Lightning 2007 NHL Entry Draft Analysis

Entering the draft the Lightning's prospects of filling their organizational needs at forward looked so bleak the local media was printing stories that were already ratcheting down expectations. The team had no first round pick. It might not have had a second round pick if the Panthers had exercised the option they gained in the Chris Gratton trade. 2007 looked like a throwaway draft. Yet for some strange reason I actually had a good feeling about this draft because there were parallels to the 2002 draft. You'll recall in 2002, Jay Feaster's first draft as the head of the Bolts, the team dealt off its #4 overall pick in the controversial Ruslan Fedotenko deal and then dealt off a second round pick for defenseman Brad Lukowich leaving the team with a lone second round pick as their only selection in the first three rounds. And, like this year's draft, 2002 was panned as a poor draft class with the exception of the first 4 or 5 picks.

2002 was the finest hour of the Lightning's scouts during the Jay Feaster era even despite stubbing their toe with Adam Henrich with their first selection. They succeeded by outworking the rest of the league that day. Most of the other scouting staffs in the NHL were so sour on that draft class they didn't even want to deal with the later rounds of the draft. Carolina practically gave away a bundle of picks to the Lightning because there were no more players they wanted left on their list. And so the much maligned Lightning scouting staff crafted a working man's masterpiece almost entirely from round six on: Paul Ranger, Fredrik Norrena and Ryan Craig are all NHL regulars. Darren Reid has seen time in the league each of the last two seasons. Vasily Koshechkin is considered perhaps the best goaltending prospect in all of Russia. The team thought outside the box. They took overagers (Craig). They turned over rocks to find players (Koshechkin). They gambled on players who might not have played much during the year but had the skills and upside to warrant taking a flyer (Ranger). They haven't had a draft that good since.

Something about the challenge of making something out of nothing makes this Lightning staff rise to the occassion, and while I can't guarantee that the 2007 draft will pan out as well as that 2002 draft, there's reason to be very optimistic. The philosophy was different for this draft, but the work ethic wasn't and when Ottawa practically gave away a bundle of three picks for a spare 4th round pick today the comparisons to 2002 became even stronger. I liked what I saw today.

The Lightning got very stale and predictable with their drafts from 2003-2006. They clinged to a draft philosophy that became a hinderance to stocking the organization and contributed to the problems that minor league system has experienced over the past few years. For instance, the insistence on taking a big defenseman over a forward under the assumption that big defensemen are automatically worth more because they're harder to find. So the team took wave after wave after wave of defensemen: Mike Egener, Matt Smaby, Andy Rogers, Vladimir Mihalik. Over those five drafts the Lightning used 4 of their 6 first and second round selections on defensemen while the team's forward depth withered. Another example is the reticence the club's scouts seemed to have in taking players outside of a very narrow set of physical and character criteria. We all knew the rules. That's why it became easy to predict players the Lightning would select. They wouldn't draft a goaltender under 6'2" and would prefer goaltenders closer to 6'5". We all knew it. That's why it was obvious Riku Helenius was on their radar going into the 2006 draft. Similarly they only seemed to want forwards and defensemen who were over 6'2" with character. Skill took a backseat to these characteristics, hence the mistake we came to know as Mark Tobin.

The Lightning got themselves in a rut, and rigid adherence to doctrine led to stultified thinking and some lost opportunities at the draft. Most folks with common sense know if you find yourself in a hole the first think you should do is stop digging. With unwavering belief in their draft philosophies the Lightning seemed to be constantly asking for a bigger shovel.

That's not to say the team didn't have several obvious triumphs over the past five years. It's hard to get too upset with any scouting staff that managed to dig Nick Tarnasky out of the deep recesses of the 9th round. Karri Ramo was unearthed from the 6th round. Blair Jones was stolen in the 4th round. The Lightning scouts have still been working hard but the reality that has been setting in for the last 5 years is that they were not seeing the return on their hard work that they deserved.

And so they came to the 2007 draft with little to use and nothing to lose, and began to do several things philosphically that broke their past tendencies and may have begun to get the team back on track.

1.) Not only did they talk about concentrating on forward from pick one on like they did the previous two drafts, but they actually did it this year. Talk is cheap. Rhetoric is plentiful. Follow through is golden, in any business. The Lightning focused like a laser beam on their primary needs and they didn't take a defenseman or goaltender until the very last round of the draft.

2.) Size didn't matter anymore. The Lightning took down the amusement park sign that said, "You must be this tall (6'2") to get drafted early by this organization." They stopped looking for specemins and started looking for hockey players. There was a sick feeling in my stomach going into today that somehow we'd end up with a Henrich-esque stiff like Keven Vellieux with our first pick. But from the Tyrell selection on it became very clear the Lightning were throwing out the old rule book.

