First, the trade for Kevin Weekes. The original plan was to add a veteran goaltender to help Dan Clouthier’s progression. This was probably a good idea at first, but considering the cost of a veteran goalie and the fact that who would really teach someone to take their job, not really feasible. Weekes came on strong at the end of last season and should be on the brink of breaking out. He is an athletic player and just needs a little seasoning. He should push Cloutier for the number spot and if nothing else is a very capable backup. The key to that trade though was actually the defenseman, Kristian Kudroc. The Lightning wanted Kudroc last year and would have selected him in the 2nd round. The Islanders traded up to get him though. Kudroc is big, tough, and has an immense upside. He is just another of the vast stable of blue liners that Tampa Bay has amassed.
On to the picks. They really did get who they wanted. Even after trading the 5th overall pick, they were able to still get the player they wanted, Nikita Alexeev, with the 8th pick. The Bolts had Alexeev slotted as their first pick all along. The only thing that may have altered that would have been if DiPietro had slipped. Now the kicker. The player they wanted at number eight was actually available to them when they picked at 34, Ruslan Zainullin. He was a guy that they had scouted and liked a lot, enough that they would have taken him much higher than most had projected. No other team scouted him like the Lightning. Tampa Bay spent over $2 million dollars scouting in Europe this past year and it paid off. The team believes that Zainullin may just win a roster spot in camp this summer. Even though he is only 18, he played in a league with men and excelled. Two more players that they wanted very badly and got were Thomas Zeigler and Alex Kharitonov. They too may have a shot at making the team. Kharatonov was the only pick not to fit the mold of what type of player Rick Dudley was looking for but the scouts felt he had attributes that made him a worthy selection such as heart and competitiveness.
This team was more prepared than any other I have ever seen. I’ve been involved with every draft since 1986 in some form or another. They have a huge staff that is talented and hard working. The effort by this group of guys will someday be the basis for the building of a contending team in the NHL. No other team could even come close to the saturation of Europe that the Bolts had. Rick Dudley has great respect for the skills of the European players. He has a theory that many GMs are starting to take notice of. He feels that playing fewer games in their seasons helps the players over there develop skills better. Unlike Canadian Junior Leagues, which play 3 and sometimes 4 games a night similar to the NHL, they play only 1 or 2 games a week, usually on the weekends. This gives them much more practice time and not game time. It is much easier to develop fundamentals and skills during practice rather than in game situations. Time will tell wether he is right.
The organization was absolutely thrilled with what went on during the weekend of the draft. All the hard work during the season seemed to have paid off. They were ahead of the game from the onset. They prepared hard, slotting over 400 players and conducting countless mock drafts, and were ready for anything that happened. Head Scout Jake Goertzen said, “You felt a lot of confidence going into the draft. I don’t know if there was player drafted that we did not know, so there was a good feeling.”