2006 NHL Entry Draft Preview: Lightning Strengths, Weaknesses, Tendencies and Philosophies
Update 6/21: I'm going to sticky this at the top of the site until draft day so it doesn't get lost. I'm also going to provide the links to our draft capsules on this page:
1st Rd, 15th Overall: G Riku Helenius, 6'3" 202 lbs, Ilves Jr. (FIN Jr.)
3rd Round, 78th Overall: D Kevin Quick, 6'0" 175 lbs, Salisbury (USHS)
6th Round, 168th Overall: D Dane Crowley, 6'2" 210 lbs, Swift Current (WHL)
7th Round, 198th Overall: LW Denis Kazionov, 6'3" 187 lbs, Tver (RUS2)
For those who don't have the time to read the whole article, scroll down to the summary at the end.
Before we get into the process of releasing draft capsules of players who will be of potential interest for the Lightning when they pick at #15 at the NHL Entry Draft on June 24th in Vancouver I wanted to do a post strictly to break down the Lightning's strengths and weaknesses as well as to fully explore their scouting staff's tendencies and philosophies. Reading over a lot of the mock drafts and rumor mills on the internet, I've seen a lot of prognostication about what the Lightning will do that, and I know you'll never believe it, I disagree with. It's kind of strange actually. Chad, Tim and I, when we worked at Hockeys Future in a horrible time long ago, were responsible for really writing what has become the conventional wisdom about what the organization's needs are. Amazingly, even though we've moved on and two entire drafts and a multitude of changes inside of the organization have occured in the two years since we left, the conventional wisdom hasn't changed to keep up with what the current conditions of the organization are. No need to assign blame for that (plenty has already been doled out) but I wanted to take this moment ahead of time to really break down where the organization actually is at this particular moment in time.
Lightning Prospect System Maturing
If there's one thing I can say about the current state of the organization at the prospect level it's this: priorities are going to begin to change now because the system is finally starting to mature. What do I mean by that? In 2002, Jay Feaster's first draft as GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning, the club was without a full time minor league affiliate, wasn't a participant in any of the annual prospect developmental tournaments and didn't have anything resembling real depth as a consequence. In fact, the Lightning have never really had depth in their system as the only other time they had a stable developmental apparatus was just after expansion with the Atlanta Knights of the IHL. Heading into 2002 we knew there were colossal holes in the organization at defense and in goal and that our forward depth was nonexistent. The humerous thing was that, at the time, we were being rated in the top 5-10 organizations by the same people who rate us dead last now in terms of prospects around that time based solely on the "star power" of names like Alexeev and Svitov.
Four years later a lot has changed. The Lightning spent to 2002-2004 drafts for the most part addressing the blueline while in 2005 they had a highly successful draft in addressing the forward position. All the while, the team has committed to taking a couple of goaltending prospects each year and now a few are beginning to show promise that they could very well develop into NHLers. At the same time, the Lightning now have a stable full affiliate and are now really investing time, money and energy in developing their youth. Bill Davidson has even bought into the Johnstown Chiefs of the ECHL to give the Lightning two tiers of potential developmental slots and the team has hired a full time minor league goaltending consultant in Corey Schwab to give the specialized instruction necessary for the team's young netminders. After 15 years of wandering in the wilderness, the Lightning have finally built a developmental system that is stable and the fruits of those labors are beginning to become evident in the emergence of new NHLers Paul Ranger, Evgeny Artyukhin and Ryan Craig.
This year, the Lightning's "needs" are no longer purely positional. They have built goaltending depth: witness Karri Ramo, Vasily Koshechkin, Jonathan Boutin and Gerald Coleman. They have built depth on the blueline: witness Matt Smaby, Vladimir Mihalik, Andy Rogers, Mike Egener and Doug O'Brien. They even, after what we at Bolt Prospects consider a highly successful 2005 draft, have built depth at forward: witness Radek Smolenak, Nick Tarnasky, Marek Kvapil, Stanislav Lascek, Justin Keller and Blair Jones. It's not that far of a stretch to say the Lightning's organizational depth has never been better than it is right now. There are no longer any gaping positional holes to fill, so now the shift that must occur for people to really understand the Lightning's needs is to stop thinking in the broad terms of positional needs and start thinking more specifically about what roles need addressing within the organization. What does that mean? The emphasis needs to not be on drafting defensemen or forwards, but rather on specific kinds of forwards, namely playmaking centers and offensive defensemen who can run a power play. This may seem like a subtle shift, but the reality is it took the Lightning a huge investment to get to this point and they ought to be receiving far more credit than they are for what they have managed to grow thus far.
