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Rock Solid First Round for the Lightning

Hard to argue with what the Lightning accomplished tonight at the draft. I think the two players they got are definitely going to be NHLers and their athleticism is bullet-proof. For the second year in a row, they got the perfect fit getting Victor Hedman. He's exactly what the Lightning needed, and he has the ability to make the entire defensive corps better. In a perfect world, the Lightning would've been able to get one of those pure offensive defensemen to pair with him that they could just turn loose, but it wasn't in the cards.

Credit to Brian Lawton for being aggressive trying to move up. From about pick #10 or #11, the Lightning were trying to move back into the first round to acquire another prospect. This is the first time in team history they've been this aggressive, and they got a good payoff for it. I was worried that the ownership squabbles were such a distraction that Lawton would sit on his hands tonight, but that wasn't the case. They had the resources to make moves, and they tried to do so.

I have no problem moving a pick outside of the top-60 to move up a few picks to get a player you believe is going to be an NHLer, and Carter Ashton was very good value at pick 29. He should have gone around pick 20 and there are several forwards who were taken ahead of him that simply aren't better players than he is. The Lightning got a guy who's going to be that Modin type player who does the board work for you and drives the slot and bangs 25-30 goals home for you. They've desperately needed a player like that since Modin was dealt. Even Ryan Malone, as good as he is around the opposing crease, could be stronger along the wall. Ashton's great along the wall, with the added dimension of being a good fighter if you provoke him. He might end up being a good protector for Stamkos down the road. A simple meat and potatoes game like he has translates well on any line you put him on. I thought the Lightning might take a player like Ashton like Budish, for instance, with the pick at 32. I never though Ashton would slide down as low as 29 to be a possibility for the Lightning. Definitely a rock solid pick.

The only downside from the first night of the draft is that because the Lightning don't pick again until 52, I don't know if they'll be able to grab a righty shot offensive defenseman. There are some players still on the board they could use: Charles Olivier Roussel of Shawinigan and Stefan Elliott of Saskatoon are still out there. Eric Gelinas of Lewiston is a lefty shot defenseman with a lot of offensive upside who is still out there as well. I doubt they'll make it to 52, though, and I doubt the Lightning have the resources left to move up from 52 to get one.

Chad and Tim from our staff made a good point to me: now that you have Ashton to go along with a prospect like Johan Harju, you need a playmaker to set these big snipers up because they're not the type of players who make their own offense on the rush. But, other than Alex Hutchings of Barrie, there's not many playmakers left. There are some snipers like Jeremy Morin of the USNTDP, Toni Rajala from the Ilves program, Landon Ferraro of Red Deer, and Ben Hanowski of Little Falls High School. There's also a wild card like Zach Budish, who's a power forward who can do it all, but was hurt all year. So, there's a lot of talent still hanging around. I just wish the Lightning could be at about 42 rather than 52 to know they're going to get a player like that.

Another thought is that Rick Tocchet tweeted that there's a scary enforcer who the Lightning should take a look at. Defenseman Brayden McNabb, who is rated at 66 by Red Line and 54 by THN is one of the toughest players in this draft, apparently bit someone somewhere along the way this season. Cannibalism qualifies as scary.

Let the Draft Chat Begin

We're starting up the chat now, for folks who's like to join the party at our own virtual Barnacles in Brandon. Try the fried calamari, or the mozerella sticks. The chat is open to anyone registered for the Bolt Prospects message board.

Calm Before the... Calm?

Right after word came down that goaltender Karri Ramo was bolting for Russia and that Gary Bettman had to have an emergency meeting with the ownership group, stoking speculation about a trade of Vincent Lecavalier, things seem to have settled down, at least on the hockey operations front. Speculation is that part owner Len Barrie would have to sign off on a Lecavalier trade, and he apparently won't, and GM Brian Lawton, who is allegedly an ally of part owner Oren Koules, sent out an e-mail reasserting he is the sole point of contact for any hockey operations decisions for the Lightning. My interpretation is that, as far as any big moves go, the two sides are at a stalemate, which might be the best Lightning fans can hope for in the short term from this three ring circus situation.

