Lightning 2004 draft preview

By Chad Schnarr

Lightning Top 10 Prospects

1. Alexander Polushin, RW
2. Mike Egener, D
3. Adam Henrich, LW
4. Gerard Dicaire, D
5. Matt Smaby, D
6. Andreas Holmqvist, D
7. Evgeni Artukhin, RW
8. Ryan Craig, C/W
9. Brian Eklund, G
10. Anton But, LW

Team Needs

The Lightning has made only two first round picks since taking Vincent Lecavalier first overall in 1998 and only one, Nikita Alexeev, remains on the organizational roster. Trading first round picks and prospects like Alexander Svitov in an effort to “win now” paid off this season as the Tampa Bay area is celebrating its first Stanley Cup. As a result of the trades, however, the Lightning cupboard is left without a healthy amount of high-end prospects. The Bolts need another skilled forward or two with first line upside, which will be a challenge to find since the club earned the right to sit at the bottom of each round. Additionally, General Manager Jay Feaster has attempted a “quality through quantity” approach to stockpiling goaltending prospects, and although some show promise, the Lightning lacks a clear-cut goaltender of the future.

Organizational Strengths

The biggest need on the Lightning farm for the last three years was finally corrected earlier this season when Tampa Bay signed a three-year full affiliation agreement with Springfield of the AHL. After years of being separated and at the mercy of coaches and systems of other organizations, Lightning prospects will now be not only together, but also given the attention and ice time they need to fully develop.

Feaster, a former Calder Cup winning GM with Hershey, will be able to offer Springfield a nice stable of character forwards projected to be NHLers down the road. Highlighted by mammoths Evgeni Arukhin (6’5”), Dennis Packard (6’6”), and newly signed Adam Henrich (6’4”), what these forwards may lack in skill they make up for in character, size, and speed. In the near future, Springfield will sport a young blueline that could include Andreas Holmqvist, Mike Egener, Gerard Dicaire, Matt Smaby, Paul Ranger, and Doug O’Brien. This defensive depth, the pride of the Lightning farm, offers a healthy variety of size, skill, and physicality, but without the pylon effect—they were drafted for their skating abilities.

The full affiliation also affords Tampa the often-underappreciated chance to determine the playing time of its pool of big, competitive goaltenders. Springfield will be led next year by 2003-04 Pensacola Ice Pilot Brian Eklund (6’5”), possibly with Finnish over-ager Fredrik Norrena (6’0”), and potentially in the future Jonathan Boutin (6’1”), who had coming out party during PEI’s playoff run, Gerald Coleman (6’4”), Joe Pearce (6’5”), or Vasily Koshechkin (6’6”).

Organizational Weaknesses

Looking into the future, the first major hole to appear in the Lightning armor appears to be in goal. With a new Collective Bargaining Agreement on the horizon potentially limiting payroll, and the Lightning’s Nikolai Khabibulin set to play the final year of his contract at $6.5 million, the Lightning could find themselves without a premier goaltender in as little as one year. Though the organization is pleased with the improvement of Khabibulin’s immediate successor, John Grahame, after the second rung down the ladder the steps don’t seem too secure.

Evgeny Konstantinov, a former third rounder, failed in his pursuit to be the Lightning’s goaltender of the future and will likely be a free agent next month. Eklund had a successful season in the ECHL, but has yet to even prove himself on the AHL level. Boutin and Coleman finished the year on a strong note and the Lightning is encouraged by their development, but neither was able to hold the No. 1 job for their respective junior teams and both will be fighting next year to do the same. Norrena, a 2002 pick, enjoyed a strong second season in the Swedish Elite League, but signing problems and age may keep the 30-year-old out of the Lightning’s plans.

Therefore, if the Lightning was able to choose a goaltender in the first round for the first time in their history, it could go a long way to covering their bases for the team’s most important position considering their attacking playing style. Speaking of that playing style, the Bolts must have high-end skill forwards to utilize its potential, and the organization lacks that next wave of first line talent, especially at center.

Draft Tendencies

In their two years under Feaster, the Lightning has made four first-day draft picks and every one has been a North American. In fact, 17 of Feaster’s 24 total picks have been players from North American clubs, including nine of 11 last year. Feaster and head scout Jake Goertzen will identify needs before the draft and little will sway them from their almost single-minded agenda. This was evidenced last year when they targeted defense and goaltending but had Anthony Stewart fall into their laps at 25. Feaster, not shy to trade down, passed on Stewart, trading the pick to rival Florida for two second round picks and a sixth, all of which he used on defensemen: Egener, Smaby, and 2004 QMJHL Defenseman of the Year, O’Brien. Feaster later drafted goaltenders Boutin (third round) and Coleman (seventh round), choosing not to take a forward until the 255th pick (Latvian Raimonds Danilicis). Feaster and Jeff Reese, Tampa’s goaltending coach, crave goaltenders with size and a competitive edge. When it comes to skaters, character, size, and speed are a necessity.

Player most likely to be taken (Hockey’s Future mock draft result): Devan Dubnyk, G

Note: Pete Choquette contributed to this article.