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2017 Lightning Draft Preview

Introduction

After a very unconventional 2016-2017 Tampa Bay Lightning prospect season concluded with the Syracuse Crunch being defeated in six games in the Calder Cup Final, 2017-2018 had an unconventional beginning with the acquisition of defenseman Mikhail Sergachev and the looming Las Vegas Expansion Draft. Unconventional doesn't equal bad, though, when evaluating the state of the Lightning prospect system heading into the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. There are still some moving parts to consider heading into the Expansion Draft, and this preview may be subject to change based on the outcome of that event, but on balance the Lightning enter the draft in a position of strength.

First, looking back at the past season, the Lightning seem to have another legitimate talent wave ready to hit the AHL ranks next season. While perhaps not on the level of the record-setting 2011-2012 Norfolk Admirals squad, the Lightning's junior ranks are bursting with quality prospects ready to step up to the pro level. Indeed, you might be able to argue the Canadian U20 World Junior Championships squad should've had Lightning patches on the sleeves of their jerseys, a la the Crunch, with several Tampa Bay prospects sprinkled across the roster. One might assume that the Eastern Conference champion Syracuse Crunch would also be stocked heavily with prospect talent, but it's important to temper that enthusiasm by recognizing that the 2016-2017 Crunch advanced on the strength of veterans and overage prospects more so than the club's youth.

That said, with injuries up top in Tampa Bay, the Crunch did supply quality depth to the organization with prospects like Yanni GourdeJake Dotchin, and Adam Erne now knocking on the door of the big team's roster. Additionally, although it didn't show up prominently on the scoresheet in the playoffs, don't underplay the experience gained by blueliners Dotchin, Slater KoekkoekDominik Masin, and Ben Thomas in the Crunch's deep playoff run. And, in Tampa Bay, to nobody's surprise, the baton was passed from Ben Bishop to Andrei Vasilevskiy, who looked every bit the part of a franchise goaltender down the stretch of the regular season.

From a positional standpoint, the club's forward crop is deep and dotted with potential NHLers. The team is 7-8 deep at forward with potential big leaguers, many of whom are high character players at both the center and wing positions. If there is one critique of this group, it's that the team still doesn't have a ton of skilled playmakers at forward coming up through the system, so a best player available approach to the draft might look at the luxury pick of a forward to help fill that underrepresented skill set.

With the acquisition of Sergachev, the defenseman position looks nearly as well stocked. Sergachev is a versatile, impact prospect who will probably be in Tampa Bay next season and has top pair potential. Behind him, Koekkoek still skates like a lite version of Victor Hedman while Dotchin came out of nowhere to form a solid pair with Hedman down the stretch of the Lightning's regular season. If Koekkoek survives the Expansion Draft on the Lightning roster, one could make an argument that the left side of the Lightning defense is set for several years with Hedman, Sergachev, and Koekkoek holding down that side of the D-corps. It's the right side, which currently only features Dotchin as a more sure-fire NHLer, where the Lightning D-corps could use some work, and a purely needs-based approach to the draft might lead the Lightning to spend their first rounder here. Left siders Masin and Libor Hajek and right siders Erik Cernak and Ben Thomas add depth to the group and will continue to develop with a view toward hopefully bursting onto the scene like Dotchin did this year.

In goal, having a gem like Andrei Vasilevskiy takes the pressure off the Lightning to find their next goaltender of the future immediately. But, after shipping out Adam Wilcox and with Kristers Gudlevskis failing to make significant progress, the team looks thin here. They do have junior netminder Connor Ingram, who will be up in Syracuse next year and has a solid resume. But, in the end, we'd very much like to see the Lightning spend one of their three top-60 picks in this draft to fill the pipeline with another quality young netminder. After all, no team can ever have too many good young goaltenders.

So where do the Lightning go? First, let's make clear that picking the best player available is always a preferred approach, and it becomes even more imperative the further down in a draft a team selects. Tampa Bay, sitting at 14th overall, shouldn't hesitate to take an impact forward or left side defenseman, if they feel that player is there, regardless of the team's depth at those positions. All prospects being equal, though, a needs-based approach clearly favors taking a right side defenseman with the team's first round pick. In the second round, the team has a pair of picks and one of them probably should be spent replenishing the pipeline at the goaltending position.

Defensemen
As noted, it should be considered a priority for the Lightning to find right side defensemen with the left side seemingly well-stocked. With that in mind, and with the assumption that trendy offensive defenseman prospect Cale Makar will be off the board by pick 14, here are some names to keep an eye on:

RHD Cal Foote, 6'4" 198 lbs., Kelowna (WHL)
Would it be ironic for ex-Wings icon Yzerman to select the son of a former blood rival, ex-Av Adam Foote? Sure. But, putting that storyline aside, Foote would be a very nice fit for the Lightning. A big, mobile two-way defenseman who can gobble up minutes, Foote is capable of playing the game any style you wish and is equally capable of contributing at both ends of the rink.

RHD Conor Timmins, 6'1" 182 lbs., Sault Ste. Marie (OHL)
An undersized late bloomer, Timmins is an offensive-minded puck-moving defenseman who came out of nowhere to become a potential first rounder this year. While he lacks the size and defensive chops of Foote and would probably be a significant reach at 14, the Lightning have never been shy about selecting OHL-based blueliners. Don't be shocked if he's on the team's roster, even for a potential second round selection if he lasts that long.

