Lightning 2006 draft preview

By Phil Laugher

Tampa Bay’s Top 10 Prospects

1. Andy Rogers
2. Ryan Craig
3. Radek Smolanek
4. Matt Smaby
5. Stanislav Lascek
6. Vladimir Mihalik
7. Karri Rämo
8. Nick Tarnasky
9. Mike Egener
10. Doug O’Brien

The Tampa Bay Lightning enter the fifth NHL Entry Draft of the Jay Feaster era with the 15th overall selection. Whether or not they will choose to hang onto that selection, trade down in order to improve their team now and still get a strong player with a later pick, or trade up in order to pick someone they have an eye on remains to be seen. Feaster has shown a willingness to move his first selection in the past, moving his fourth overall selection in the 2002 draft — his first draft as the Lightning general manager — in a deal that brought Ruslan Fedotenko to the Lightning, as well as his first round selection in the 2003 draft, which brought two high second round picks, in which he selected defensemen Mike Egener and Matt Smaby.

For the past two seasons, the Lightning have had the last selection in the first round, thanks to their Stanley Cup championship in the 2004 season, and the subsequent lockout which wiped out the 2005 season. The Lightning now have an opportunity to use their own relatively high pick on a player who can make a large impact in the near future on the Lightning squad.

Team Needs

The most pressing need for next season’s Lightning squad is a bona fide starting goaltender. Tampa Bay entered the post-lockout era without their star netminder Nikolai Khabibulin, who chose to sign on with Chicago in the offseason, leaving Tampa Bay with the veteran platoon of Sean Burke and John Grahame. Both goaltenders were oft injured and not as effected as needed, and with the likelihood that either one or both will not return next season, Tampa Bay is left without a starting goaltender with NHL experience. The Lightning have, in the offseason, signed one of their previous overage draft selections, coming to terms with both Frederik Norrena (originally selected in the seventh round of the 2002 NHL Entry Draft), who had a dynamite season with Linkoping in the Swedish Elite League this past season, as well as former New York Rangers draft pick Johan Holmqvist, who also had a stellar season in the Swedish league, with Brynas Gavle. Despite how strong these two have played in the European leagues, they are unproven and will need adjustment time.

Tampa helped to remedy one of their major concerns heading into the offseason, coming to terms with playmaking forward Brad Richards on a multi-year, multi-million dollar contract. If Tampa cannot also re-sign veteran defenseman Pavel Kubina, there are plenty of bodies that can step in from the minors or college ranks (along the lines of Smaby, Doug O’Brien, or Andy Rogers), though it would be in their best interests to re-sign him, for he is an important contributor in all aspects of the game on the point, and brings great leadership.

Organizational Strengths

Tampa Bay’s defensive depth places them in the top half of the league in regards to both their quantity and quality. They boast a large number of large, strong, mobile, defensively responsible defensemen, headed up by Matt Smaby, who recently came to terms with the Lightning and will be making the jump to the professional ranks from the NCAA next season. Smaby and the Lightning’s future blue line are joined by big and composed Vladimir Mihalik and Mike Egener, as well as two-way talents in Lightning top prospect Andy Rogers and veteran AHLer Doug O’Brien.

Tampa Bay also boasts a large number of competent netminders in their minor league, junior, and European ranks, headed up by super-Finn Karri Rämo, who will come across the Atlantic to join the Tampa Bay minor league system next year, after coming to terms on a new contract. Already on this side of the Atlantic are Gerald Coleman (who has already made his NHL debut) and Jonathan Boutin (who had a bit of a renaissance last season after running into consistency issues in the past couple of seasons). Still on the other side of the Atlantic, tearing up the Russian Super League, is Vasily Koshechkin, who very nearly agreed to terms with Tampa Bay, but chose to remain in Russia one more season.

