Lightning 2001 draft preview

By Chad Schnarr

In the ever-active mind of Lightning General Manager Rick Dudley, there is a certain make-up a player must posses if he is to join one of the up-and-coming teams of the NHL. Knowing the history of the Lightning, one could assume that would be “knew how to skate,” and left it there. Seeing how 1996 first rounder Mario Larocque turned out, even that wasn’t always followed.

That was then, this is now. Dudley is looking for a few key ingredients in prospects to set them apart from the others. Primarily, he wants size, he wants speed and he wants skill. Secondarily, he would prefer a nasty streak and a well-rounded, defensive game already in place. In other words, the prospect must be able to find their own zone without the use of a map or asking a linesman for directions.

Normally when drafting in the top end of the first round, the plan of attack is common sense; take the best player available and if he doesn’t work out or you’re loaded at that position – deal accordingly. As more attention is made to prospects’ strength and development, especially in Europe (Dudley has made known his admiration for the developmental programs overseas, specifically Russia. This evidenced by 5/10 picks last year from Russia, 2 North American.), the more prospects are becoming closer to NHL readiness. Because of that, the more “need” creeps into the equation. Such is the case for Tampa, considering their shallow forward lines and strong draft position.

The Lightning need help filling holes up front and Dudley thinks this draft can help. In other words, don’t count on “Trader Rick” dealing the pick for yet another goalie or more depth.

Using the third pick in the draft, Dudley is likely to select one of five forwards – Illya Kovalchuk, Jason Spezza, Alexander Svitov, Stanislav Chistov, or Stephen Weiss. The only way Dudley gets his hands on Kovalchuk is if he trades up with Atlanta for the top pick. Don’t count on Atlanta GM Don Waddell handing over the prize of the draft to a division rival, though. Number two is considered a wide-open race, but Jason Spezza, the playmaking center from the Ontario Hockey League, is still (barely) leading that race. There is a slight chance Spezza will be there at #3, but no one should start putting “Spezza” on the back of any Lightning sweaters in anticipation. That leaves Alexander Svitov (physical, skilled center), Stanislav Chitsov (sniper on the wing) and Stephen Weiss (well-balanced, leader at center).

The question is, which player best fits Dudley’s criteria?

Last year, the answer was relatively easy. Nikita Alexeev had size (6’5”), speed (won fastest skater at prospects game), skill (24 goals in OHL) and wasn’t afraid of physical contact. He was taken with the 8th overall pick.

This year, the proverbial finger is pointing to one guy – Alexander Svitov.

Svitov, an 18 year old who has been playing in the Russia’s top hockey league (RSL) since he was 15, seems to be what Dudley is looking for. He’s got size (6’3”, 197 pounds) and he can hold his own in the skating department. Skill wise, his numbers don’t jump out at you until you remember he’s been playing checking center for the second best team in the RSL for the past two years, limiting his ice-time. Since ‘98-‘99, in the few instances he’s been in action against young men his own age, his skills have been on display to the tune of 57 points (35 goals) in 64 games. Add Svitov’s aggressiveness, or as Dudley calls it, “a nasty streak,” and Svitov becomes a little more attractive. Perhaps Dudley, who as a player never met a scrum he didn’t like, wants to see himself in some of the players he chooses. In those same 64 games, Svitov racked up 197 penalty minutes. He had 149 pim’s in the RSL this past season for Avangard Omsk in 53 games (added 18 points). Svitov has also displayed a keen defensive awareness. He excels at the penalty kill and can sometimes be mistaken for an opponent’s shadow.

As a result of his experience in the RSL, Svitov has been proclaimed the most NHL ready player entering the draft. If drafted, he could provide immediate assistance to a young Tampa Bay squad. His size and style would be welcome to a team who some teams view as “easy to play against.”

Tampa has been criticized in the past for not playing a physical enough game. They have replaced their Strength & Conditioning coach, in an attempt to improve the overall physicality of the team. The team is far more productive when playing an aggressive, rougher style game.

When the coaching staff decided to allow Brad Richards to play Right Wing on the top line along side Vincent Lecavalier, a huge hole was left in the middle of the second line. Chances are Svitov could not step right in and score 20 goals, but the #2 center spot is something this Bobby Holik-clone could secure in the near future.

Svitov is appealing, but no one should start listing him as their favorite Bolt just yet.

Russian Stanislav Chistov could be the sniper that the Lightning desperately need. There’s some talk he could even go #1 overall. Chitsov is the type of player who could be a homerun pick because of his speed, hockey sense, shot and skill. He could also be a strikeout pick because of his lack of size, defensive ability, grit and unwillingness to play in traffic. Cutting across the middle in the wide-open RSL (Chitsov also played for Omsk) is a lot different than cutting across the middle in the Scott Stevens patrolled NHL. Chitsov could be the next Pavel Bure however, and one GM will take a chance on him and hope to reap the benefits.

Canadian Stephen Weiss is the other possibility for the Bolts at #3. Weiss doesn’t have flash, but he has production. Sometimes production loses out to flash in evaluating players, just ask Brad Richards. Weiss scores goals, he’s a fine playmaker, he’s defensively responsible, he skates well, he has shown great leadership and he’s gritty. He’s been compared to a young Steve Yzerman. So what’s wrong with him? The best answer anyone can come up with is he does not have great size (6’0” 184), and that’s scaring some GM’s. He would be a fine second line center for the Lightning down the road. He’s not as NHL ready as Svitov, and that may be what would give Svitov the nod over Weiss in the only mind that counts – Rick Dudley’s. It would be a matter of personal preference and speculation of future impact.

Regardless who may fall to #3 (Kovalchuk? Spezza?), or may no longer be available at #3 (Svitov?), the 2001 Entry Draft is very strong. With 6-8 prized prospects available, you can bet Dudley will walk away with someone who will be another talented piece in the young core of the Bolts.