Despite a first round playoff exit to the Montreal Canadiens, Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman has to be feeling pretty good about the position the organization is in right now. The Lightning finished a surprising second place in the Atlantic Division, with key contributions from young players like Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, and Ondrej Palat, among others.
Now, Yzerman and brass enter the 2014 NHL Draft with two first round picks – their own, at 19, and the 28th overall pick, acquired from the New York Rangers in the Martin St. Louis trade.
Since being hired in May of 2010, Yzerman has done a tremendous job through the draft, particularly in finding mid- to late-round gems like Radko Gudas (3rd round, 2010), Palat (7th round, 2011) and Cedric Paquette (4th round, 2012). And there is also Jonathan Drouin and Andrey Vasilevskiy to look forward to next year, in what should stack up to be one of the Lightning's most impressive group of young players in franchise history.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Jonathan Drouin, LW
2. Andrey Vasilevskiy, G
3. Nikita Kucherov, RW
4. Vladislav Namestnikov, C
5. Mark Barberio, D
6. Slater Koekkoek, D
7. Adam Erne, RW
8. Cedric Paquette, C
9. Andrej Sustr, D
10. Dmitry Korobov, D
It is unlikely that Yzerman pulls the trigger on a big move prior to the draft, as the organization is flush with players ready to step in, and it was proven last year that many of them certainly can. Though they are losing Ryan Malone, and the status of pending UFA Ryan Callahan is still uncertain, players like J.T. Brown, Nikita Kucherov, Palat and Richard Panik have earned first crack at spots on the wing next year, and Drouin has proved there is nothing left for him to accomplish in junior. They may make a minor move or two for a winger, but it is not a pressing need.
Most notably, the team could use a puck-moving defenseman. Matt Carle has contributed nicely in that regard and Victor Hedman is ever-improving, but Barberio has been inconsistent in his early NHL career.
For years, the Lightning lacked a true number one goaltender, let alone a capable, steady backup. Ben Bishop has fixed that. The 6'7 goaltender has solidified the position at the NHL level, and still just 27-years-old, should do so for the next few years, at the very least, considering he maintains last season's consistency. And past Bishop is Olympian Kristers Gudlevskis, who had a decent 2013-14 campaign spread throughout the NHL, AHL, and ECHL. He does not quite possess "Goaltender of the Future" talent, however; that belongs to Vasilevskiy, who has agreed to come to North America next season, recently having signed an entry-level deal with the Lightning. It is probably in the team's best interest to let him start in Syracuse, but the young goaltender has already proven himself on the international stage, and has had success with Ufa of the KHL.
Down the middle also seems to be a position the Lightning are fairly secure in. At the NHL level, they are set with franchise player Steven Stamkos, potential Rookie of the Year Johnson and last year's big free agent grab, Valtteri Filppula. After an impressive sophomore season in the AHL, Vladislav Namestnikov appears poised for a breakout season next year and could be NHL bound sooner than later, while Paquette projects as a solid third or fourth line center.
In terms of high-end talent on the blue line, the Lightning are lacking. There are a number of players in the organization with bottom pair potential, or slightly higher, but no true top-pairing stud. Slater Koekkoek was, and perhaps still is, poised to be that guy, but the Manotik, Ontario native's propensity for shoulder injuries has been disconcerting. His last three season were cut short due to shoulder surgery, and should those problems continue, the Lightning would be wise to have drafted a defender with one of their two first round picks in the draft.
Most interesting is the Lightning's commitment to drafting Russians. They have selected four in the last four years, as well as Gudlevskis, who was playing in the Russian junior league. And to their credit, all but seventh round selection Nikita Gusev have been signed thus far. It would not be a surprise to see the team go back to Russia once again this year, taking a chance on a player other teams might pass on. The three WHL selections came in Yzerman's first year, but since then, the team has strayed from the WHL.
Position wise, they have only selected three defensemen since 2011, so that will likely be a priority in this year's draft.
The Lightning currently hold eight picks in this year's draft – 19, 28, 50, 80, 140, 142, 170, and 200.
19. Roland McKeown, D, Kingston Frontenacs (OHL)
Having recently selected skilled forward Jonathan Drouin with last year's first round pick, and an abundance of young forwards – Johnson, Kucherov, Brown – establishing themselves as NHL-ready forwards last season, the Lightning will be pleased to select one of the top defenders left on the board – Roland McKeown. Scouts love the Kingston defenseman's ability to move the puck up the ice, as well as his hard, accurate shot. And with current top defense prospect Koekkoek's history of shoulder injuries, a first-round pick on a defenseman would be ideal.
28. Conner Bleackley, C, Red Deer Rebels (WHL)
At 6'1 and 196 pounds, Bleackley is a good mix of size and skill. The High River, Alberta native took an incredible step forward this season, going from 18 points in 2012-13 to 68 in 71 games. He wore an 'A' for the Canadian under-18 junior team, and despite the Lightning already deep at center, they would be remiss to pass on a player with Bleackley's combination of physicality and offensive prowess.