Lightning 2007 draft preview

By Phil Laugher

Lightning Top 10 Prospects

1. Karri Ramo, G
2. Riku Helenius, G
3. Matt Smaby, D
4. Andy Rogers, D
5. Blair Jones, C
6. Vasily Koshechkin, G
7. Vladimir Mihalik, D
8. Mike Egener, D
9. Marek Kvapil, RW
10. Stanislav Lascek, RW

The Tampa Bay Lightning enter the 2007 NHL Draft Weekend with plenty of holes, and do so without a first-round draft selection. Tampa Bay moved what turned out to be the 16th overall draft pick to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks at the trade deadline, as part of a deal that brought young defenseman Shane O’Brien into the fold.

Coupled with that trade, whether or not the Lightning will have a second-round selection remains in doubt as a result of Tampa Bay’s trade last week for veteran centerman Chris Gratton. The Florida Panthers, Gratton’s former team, retain the right to use Tampa Bay’s second round pick in either this year’s or next year’s draft. Logic would indicate that the Panthers would likely hold off until the 2008 draft to use the option, given that it is widely believed to be a deeper draft as compared to this year’s top-heavy crop of prospects. If there is a player that Florida has their eyes on available when the 47th selection comes up, they will not hesitate to use the option at their disposal, leaving the Lightning (at least at present) without a selection in the first two rounds.

However, if there is one thing that is a near guarantee on draft day, it is that the Lightning will be busy on the trade front. Despite their early movement, in acquiring Gratton and signing Jan Hlavac after a three-year hiatus in Switzerland and the Czech Republic, there is still the possibility that the Lightning could be active on the trade front. While Jay Feaster and company have been relatively quiet in regards to trades in the past couple of seasons on draft day, Feaster has shown a willingness to roll the dice and make moves in the past with the Lightning, and with a couple of glaring holes on the main roster, and a dearth of high draft picks in a draft that has little depth, this could be the year that he jumps back into the trade market with both feet.

Team Needs

The Lightning once again enter this year’s draft with goaltending issues. It was hoped, in the days after the 2006 draft, that the acquisition of Marc Denis from the Columbus Blue Jackets would serve as a very solid stopgap measure until at least one of Tampa Bay’s goaltending prospects was ready for the big time. Denis, however, regularly ran into difficulty, losing minutes to veteran acquisition Johan Holmqvist, and eventually suffered the indignity of being relegated to third fiddle, behind rookie Karri Rämo during the 2007 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Lightning would love to be able to jettison Denis’s contract, however, first they need someone willing to give the veteran netminder another chance.

As far as the Lightning goaltending issues are concerned, Holmqvist, too, was not a guarantee between the pipes for much of the season. If they decide to run with Holmqvist in 2007-08, they would still be better off picking up another, cheaper, veteran backup option, either through trade or off the free agent wire. Rämo looked solid in his first season in North America playing for the Springfield Falcons, but he could still use another year of development time before seeing full-time duty with the big club. However, if the Lightning are left in the lurch between the pipes, they may be forced to promote Rämo early.

The Lightning could also use some secondary scoring, in particular a second-line winger. The acquisition of Gratton solidifies the Lightning’s third line, giving them a big body with excellent face-off ability that can chip in a few goals, but he is not a legitimate second line option at this point in his career. Feaster also went back across the Atlantic, signing Hlavac, claiming that he could be a good fit as a second line winger. While he has been a 28-goal scorer in the past, that year appears to be an aberration (at least as far as NHL play goes) on his career, success is by no means a guarantee. If the Lightning run with Hlavac, chances are that either Ryan Craig (never topped 28 points) or Andreas Karlsson (9 points last season) will be given a shot. If only last year’s Modin for Denis trade could be undone.

Organizational Strengths

Once again, the Lightning’s main strength lies in the back end. The future netminding duties for the Lightning appear to be in good hands, as Jay Feaster has amassed an impressive cadre of goaltenders, starting with Finnish stars Rämo and Riku Helenius, as well as large Russian prospect Vasily Koshechkin. Not to be overlooked is unheralded veteran minor leaguer Jonathan Boutin, who has shown in the last year and a half that any confidence issues are long since buried, and that he can carry the ball if need be. With the potential of Rämo seeing some more duty with the Lightning, with Helenius 100 percent and seeing more minutes in Finland (or, possibly in the CHL, if the right team selects him), and with Koshechkin on the move to a quality, stable Russian program in Ak Bars Kazan, further development among the Lightning goaltending pool appears to be in the offing.