Quit Judging Needs by Looking at the NHL Roster Alone
One thing that really annoys me is that both professional newspaper writers and internet message board hacks alike try to judge a team's needs based solely on the shape of their NHL roster. The common refrain I've seen in mock drafts for the past two years has been that because Nikolai Khabibulin is gone and John Grahame and Sean Burke have failed to pick up the slack, the Lightning are to be considered idiots if they don't take a goaltender with their first round pick. This kind of argument ignores that there usually is a disconnect of 2-4 years, in most cases, between when you take a player and when that player is actually ready to take the ice as a regular NHL player. This isn't the NFL where teams draft 21-22 year olds grown men fresh out of 3-4 years of college. In the NHL, teams are drafting 17-18 year old players out of which only 1-2% of any given draft class will play in the NHL right away. It's particularly ridiculous when you consider goaltenders, in particular, don't reach their prime until 27-28 years of age. Any goaltender the Lightning takes in this or any other draft could easily take a decade to reach their full potential. No goaltender the Lightning will select in this draft, considered thin on goaltenders to begin with, will be able to carry the load for the team until the final years of Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards' long term deals at the earliest, so it would be silly to fashion the Lightning's draft strategy with such short term needs being the sole, driving consideration as far too many writers seem to be doing.
Instead of judging needs based on the NHL roster alone, writers need to be more responsible and start looking at the full breadth of a team's depth to decide where the needs really are. Any draft decision now would be wise to work within the framework of the prospects that are already in the organization. Put it this way: the Lightning were severely lacking a big, physical stay-at-home blueliner all last season. By the philosophy of drafting by short term NHL need that would mean the Lightning's second focus, beyond goaltending, would be to draft such a player. But that would ignore the fact the Lightning have spent first round picks in each of the last two drafts and two second round picks in the draft before that on just that kind of player. Nevertheless, I still see many writers and even some scouting services, at least the ones who aren't preordaining the selection of a goaltender because of John Grahame, prediciting the Lightning will take yet another big, physical stay-at-home blueliner because somehow their NHL roster situation demands.
Best Player Available
Let me be very clear about this: because the Lightning have built positional depth in this organization they are in even more of a position to draft who they feel is the best player available this year than they were in 2005 when they went with Vladimir Mihalik even though they already had blueline depth. As a consequence of this, the Lightning could very well reach beyond the roles that are absent in the organization to take the "BPA". If they take a goaltender, it will be because they feel that goaltender is the "BPA" not because of anything John Grahame did or didn't do. And, if they take yet another big, physical, stay-at-home defenseman it will be because they feel that defenseman is the "BPA" and not because Jassen Cullimore left town before the lockout. Who that player is will in large part be dictated by who is still on the board at 15, which is why Bolt Prospects will be casting a wide net by profiling a broad array of prospects in the coming weeks.
The Picks They Have
The Lightning enter this draft with just four picks, one each in the 1st, 3rd, 6th and 7th rounds. It should also be noted that the change to seven rounds has been made permanent, eliminating the later rounds where the Lightning have done some of their better work in recent years. Indeed, without an 8th and 8th round the Lightning roster would not have Martin Cibak or Ryan Craig nor would the organization have Justin Keller or Nick Tarnasky to look forward to. Expect the Lightning to make trades to get more picks. In recent history they always have. We at Bolt Prospects refer to this as "kicking the can down the road". Both Rick Dudley and Jay Feaster have been masters of dealing picks from next year's draft to get more picks in this year's draft. In theory, the Lightning could continue to do this indefinitely, but it should be noted "kicking the can down the road" has some very real consequences. At the trade deadline this year, Jay Feaster was handcuffed by a lack of 2006 draft picks and this contributed to the failure to acquire a goaltender and/or more defensive depth. We still expect some kicking of the can though, mind you, but we suspect it will be confined to the later rounds of the draft this year.
Between the Pipes
Maybe it's understandable that some folks assume that the Lightning have no goaltenders in their system. After all, the Lightning have NEVER cultivated an NHL goaltender. The closest they ever came was Zac Bierk in the 9th round of the 1995 draft and he managed just 33 decisions as an NHL player. Still, to say the Lightning are completely devoid of goaltending prospects would be completely wrong. Bolt Prospects believes the Lightning holds no less than three goaltenders with NHL starter's upside (Ramo, Koshechkin and Boutin) and one we feel could be a tandem starter in the NHL (Coleman). Are any of these four locks to reach their upside? Perhaps not, but neither are the goaltenders in the 2006 draft class which is considered thin at the top. There are no Roberto Luongo or Karri Lehtonen type talents available in this draft, and that should be kept in mind when considering a goaltender as the Lightning's 1st round pick. In my opinion, no goaltender we select at 15 would be a significantly better prospect than Karri Ramo.
The Lightning are bursting at the seems with big, physical stay at home defensemen. We expect one of Matt Smaby, Vladimir Mihalik and Mike Egener to make the Lightning next season, and our early money is on Smaby. The Lightning also have undersized two-way defenseman Doug O'Brien waiting in the wings. What the Lightning do not have is an offensive defenseman prospect of any consequence. Indeed, the highest ranked (and only) offensive defenseman we have in our top-25 is Mike Lundin at 22, and there are some here at Bolt Prospects who believe Lundin may struggle just to get a contract next summer.
Dan Boyle has two years left on his contract and this, perhaps, would be a good time for the Lightning to be finding a potential replacement for Boyle just in case they can't retain him down the road. Boyle was arguably the Lightning's best player in 2005-2006 and certainly was one of the key ingredients in the Lightning's 2002-2004 cup run. He is a tempo setter and was one of the most important puzzle pieces in turning the Lightning from a door mat to a contender. Paul Ranger looks like he will become a very good offensive defenseman in the NHL, but he has yet to prove he can run a power play or dictate pace the way Boyle can. There are a couple of offensive defensemen available in this draft who could fill that role if given the chance.