The Lightning seem on track to draft Swedish defenseman Victor Hedman, according to Damian Crisdotero of the Times, presuming everything goes to plan and the Islanders take John Tavares with the first overall pick. If that goes down, we'll have a lot more on Hedman up on the site tomorrow night after the selection is made. Suffice it to say the scouting community generally has a glowing opinion of Hedman, and he might be the best prospect to come out since Sid Crosby was drafted. Yes, he might be better than Stamkos. The Lightning have the resources to move up into the late first round if there's a player they have an eye on, but Crisdotero speculated in a recent live chat that he doesn't expect the Lightning to make many moves. Personally, if Ryan Ellis or David Rundblad were to slip to about pick 22, I would try to pull the trigger to move up from 32, but if Crisdotero is be believed, that's not in the cards. Chances are those two d-men won't slip, so the point may be moot, but there's something compelling to me about getting an offensive minded righty shot partner for Hedman capable of racking up 50-60 point seasons. It's not often you get the chance to build your top pairing for a generation.

My guess is nothing earth shaking will happen over the weekend. Lecavalier will probably stay in Tampa one more season, and I suspect his level of play will determine whether Oren Koules, who looks destined to eventually win the power struggle, decides to keep him or jettison him. That's good news for Steven Stamkos, because Lecavalier will keep a lot of attention off Stammer's line, which makes a potential 40 goal sophomore campaign possible, in my opinion. I expect the Islanders to take Tavares, because their fan base would revolt otherwise, leaving the Lightning to again luck into drafting the perfect fit for their needs in Hedman. I expect the Lightning to keep their two second round picks, at which point we'll get to see what this new scouting staff is made of. At 32, there should be some good offensive defensemen available, which is a big organizational need. However, there will also be a handful of very interesting forwards on the board too like, perhaps, Morin or Budish who might attract the scouts' attention. At 52, you're hoping a sleeper slips through, or someone more highly ranked drops. One thing we do know: Tyson Barrie's probably not getting his name called at 52. Beyond that, I think Ramo's defection might cause the Lightning to grab a goaltender somewhere along the line, but it's a goalie poor year. If they take one, it'll probably be a late round flyer on a project, in my opinion.

The sad thing is, the ownership squabbles really seem to have sapped the energy out of the Lightning's draft. I doubt Lawton is really prepared to be as aggressive as he could have been given everything that has happened. It's also pretty awful that the ownership squabbles will overshadow the young draft picks the Lightning make on Friday and Saturday. A guy like Hedman will still get his ink, but the other six or so prospects the Lightning select will have to compete with the soap opera for column space, and they'll probably lose. That's a shame, because they've worked all their lives to get to this point too. One day we'll look back on all this and laugh, I hope. Just not today.

Draft Day Resources
The Lightning are tweeting their draft weekend on Twitter. I'm not cool enough to know how to do Twitter myself, but I do get amusement from imagining Lawton, Tocchet, and Koules all passing the same Blackberry/iPhone around furiously thumb typing about the quality of their breakfast at the hotel in Montreal. I'm sure it doesn't work that way, but it's a funny image none the less.

Erik Erlendsson of the Trib also knows how to tweet.

As of right now the Lightning hold seven picks, according to NHL.com's official draft pick page. The page also links to the CSS rankings.

TSN's Bob MacKenzie always does a solid write up on the top-60 draft prospects. It's probably the best free draft content on the web if you're looking for a general overview of the top players.

Last but not least, you can join Bolt Prospects in our virtual "Barnacles in Brandon" for a Lightning draft party that will start Friday night and end on Saturday at question marks. The flash chat will work for anyone who has a Bolt Prospects message board registration, so if you don't have one feel free to sign up. It's free to register, and you get to see the Bolt Prospects staff do a collaborative, feverish information dump on the prospects the Lightning select in real time, which is a sight to behold that was just too incredibly haphazard and funny to be confined to private instant messages any longer.

Espo is Right

Ira Kaufman of the Tampa Tribune has a short article up interviewing former Lightning GM and NHL Hall of Famer Phil Esposito about the possibility that the Lightning may deal off Vincent Lecavalier by the end of the week. The money quote:

"If they deal Vinny, it's strictly money, period," Esposito said. "It can't be spun any other way. If you think you're making your team better, fine, but don't trade Vinny for money. I've been there. It's the wrong thing to do. Besides, if the Lightning get three players for him and they turn out to be decent, in two years you'll be paying them more then you're paying Vinny. It makes no sense."