The addition of Shane O’Brien further solidified the Lightning’s future on the point, bringing another mobile, physical presence to a deep (if not very flashy) defense corps. Given the potential for a space or two opening up on the blue line, the time may be now for a few of these defensemen, with Matt Smaby, and perhaps one of Mike Egener or Andy Rogers likely to step up to the big club. Add to that the signing of Vladimir Mihalik, who will jump to the professional ranks with Norfolk, and the continued development of Dane Crowley and Kevin Quick, and the Lightning blue line looks solid for the next several seasons.

Organizational Weaknesses

The glaring weakness of the Lightning system is any semblance of scoring punch from the forward lines. It was hoped that with four prospects jumping to the professional ranks at the culmination of the 2005-06 season that the potential these players displayed in junior would translate to the pro game. Many fell far short of expectations. Radek Smolenak and Stanislav Lascek, who put up big numbers in junior, were snake bitten in the AHL, and spent much of the season in the ECHL. Justin Keller was able to get off to a good start before stumbling down the stretch. Also, even though Blair Jones saw time with the Lightning in the second half of the season, his offense was lacking in the AHL (though he made up for it with strong two-way play). Add a sophomore slump for Marek Kvapil to the mix, and the Lightning forward prospects have to this point, not panned out as was hoped. While it may be too early to panic too much, at least a couple of these players will have to rebound from mediocre seasons if the Lightning forward prospect corps is to take a step or two back in the correct direction. Adding a solid, safe offensive talent would go a long way towards solidifying this group. However, with their lack of high draft picks, that may be a difficult task. Lightning fans should not be too worried about the lack of high draft picks, as Feaster has shown an uncanny ability of finding mid-to-late-round gems.

A less pressing issue is the lack of offensive punch from the blue line, with the relatively unproven Kevin Quick as the best offensive option. Adding another offensive threat from the point at some point  on draft day should be another project.

Another mounting problem for the Lightning system is that at present, Tampa Bay is nearly bereft of junior- and college-aged prospects at any position (but especially at forward, given the signing of Chris Lawrence). Dane Crowley is, at present, the only Lightning prospect who will likely play in the CHL next season, while John Wessbecker and Kevin Quick are the only prospects who will suit up in the NCAA. With the bulk of their prospects already in the professional ranks, the Lightning do have easier accessibility in viewing their future. But, if they struggle like they did this past season in Springfield and Johnstown, and there is not much more down the pipeline, they could be in for some major difficulties a couple of years down the line. Restocking youth in the system will be imperative at the draft.

Draft Tendencies

In a complete role reversal from his predecessor, Feaster has been very tentative in selecting forward prospects from Europe (at least those who had not already committed to come to North America the following season). The last European forward selected by the Lightning who did not play in North America the following season was Albert Vishnyakov, drafted in 2003. Chances are high, particularly given the problems regarding the Russian transfer agreement, that if Tampa Bay looks to bolster their forwards, that they will do so on this side of the Atlantic.

As far as defense and goaltenders are concerned, the Lightning have in recent years trended towards the mantra that bigger is better. The only defenseman selected by the Lightning in the Feaster era that was less than 6’2 was Kevin Quick, last season (6’0). The same holds true for goaltenders, with only current Columbus starter Fredrik Norrena standing below 6’2 of the eight goaltenders chosen by the Lightning in the past five years.

The Lightning have also regularly made good use of their late-round picks under the current management group. Of the players selected outside the top five rounds under Feaster’s watch include current NHLers Paul Ranger, Nick Tarnasky, and Ryan Craig, and top prospects Karri Ramo and Vasily Koshechkin.

Draft Picks

1st – 0 (to Anaheim in the deal that brought Shane O’Brien to Tampa Bay)
2nd – 1 (option that Florida could use pick as a result of Chris Gratton trade)
3rd – 2 (own, as well as a choice of Anaheim’s two picks)
4th – 1 (own)
5th – 0 (to Los Angeles in the deal that brought Jason Ward to Tampa Bay)
6th – 2 (own, as well as Chicago’s pick as a result of Nikita Alexeev trade)
7th – 1 (own)

Hockey’s Future’s Staff Mock Draft Result
: No first round pick.

The Lightning will undoubtedly add a forward with their first pick. Assuming they still have the 47th overall selection at their disposal, a player like Zach Torquato (good nose for the net coupled with excellent leadership), Michal Repik (shifty, with good finish), or Nick Spaling (great two-way ability), should any of them still be available, would work wonders. If they choose to neglect the forward quagmire with their first pick, T.J. Brennan would be an excellent option to fill the offensive defenseman gap.

Copyright 2007 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.