RHD Timothy Liljegren, 5'11" 189 lbs., Rogle (SWE)
One of the real wild cards of the draft, there may be no better skater in this entire class than Liljegren. The Swede can fly and has excellent skill, but his decision-making with the puck is suspect and his size and play in the defensive third are red flags. Remember Anthony DeAngelo? With that said, athletically, Liljegren is a top-5 talent in this class if you can get his head straightened out.

If the Lightning do take a left side defenseman, in a bit of a luxury pick, here are some other blueliners to keep an eye on:

LHD Erik Brannstrom, 5'10" 178 lbs., HV 71 Jr. (SWE)
If Brannstrom were 4 inches taller and 20 pounds heavier, he'd be a top-10 pick. Brannstrom is a fantastic skater with a high skill level and hockey sense and decision-making with the puck to match. Some teams will shy away because his size can make him a liability in the defensive third, but he's positionally sound and willing to stick his nose in. He may be one of the real steals of this draft.

D Juuso Valimaki, 6'2" 204 lbs., Tri-City (WHL)
Valimaki represents a safe, no drama option on defense from the left side in this draft. Valimaki won't blow anyone out of the water with any one aspect of his game, but he's thoroughly sound in just about any aspect you want to name. He's a solid skater with decent size, makes smart decisions with the puck, and just generally is a second pair minutes eater that most coaches will adore.

Goaltenders
I wouldn't anticipate the Lightning will select a netminder at 14 in this draft, but it is a need position I anticipate the club will seriously consider addressing with one of their three top-60 picks. With that in mind, here are three names to remember, all of which seem to fit the profile of a Frantz Jean style of goaltender:

G Keith Petruzzelli, 6'5" 189 lbs., Muskegon (USHL)
Petruzzelli is a massive Quinnipiac commit who has the potential to become an NHL starter with continued development. His positioning continues to improve as a giant, athletic V-style goaltender who plays a lot on his knees and still covers a ton of the net. Like many young netminders, he'll need to work on his rebound control, but he has all the raw tools that make you drool.

G Jake Oettinger, 6'4" 205 lbs., Boston University (HEAST)
Oettinger is another massive goaltender who was an exceedingly rare 18-year-old freshman who made an impact at a top-flight NCAA program. He might be slightly less athletic than Petruzzelli, but he's ahead of the curve in terms of technical proficiency and an icy-cold approach to the pressure of playing the position. He also has the potential to become an NHL starter.

G Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, 6'4" 196 lbs., HPK (FIN)
I'd like to buy a vowel, Pat. Luukkonen is the real wild card of the three jumbo-sized goaltending prospects in this class. He's extremely athletic and has shown to be a very accomplished technical netminder with good puck handling skills... when he's on his game. Consistency has been elusive for Luukkonen, but if he finds it, he too could be a future NHL starter.

Forwards
As noted, any selection of a forward would be a bit of a luxury pick for a Lightning team that is fairly well stocked here. With that said, if a can't-miss playmaker, in particular, should fall into the Lightning's lap, who would they be to argue? Here are a few names to consider:

C Martin Necas, 6'1" 167 lbs., Brno (CZE)
Necas is an undersized centerman with blazing speed and high-end vision and playmaking ability. He's as fast with the puck as he is without it, and his decision-making is so quick he moves pucks so crisply that it makes him seem even quicker. He's a pass-first player, but if you could pass as well as he can you might be a pass-first player, too. 

RW Kailer Yamamoto, 5'8" 160 lbs., Spokane (WHL)
A tiny offensive dynamo in the old Martin St. Louis mold. Yamamoto has high-end speed, skill, and vision and a low center of gravity that makes him more difficult to knock off of pucks than anticipated. He also seems to have a well-developed instinct for survival that allows him to slip checks and avoid injury in the rugged WHL.

If a power forward/sniper is more your style:

LW Nikita Popugayev, 6'5" 204 lbs., Prince George (WHL)
A big, athletic forward with high-end speed and finishing ability, but does not play a fire-breathing power forward's style. Could be one of the best players in this draft if a team can get him to use all of his gifts. He is a former teammate of last year’s Lightning first rounder, Brett Howden.

RW Owen Tippett, 6'1" 204 lbs., Mississauga (OHL)
A pure goal scorer with the best shot in the draft, Tippett's shot is already the stuff of legend. The other parts of his game need to continue to develop, but goals remain the raw currency of winning and losing in hockey, and by that metric Tippett's going to be a millionaire.

RW Klim Kostin, 6'3" 183 lbs., Dynamo Moscow (RUS)
A big, mean fire-breather with a short temper who hits and score goals. What's not to love? Plus, he’s a Lightning fan.

RW Eli Tolvanen, 5'11" 178 lbs., Sioux City (USHL)
This Finnish-born Boston College commit is, like Tippett, a goal scorer as pure as a mountain stream. Tolvanen has a laser one-timer with the hockey sense to find calm spaces to unleash his shot. He's undersized and, like Tippett needs to work on the rest of his game. But... goals!