A year ago, forward was the most vacant position in the organization. However, the Lightning did an incredible job in rounds 3 through 5 in last year's draft addressing the position overall and it is beginning to look deep and strong. Even Chris Lawrence and Marek Bartanus who had disappointing starts to the season showed considerable promise by season's end. No team will ever turn their nose up at a potential 30 goal scorer, but the Lightning do appear to have some capable goal scorers in Smolenak and Keller. They also have some good potential checking liners in Tarnasky and Darren Reid to go along with young NHLers Craig and Artyukhin. Where the Lightning are still lacking in the organization is at skilled centers. Beyond Blair Jones the team has precious little down the middle. More specifically, the team could really use a couple of playmaking centers. They have a good playmaking winger in Lascek, but Jones is their only accomplished distributor at the pivot position. 2006 is a very deep draft for centers and there could easily be as many as 8 of them selected in the first 14 lottery selections. If one slips, the Lightning would do well to be on guard to pounce.
Trading Up, Trading Down
If I were able to make one recommendation to the Lightning's decision makers in this draft, I would suggest the need to either move up 5 picks or down 5 picks in this draft. 15 appears to be the proverbial Bermuda Triangle in the top-30, a dead spot where the talent begins to drop off and where risk begins to outweigh reward a bit. Moving up 5 spots would ensure the Lightning one of the centers in this draft or their choice of offensive defenseman. Moving down five picks would allow them to pick up selections in either the 2nd or 3rd round while moving into better position to take another offensive defenseman or the goaltender of their choice without reaching. In my view, either option would be more desirable than staying where the Lightning are at 15.
Tendencies and Philosophies
It should be noted that since Rick Dudley was forced to resign and Jay Feaster has taken over, the Lightning have made a significant shift towards selecting North American based players from the 2002 draft on. Since Feaster took over, the Lightning have only taken 10 European based picks out of 41 selections (24.4%). In just three drafts, Dudley took 21 European based players out of 34 picks (61.8%). No doubt, the Lightning have moved away from Europe under Feaster although they have shown a willingness to take European imports playing in the CHL and they did have a very Slovakian heavy draft in 2005.
From 2002 on the Lightning have made their most selections from the Canadian junior ranks, specifically 8 picks from both the OHL and WHL. After those two leagues, they've made six picks from the combined ranks of the US and Canadian junior leagues and high school ranks which feed into the NCAA (EJHL, USHL, AJHL, USHS). The QMJHL comes in fourth as a preferred source of players with 5 picks. Here is a complete breakdown of player sources in the Feaster era:
Interestingly, the Lightning have not select a Swedish based player in the four drafts he has presided over. That may change this year, especially as newer scout Mikael Andersson gains a greater voice inside the organization.
It's also important to note the Lightning's emphasis on size. The Lightning have not taken a player under 6'3" in height with their top pick since the 1999 draft when they selected Sheldon Keefe in the 2nd round. In the four drafts Jay Feaster has presided over, the team has only selected two players under 6'0" in height: Keller and Lascek. Whether or not this philosophy changes in the face of the new enforcement standards of the "new NHL" remains to be seen.
1. The Lightning's draft needs can now be more precisely considered as "roles needed" rather than "positional needs". This is thanks to the maturation of the Lightning organization. This is a subtle but important strategic change that needs to be understood to maximize draft effectiveness.
2. Writers need to stop judging the Lightning's needs by their NHL roster. The time disconnect between when a player is drafted and when they actually make the NHL makes this a foolish strategy. A better way of analyzing need would be to examine the whole of the prospect system to identify potential weak links.
3. Because the Lightning's prospect system has matured, the Lightning are now in a position to draft with their top pick purely on the best player available model. Specific role needs can be addressed in later rounds.
4. The Lightning have just 4 picks in this draft and only 2 in the first 5 rounds. The Lightning have been adept at acquiring picks in the current draft by trading off picks from the next one in what we refer to as "kicking the can down the road". This has consequences though and can restrict flexibility at the NHL level, particularly at the trade deadline. The Lightning should confine the use of this technique to the later rounds this year.
5. I suggest the Lightning should consider trading up or down 5 picks. Trading up would allow the team to dip into the deep pool of centers available in this draft. Trading down would allow them to replenish a 2nd or 3rd round pick while taking the player of their choice with less "reaching."
6. Since Jay Feaster has taken over, 75.6% of picks have come in the form of North American based players. I do not expect this trend to change. The lion's share of these picks have come from the OHL and WHL. I do not expect this trend to change either.
7. The Lightning have not selected a Swedish based player in the past four drafts under Feaster. I suspect this may change.
8. The Lightning have not used their top selection on a player under 6'3" since 1999. In the four years Jay Feaster has run their draft, the Lightning has only selected two players under 6'0" in height. I suspect the Lightning will still place a premium on size but may relax their emphasis to some degree to adapt to the new rules enforcement standards of the "new NHL."