The Godfather of the Lightning has spoken. Listen up, Oren Koules.

Lightning 2009 NHL Entry Draft Preview

Here’s a bold statement: the Tampa Bay Lightning are fully capable of becoming Stanley Cup champions within the next five seasons. With two legitimate franchise centers in longtime stalwart Vincent Lecavalier and star wunderkind Steven Stamkos and a bevy of young goaltenders headlined by the ultra-competitive Mike Smith, the Lightning actually have many of the key components necessary to become an elite NHL team. That may seem like an insane statement coming off of a year that the Lightning finished second-to-last in the league, but between their core pieces and a bevy of other young complimentary players like Paul Ranger, Andrej Meszaros, and Matt Lashoff, the future in Tampa Bay is brighter than anyone is giving the team credit for. However, for the Lightning to reach their full potential, they must keep Lecavalier and they must capitalize on their draft position in the deep 2009 NHL Entry Draft.

Make no mistake about it: this is the most important draft for the Lightning in 11 years. The 1998 draft was critical for the 2004 Stanley Cup team in supplying two core players (Lecavalier and Richards) and four players (including Dimitry Afanasenkov and Martin Cibak) overall to that championship roster. That draft seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime talent grab for the team, but with three picks in the top-60 in a talent rich year for youth, the new Lightning scouting staff might be set up to bring in an equally impressive fistfull of NHL talent. If they do, the Lightning may be just a few years away from reclimbing the ladder into the ranks of the NHL elite.

Hedman selected #83 at the KHL draft

Today the KHL entry draft took place. The rules of the KHL draft could be found here http://en.khl.ru/news/2009/6/1/13673.html
The list of drafted players http://en.khl.ru/news/2009/6/1/13671.html
Viktor Hedman was drafted # 83 overall (of 91 picks) by the Spartak Moscow. So, if Hedman decide to play in KHL he could sign only with Spartak untill he turn 28 (if his right wouldn't be traded). Taking into account that Spartak is one of the poorest KHL clubs, I doubt that it could happen.
John Tavares went undrafted.

Even More Thoughts on Luca Cunti

Luca Cunti's such a mixed bag it's maddening.

Once again, Cunti showed himself to be an impact player offensively in Rimouski's 3-2 overtime loss to Drummondville tonight. At the opening of the game, he really put his playmaking skills on display setting up at least 5 scoring chances early on, by my count, with several crisp, long tape-to-tape passes in the offensive zone. In the second period he scored Rimouski's opening goal poking in a rebound after a nice forechecking shift by his line. He's not exactly known for his physical bravery, and in fact in the first period he had a clear opportunity to step out in from of the Volts net for a stuff attempt and he shied away from it, but he went to the net for a little drive by and got a rebound to poke in for his goal. Shortly after that he almost set up another goal on a rush where he got a step on Dimitry Kulikov, who fell down on the play, around the corner with his speed and sent a nice, soft saucer pass to Keven Veilleux who was stopped cold on the bid. My one criticism of him early on, aside from his unwillingness to step out for the stuff attempt, is that he hesitates when he has a shot available. He looks to pass first, and he needs to understand that if you have the puck open in a scoring position, you have to shoot the puck. Force the goaltender to make a stop and give yourself the possibility of a rebound for your teammates. The stat page doesn't care if your assist comes from a brilliant cross ice pass across the seam or a rebound that becomes a garbage goal. An assist is an assist, so shoot the puck.

Unfortunately, Cunti was partially to blame for Drummondville's tying goal and no one picked up Jonathan Brunelle going to the net and taking a pass from behind the Rimouski cage. I'm not sure, watching the replay, that Brunelle was actually Cunti's responsibility. However, if he's open and you're right there, you take the guy and ask question later. And the soft play continued in the third period, as Cunti was clearly the weak link for Rimouski on the forecheck. He simply won't turn his back and take a hit to keep possession of the puck. Won't do it. So, as well as his line played, he was the weak link that would often cause them to lose possession. Now, on the good side, he was single handedly beating Drummondville's trap with his speed and stickhandling ability just to get his line into the zone in the first place.