3.) Related to the above: speed and skill began to take a larger emphasis relative to size and character alone. That's not to say the Lightning took a bunch of punks today, or that in the past they never took skill players. But there's no denying they took gambles today that would've been unimaginable a year or two ago. Fortune favors the bold and it's often very difficult to gain in any business without taking a certain acceptable amount of risk. The Lightning weren't taking risks the past five years and it was hurting them. There's no guarantee the chances they took this year are going to pan out, but at least there's an opportunity to hit the jackpot. That's more than could be said the past few drafts.

I really like the first four picks the Lightning made today. I haven't been able to say that since 2003. Their second round pick, Dana Tyrell, was the safest pick the Lightning made of the four and even he was a drastic departure from past precendent due to his small size. Tyrell has good speed, a fair amount of skill and a junkyard dog mentality and in my mind is pretty bust proof. He may never be a scoring liner in the NHL, but I think most agree he is very likely to make it to the show at minimum as a very good checking liner.

Then they took a Big Papi size swing for the fences. There's no way in hell the Lightning would've taken Luca Cunti between 2002 and 2006. Not a chance. He doesn't backcheck and he's softer than warm butter. But he's also got as much offensive skill as anybody in this draft including Kane and Cherepanov. Also, and this is key, we're talking about 17-18 year old young men. Attitudes can change. Young men can mature. Elite skill doesn't grow on trees. I don't know if Luca Cunti will turn into a 30-40 goal scorer in the NHL, but I do know stiffs like Mark Tobin never had a chance of ever being that good, and therein lies the difference between today's draft and the immediate past. You don't have to gamble with every pick. That would be stupid. But every once in a while you have to give yourself a chance to make it big. Safe is death, after all.

Here's something else to consider about the Cunti selection which was with a 3rd round pick acquired in the Shane O'Brien deal. There was a fair amount of despair in the Lightning fan base Friday night when Alexei Cherepanov and Angelo Esposito fell past the #16 selection. Numerous publications had Luca Cunti as a possible mid first round pick and as one of the only players with the skill level to be mentioned in the same class as Cherepanov. Had the Lightning kept their 16th pick no one in the hockey media would've batted an eyelash if they had taken Cunti. So, another way of looking at it is the Lightning still got an elite first round talent and Shane O'Brien in exchange for Gerald Coleman. That's not necessarily a bad deal in hindsight.

Then the Lightning decided to get in on the ground floor of a long term commodity in Alexander Killorn who was the youngest player in this draft. Buoyed by the success of last year's minor gamble on Kevin Quick, the Lightning decided to not only take a high schooler but a small one at that. Everything written about Killorn suggests he has the raw tools to work with: good speed, playmaking ability and willingness to play physical. 5 years from now when he emerges from Harvard under the watchful eye of Ted Donato, he could be a heck of a player.

To cap off their outstanding quartet they again decided to put speed and skill on a better footing relative to size and character alone and chose overager Mitch Fadden. Going into the 2005-2006 draft Fadden was considered one of the best 16 year old prospects in the WHL and a first round caliber sniper. But a bad attitude and poor work ethic not only dropped Fadden out of the first round but out of the 2006 draft altogether. The Lightning have never been afraid to take overagers going all the way back to Craig and they patiently watched Fadden turn his junior career around this year finishing 7th in the WHL in scoring. I really like this Fadden pick. There's something to be said for the character of someone who loses everything and still picks themself off, dusts themself off and rises to the challenge.

So with some guile the Lightning went into this draft looking like they'd get nothing and they walked out with two guys with first round talent and two more with second round talent because they finally started to really think outside of the box instead of just talking about it. Necessity really is the mother of all invention.

The Lightning then reverted to their battle tested late round strategies that have served them so well in the past few drafts. They swung a deal with Ottawa to grab a bundle of picks and nab overager Matt Marshall in the late 5th round who is arguably one of the better skaters in this draft. They grabbed late blooming overager Johan Harju in the 6th round to try and bolster the center position in Norfolk. Finally, in the seventh round they took flyers on goaltender Torrie Jung, Paul Ranger-esque defenseman Michael Ward and project left wing Justin Courtnall.

All in all, while I thought the drafts in 2003 and 2005 had a lot of merits, this draft believe it or not excites me more than any draft since 2002. And the Lightning did it on a shoestring. Not bad. I look forward to seeing all of these prospects develop in the coming years.