breakout of Karri Rämo on North American ice. The selection of the talented, shifty, and gritty Dana Tyrell with the 47th pick last year set the stage for a run on talented centerman for the rest of the Lightning’s early-round selections in the 2007 draft.

The years of risking much and selecting a big project with a first-round selection have apparently long-since vanished in the rear-view mirror.

The Lightning have proven to be adept at making shrewd picks with many of their late-round selections in recent years. Whether or not this is due to attention to detail in regards to scouting, or whether it was simply a case of even the broken clock being right twice a day (since 2000, 42 of the Lightning’s 78 draft picks have been chosen in the sixth round or later), the Lightning have been able to occasionally strike gold with what would have otherwise been throwaway selections for many other teams. From that group of sixth-round-or-later selections, the Lightning have unearthed current roster players Paul Ranger, Ryan Craig, Rämo, and Nick Tarnasky (as well as Columbus backup Frederik Norrena).

Given that, as it stands, five of Tampa Bay’s eight picks will come in the sixth and seventh rounds again, the chances of the Lightning once again finding a diamond in the rough is an alluring prospect – one that they will have several opportunity to further their late-round magic.

Draft picks

1st – 1 (own)
2nd – 0 (traded to Florida as part of the Chris Gratton trade )
3rd – 1 (own)
4th – 0 (traded to Los Angeles as part of the Ryan Munce trade
5th – 1 (own)
6th – 2 (own, as well as Chicago’s pick from the Karl Stewart/Nikita Alexeev trade)
7th – 3 (own, as well as Nashville’s pick from the Jan Hlavac trade, and Anaheim’s pick from the Jay Leach trade)

Hockey’s Future Staff Mock Draft Result
: Steven Stamkos, C, Sarnia Sting

This selection should come as a surprise to no one. Stamkos is the best player available in the draft. He is also perceived to be the best offensive talent in the draft. Any ideas of the Lightning harboring any potential movement of the pick are highly doubtful. The Stamkos marketing machine has already begun in the Tampa Bay area and on the team’s official website. The 6’0 pivot from Uniondale, Ontario will be given every opportunity to step right in to the second line center position vacated after the departure of Richards. If the scouts are correct, he will quickly become the newest member of the Lightning’s fabled “Big Three” up front.