In overtime, Cunti's night ended badly as Gabriel Dumont beat two Rimouski defenders to get to the front of the net where Luca, much like the Brunelle goal, pretty much stood there and watched him score the goal from point blank range. Cunti has to eliminate Dumont physically on that play. At the very least tackle the guy, but preferably lower the boom and knock the guy down. Instead Cunti vacantly tried to tie up his stick and that was it. Now Rimouski has to play a tiebreaker game tomorrow night against Windsor just to get to the semifinal game. That's not good, especially considering what a tough game Windsor was for Rimouski to pull out the last time.

I love his speed. I love his skill. I don't think he's hopeless defensively or even physically because his skating always puts him in the neighborhood he needs to be in. He's not so selfish that he's out at the red line constantly cherry picking and waiting for breakways. That's not what he does. But he has got to start to compete physically. He doesn't have to become Cam Neely overnight. That's not the point. But he's got to turn his back and take a hit to keep possession for his line on the forecheck. He's got to physically take out his man on coverage in front of the net if the puck comes to the front of the net. If he has a clear avenue to step out in front of the net, he has to show physical bravery to go there and score goals. Basically, he's got the athletic foundation to be a very good player. He just needs to man up. He's an NHLer if he grows some manhood. He'll be right back playing for a team like Bern or Lugano in the NL/A back in Switzerland if he doesn't.

More Thoughts on Luca Cunti

Before I get into talking about how Luca Cunti played in today's game against Windsor at the Memorial Cup, I have to comment on what a great game Windsor and Rimouski played today. Unlike the snooze fest between Kelowna and Rimouski, l'Oceanic played with a lot of pride today in a game that had a little bit of everything: speed, hitting, lots of goals, a potential future #1 overall pick, and goal mouth thrills down to the wire of the game. People got their money's worth in this game.

Luca Cunti got a promotion in today's game to a line with 2007 2nd round pick Keven Veilleux, whose was selected by the Penguins. Their line came out really strong on their first shift to generate a scoring chance, but Veilleux got his teeth knocked out by Ryan Ellis on his second shift, so their line wasn't together for a good chunk of the first period. Cunti came out with the same speed be had against Kelowna early in the game, but Windsor seemed better prepared and wasn't giving him the corner. That really limited Cunti's effectiveness because he just didn't seem to be willing to fight through the opposing defenders to create chances. Rimouski really upped their physical intensity tonight over the opening game with Kelowna, but early on Cunti seemed to lack the same urgency. I said last game I'd like to see Cunti with better linemates, and that happened today. Now, I'd like to see Cunti play angry.

In the second period, it started out worse for Luca. He took a bad highsticking penalty against Ellis on a play at his point that resulted in an Ellis goal that tied the game at 1-1. He then took a big hit a shift or two afterward and made a bad turnover in his own zone. He made about two of those in the game. He tried to make up for it after a Windsor scoring chance by carrying it on a dangerous rush, but he sat for the next 5 minutes or so. When he got back out, the good Luca re-emerged. He got the puck on the rush and used his speed to swoop around the next on his first shift after getting back in to set up a chance on a pass across the crease at the far post. A shift after that he scored Rimouski's 4th goal on a nice give-and-go on the rush moving up through the neutral zone. He passed the puck in the neutral zone to Veilleux who crossed the blueline and drew the attention of Winsor's defenders because of his big shot. Cunti then cut right to the net with his speed and got a nice diagonal pass down low from Veilleux that he one timed into the net. Nice goal. In the third period he didn't get much ice time because Rimouski was on the PK most of the first half of the period and they were protecting a one goal lead late in the game. He almost set up Veilleux for an insurance goal on a play on the rush where he crossed Windsor's blueline and beat a defender with a nice inside-out stickhandling move. But, he lost control of the puck on the play and it ended up sliding to Veilleux who was going to the net and lifted it over the net.

He wasn't the fastest player on the rink today with Taylor Hall flying around for the Spitfires, and he was annoyingly passive at times, but once again Cunti's speed made a difference. He has game-changing speed the other team has to respect, and now Rimouski has an opportunity to advance in the tournament if they can knock off QMJHL champion Drummondville in their next game.

Thoughts on Luca Cunti

After watching Rimouski's opening game of the Memorial Cup Tournament tonight, I felt compelled to write a little about Luca Cunti.