One aspect of the Tampa Bay system that had been a previous weakness that has seen a resurrection over the course of the past season was in regards to their wingers. Both Justin Keller in the WHL, and Stanislav Lascek in the QMJHL had breakout offensive seasons, while Radek Smolanek continued to progress in his second season in North America. Coupled with some of their middling prospects in Darren Reid and Marek Kvapil gaining some consistency and rounding into their new niches in the professional ranks, the wing situation in Tampa Bay’s future is looking much brighter than it did 12 months ago.

Organizational Weaknesses

One of the major concerns in the Lightning system at present is their lack of an offensive-minded defenseman to take control of the power play should Dan Boyle leave the Lightning at the end of his contract. Tampa Bay has not had much luck with homegrown offensive defensemen, with their last foray into that field, former highly-touted prospect Andreas Holmqvist bombing in Springfield in his short North American stint two years ago, before he bolted back to Europe when he was unable to discover consistency, nor a defensive game to complement his offensive skills. In spite of Tampa’s defensive depth, there is a dearth of players with offensive talent on the Lightning defense prospect corp. Players like O’Brien have some offensive capabilities, but their ability to operate an NHL power play is suspect at present, and much seasoning is still needed to get him in a position to do such. An offensive defenseman will definitely be on the docket this year’s draft.

Also of concern is the relative lack of playmaking centermen in the Lightning system at present. Blair Jones has begun to show promise in that regard, showing great progress this past season with the fledgling Moose Jaw Warriors in the Western Hockey League, however, at present, he is really the only option. More depth from the center position is another need for this year’s draft.

The Lightning could also use a game-breaking goaltender who is well schooled in the North American game. They have plenty of quality bodies in their system that are quite strong, however, the best of the best have spent their entire careers in Europe. While there is much hope in Rämo and Koshechkin displaying the same prowess that they have shown in Europe in the North American game, both players have spent zero minutes in a professional game on this side of the Atlantic, and until they can prove to make a relatively seamless transition to the North American game, their future contributions to the Lightning squad will remain suspect. Meanwhile, players like Coleman and Boutin, as well as Morgan Cey are not currently on a path that will lead them to a starting job in the NHL. They have shown promise, but still have a long way to go to bridge the gap between potential backup and potential starter.

Draft Tendencies

The first selections of the Lightning in the last three entry drafts have all been big defensemen. Jay Feaster likes them big on the blue line, and has stocked the defensive cupboards quite full for the future should their goaltending situation not pan out as hoped. In the Feaster era, the first two rounds — in which there have been seven selections — have yielded four strong defensemen in Egener, Smaby, Rogers and Mihalik, as well as three forwards, in talented two-way man Smolanek, and big wingers in project Adam Henrich and Mark Tobin (Tobin did not come to terms with the Lightning, and will re-enter this year’s draft).

They have also tended to keep their selections early selections on this side of the Atlantic, with only two players – Mihalik and Marek Bartanus – being selected in the first one hundred selections from teams from outside North America. Both 2005 selections came across the Atlantic to play in the CHL this past season. In all, only 11 of Feaster’s 41 draft selections as general manager have been from Canadian and American junior leagues, and when he has gone overseas, he has tended to take flyers on Europeans with later-round picks.

When it comes to goaltenders, Feaster’s philosophy has been relatively the same in regards to his philosophy in drafting defensemen: bigger is better. Of the seven goaltenders selected in the four years under Feaster, only one, Norrena, has stood under 6’2.

The Lightning is not in too bad shape in regards to the future club’s make-up entering this year’s draft, perhaps the first time this has been such in the past few seasons. They have plenty of flexibility in regards to who to select, and the options available at their disposal, and are in the position to select the best player available rather than filling holes, though, depending upon who is left on the board, it is possible that the best player available may alleviate some concerns in one of their areas of need.

With the best offensive defenseman, Bobby Sanguinetti, already off the board, and a talented playmaking center in Patrik Berglund going just before Tampa Bay’s selection, the chances of them trading the 15th pick to move down, and still being able to fill one of these holes later in the first round, while adding a valuable veteran component at the same time, is entirely possible. However, until that becomes a reality…

Hockey’s Future Mock Draft Result: Jonathan Bernier, G, QMJHL, Lewiston MAINEiacs.

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