We've been very quiet here at Bolt Prospects lately. It's not for a lack of interest in the team, mind you, or excitement about the impending draft. However, it's hard to post commentary at this time with so much up in the air. After years of having the same ownership and hockey operations team in place, it was easy to predict what the Lightning were going to do and what kind of players they would pursue. However, with new owner Oren Koules coming in with an ownership group suspected of also including former NHLers Len Barrie and Luc Robitaille and Head Coach John Tortorella cut loose with rumors of ESPN analyst Barry Melrose taking over, it's difficult to know what kind of players the Lightning will pursue. If Melrose does indeed take over, what will his system look like after 13 years out of coaching? How will he handle the new rules? No red line? It's impossible to say.
And so, my personal draft preview has to begin with this admission: I'm apprehensive about the ownership situation, and as the weeks go on I continue to wait for the next shoe to drop, and then the next, and then the next. Having a new ownership group which is more enthusiastic about hockey and willing to put more money into the on ice product is potentially exciting. But the idea of a cast of amateurs and/or people who have been away from the game for many, many years swooping in and hiring their cronies and giving them key positions of leadership in the hockey operations is frightening. I worry about the level of professionalism this new group is going to have, and without saying much of a word in the media Koules and his people have already managed to project the image of a traveling circus that is coming to town. Friday and Saturday's draft will be their first opportunity to show to the hockey world that they bring organizational discipline and rigor to the table, and not just the flash of a Hollywood production.
From a personnel standpoint, there's no secrets going into this draft. The biggest hole in the organization is at the second line center position, and Steve Stamkos will fill that hole immediately. Barring the Stamkos family car driving off a cliff on the way to Ottawa, the talented Sarnia pivot will be the number one pick Friday night, as evidenced by the fact the Lightning have been marketing the young man through their "Seen Stamkos?" campaign for the last two months. Having read the scouting reports from three independent organizations and having watched several of his World Junior Championships games, I have come to one conclusion: Steven Stamkos will be the most complete and most NHL ready player the Tampa Bay Lightning have ever selected in their history, including Vincent Lecavalier. He has been universally compared to former Red Wings great Steve Yzerman, and I have to say the comparisons are apt. On tape, like Yzerman, there's no one thing about Stamkos' game that makes me say, "Wow, he's going to be one of the best two or three in the game at that!" A guy like Mikkel Boedker, for instance, is a better skater than Stamkos, while heralded 2009 eligible John Tavares struck me as a better natural finisher. However, if you look across the board, there really are no weaknesses in Stamkos' game. He may not be the best at any one thing, but like Yzerman I suspect that when Stamkos matures he will be one of the best 10-15 players in the game at pretty much everything. Skating. Finishing. Passing the puck. Moving away from the puck. Back checking. Faceoffs. Battle level. Leadership intangibles. You have to put a check by every single one of these when looking at Stamkos.
I have seen a lot of hockey players come through the AHL and with the exception of Martin St. Louis, Rob Schremp is the best to skate at the Mass Mutual Center (formerly Civic Center). Is he better than Daniel Briere? Flip a coin. We knew Briere was in. I see Schremp in an Oilers Jersey very soon. Hope it's his. Go figure.
Lost between the cracks of the John Tortorella/Oren Koules fiasco, the Lightning have reached an agreement with defenseman prospect Kevin Quick on an entry level deal. The word broke Saturday on Erik Erlendsson's blog. Quick played 18 games for Norfolk of the AHL last season on an ATO contract after being dismissed from the University of Michigan.
At the end of one period in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Finals, Pittsburgh has Philadelphia on the brink of elimination leading 2-0 in the game and 3-1 in the series. If this is the Flyers' final game of the season, Bolt Prospects would like to take this opportunity to thank the Lightning's long time rivals. Part of the Vaclav Prospal for Alexandre Picard swap made at the deadline was a conditional pick with the Lightning receiving a 2nd round pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft if the Flyers made it to the Eastern Conference Finals. So Flyers fans, don't look at the beat down you're catching from the Pens as a total loss. At least you're helping the Lightning's cause. Tampa Bay will have multiple second round picks for the first time since the 2003 NHL Entry Draft with the very real possibility of having three top-60 picks for the first time since the 1995 NHL Entry Draft (when there were only 26 teams in the league). So, while Steve Stamkos' impending selection at #1 overall in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft may be the Lightning's most important single draft pick in a decade, next year's 2009 NHL Entry Draft is shaping up to potentially be its most important draft overall since 1998 in terms of organizational depth and strength.
Note that, as Bolt Prospects pointed out at the All-Star Break, about 7 in 10 NHL players who have made the league from the 2002 NHL Entry Draft forward came from the top-60 picks. The Lightning had the third least top-60 picks over the same time period with just 7. So, for the Lightning, 2009 appears to be a golden opportunity to replenish the system and augment the successes the Lightning have already had in the later rounds of the draft beyond pick 100.
Damian Crisdotero is reporting in his blog that the Lightning are in talks with Russian forward and Bolt Prospects alumni Evgeny Artyukhin. Artyukhin has spent the past two seasons in the Russian Superleague after leaving the NHL due to a prolonged contract dispute with the Lightning.