Cunti didn't score tonight and Rimouski was clearly overmatched by the better team in Kelowna, but there's definitely something there with Cunti: speed. He has raw, pure, and undeniable speed. It's world class skating ability; a gift that simply can't be taught. There were times tonight where Rimouski's best and only chance of getting the puck out of their own end was to have Cunti carry it out himself, and his speed generated several scoring chances. Bear in mind, Kelowna's defense is very good (Tyler Myers is going to be an awesome NHL player), and there were times Cunti made them look like they were standing still. It was a 2000% improvement over the way Cunti looked at the start of the season at Traverse City. Sure, some of the same old criticisms of Cunti are still valid. He tended to float in the defensive zone, although he wasn't overtly cherry picking. He looked uncomfortable digging in the corners. He hogged the puck a bit (although that's partly due to the lacking quality of his linemates and the fact they simply couldn't keep up with his speed). There's definitely holes in his game and he's definitely a project. But, my word, he will back opposing defenses off the blueline with his speed. If you put him and Steven Stamkos on the same line 2-3 years down the line, I promise you there will be opposing defensemen going prematurely grey. Speed kills, and I'm closing my eyes and imagining what a line of Cunti, Stamkos, and maybe Dana Tyrell could do together. Have mercy.

There's some ambiguity, on our end at BoltProspects, as to whether Cunti's rights will be retained after June 1st or whether he's considered to have defected status as a player who was drafted out of Switzerland. It's one of the joys of the breakdown of the IIHF transfer agreement coupled with the new rules that were supposed to be enacted in the new CBA. We believe his rights will be retained past June 1st if he isn't signed. However, if the Lightning do indeed need to sign him before the end of the month in order to keep him, count me among the people who think that they should. The same is true for Edmonton goaltender Torrie Jung, whose rights definitely will be lost after June 1st. Both players could be returned to junior if there isn't room for them in Norfolk, and both players, in my mind, have the kind of athleticism the Lightning just shouldn't let get away.

Newer Rumor - The Rumor Strikes Back

Sportsnet is reporting that Leafs GM Brian Burke has confirmed that the Lightning have asked for defensemen Luke Schenn and Tomas Kaberle as well as the 7th overall pick in exchange for the Lightning's 2nd overall pick in the June draft. Burke says that Schenn is the deal breaker for the Leafs.

Burke's interest in the #2 pick stems from his desire to draft London Knights center John Tavares, who may or may not be available depending on what the New York Islanders will do with the draft's top pick. Tavares was considered the top prospect in this draft going into the draft lottery, but a mediocre playoff performance by Tavares may have pushed behemoth Swedish defenseman Victor Hedman into the top slot. There also is at least one organization (Red Line Report) that believes that Tavares has been passed by speedy Brampton center Matt Duchene as well.

Where does this leave the Lightning? The ideal scenario has Hedman available at the #2 pick giving the Lightning the future #1 defenseman they so desperately need. If that doesn't come to pass, the Lightning must decide between drafting Tavares (or Duchene, who Lightning GM Brian Lawton recently scouted), or trading out of the pick. As long as the Lightning remember that they don't have to make a trade, the team should come out well ahead on draft day.

Selecting Tavares gives the Lightning a smaller, and arguably more talented version of Ottawa scorer Jason Spezza. It also gives them a one-two punch at forward only rivaled by Crosby and Malkin in Pittsburgh. That's not a bad situation to be in, and I suspect that with the Lightning scoring 4-5 goals a game it would certainly put people in the stands even if the team still struggles with keeping the puck out of the back of its own net.

A trade down can, and should, result in a king's ransom similar to the kind of deal the Lightning have reportedly demanded from Toronto. Personally, I think that asking for Schenn and Kaberle plus the 7th overall pick is a little too steep, but kudos to the Lightning for starting high in the negotation. If the Lightning could negotiate down to something along the lines of Luke Schenn and the 7th overall pick along with some other sweetener for the 2nd overall pick and a toss-in like Lukas Krajicek, it would be worth considering. That would give the Lightning a future shut-down defender in the mold of Adam Foote and the opportunity to choose between another shut-down defender like Jared Cowen, a Mike Richards-lite center like Luke's younger brother Brayden, the draft's best speedster in Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson, or some other talented players like Minnesota's diminuitive playmaker Jordan Schroeder or Drummondville's top-notch offensive defenseman Dimitri Kulikov.

Now that's a rumor I could live with.

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