Lightning Junior Scouting In Perspective

I've been reading a lot of talk on the internet in the past three or four weeks by Lightning fans wanting to assign blame for the struggles the Lightning have had this season. One of the common threads in many of these cases has been to point the finger at the Lightning's junior scouting department. That discontent in the fan base only got amplified last week when St. Pete Times writer John Romano wrote, "The bottom line is the Lightning has gotten virtually nothing from nearly a decade of drafts." Even Erik Erlendsson of the Tampa Tribune has gotten in on the act calling the Lightning's minor league system a mess, only fueling a vocal segment of the Lightning fan base that is thirsting to see heads roll.

Everybody seems to be squealing for accountability, but no one has done the accounting. Much, much more on the flip...

I've been following the Lightning's prospects as a member of the internet media since 2000 and, frankly, feel incredibly frustrated by the perception that the Lightning scouts haven't produced anything since the boon of the 1998 draft. For one thing, I've been noticing a propensity for critics to cite the failures of past regimes as rationale for why the current staff should be shown the door. For instance, I've seen complaints about Nikita Alexeev and Alex Svitov, both of whom were brought in during the European heavy drafts of former GM Rick Dudley. Heck, I've even had people wave the bloody shirt about 1996 first round pick Mario Larocque. Larocque, of course, was selected under Phil Esposito and Donny Murdoch's watch for the sole purpose of poking the Montreal Canadiens organization in the eye (as legend has it) and neither man has been a part of Lightning hockey operations since the 1998-1999 season. Even the professional writers have fallen into this trap with Romano's claim about a decade of "virtually nothing".

First thing's first: if you're going to criticize, be fair about what time frame you're going to lodge your complaints about. Jay Feaster's first draft as GM of the Lightning was at the 2002 NHL Entry Draft. One of his first moves as GM was to trim Rick Dudley's bloated scouting staff in budget back down to a reasonable size and move their attention back to North American grown talent. To be accurate in judging the current staff, you need to look at what they have done in the six drafts since then rather than trying to assign to them the sins of others.

Toward that end, I took it upon myself to research every draft since 2002 to analyze how the current Lightning scouting staff compares to the rest of the NHL. The methodology was simple: I applied Bolt Prospects' criteria for defining an NHLer to every player drafted from 2002 on in order to determine just how many NHLers each team had drafted. For skaters, the criteria is any player who plays 41 or more games in a single season or 82 games in a career qualifies as an NHLer. For goaltenders, 30 or more decisions in a season or 41 career decisions qualifies a player as an NHLer. Each team's draft was also broken down in terms of the number of 1st round picks they had, the number of top-60 picks they had, and the number of NHLer's they pulled from those pick ranges as well as picks from pick 61 on. Why 60? The NHL has just recently phased out compensation picks for unrestricted free agents lost which usually added a handful of picks in the middle of the second round making the round artificially long and not uniform in number of picks. Putting the line at 60 picks made the sample sets more uniform.

The nature of this kind of analysis has some foibles, to be sure. There are a small number of players who qualify as NHLers by this criteria that aren't in the NHL anymore like Lasse Pirjeta, for instance. More to the point, there's a handful of players like Jonathan Toews of Chicago who just miss the 41 games threshold to be included in the calculations that are almost certain to meet the criteria within just a few weeks. I chose to wait until the All-Star break to release my findings so that at least there is a clean, uniform leaguewide break in games being played to use as a logical point of discussion. Obviously though, there will be more players added to this list by the end of the year. The findings, however, probably won't dramatically change.

Leaguewide since the 2002 the six NHL Entry Drafts drafts that have been conducted have yielded 128 NHLers by the methodology I employed. The average NHL team, therefore has drafted 4.27 NHLers over that time period. Contrary to popular perception, the Lightning actually were better than average having drafted 5 NHL players over that time period: Paul Ranger, Fredrik Norrena, Ryan Craig, Nick Tarnasky, and Mike Lundin, placing the Lightning in a tie for the 6th best team in the league with Anaheim, Edmonton, Florida, Montreal and San Jose. The best teams in the league were Buffalo and Columbus with 8 NHLers drafted while Calgary, New Jersey, St. Louis, and Vancouver finished last with 2 NHLers drafted each.

What makes the Lightning's performance at the drafts quite exemplary is the poor pick position the Lightning have been in for all six drafts. From 2002 on the Lightning have only drafted higher than pick 30 once (#15 in 2006). Twice the Lightning have picked dead last in the 1st round (#30 in 2004 and 2005) and three times the Lightning have traded out of the top round altogether (2002, 2003, and 2007). The Lightning have also had poor pick position in the second round, drafting below pick 60 twice (2002 and 2004) while not having a 2nd round pick at all in 2005 and 2006. From a league wide perspective, the Lightning scouts have had the second least number of first round picks to operate with since 2002 with 3, tied with Toronto. Only Detroit has had fewer opportunities to select in the top 30 (2). The Lightning have also had the third fewest opportunities to draft in the top 60 since 2002 with 7, behind only Toronto and Detroit which have had 6 top 60 picks each.

This is an important point to keep in mind because of the 128 NHLers to come out of these six drafts, 71 have come from 1st round picks (55.5%) and 90 have come from the top 60 picks (70.3%). Less than 3 in 10 NHLers have come from picks past the first 60 in the draft, meaning the Lightning have managed to place themselves in the top-10 in the NHL in terms of NHLers drafted despite the fact they were seriously hampered in terms of the pool of talent they had to choose from. Indeed, the Lightning are the best team in the league at finding talent from pick 61 in the draft on, heck, they've found all 5 of their NHLers past pick 100 in the draft. Buffalo and Columbus each come in with 4 a piece and Detroit has 3, but every other team in the league has 2 or less. Nine teams have none at all.

Long story short: the Lightning junior scouting staff has shown a penchant for spinning late round straw (or some other s-word), into gold. Which is why I wonder, exactly why are people clamboring to show this scouting staff the door? It seems to me the logical conclusions that need to be drawn from this analysis don't involve pink slipping the Lightning's scouts but, rather, that the Lightning need to be more protective of their first round and top-60 picks. This is especially important as the Lightning try to find some young scoring talent up front. Because forwards develop faster than any other position, good scoring forwards are the easiest to identify by age 17-18 as players are being drafted. Because defensemen and goaltenders play a more cerebral position and take longer to develop and because checking line forwards are role players whose jobs depend more on character intangibles, they are somewhat easier to get later in the draft. Scoring forwards really need to be found in the top 60 or, more to the point, in the top 15-20 picks.

That's not to say I believe that the Lightning scouting staff walks on water either. As I wrote on Bolt Prospects after this year's draft, I believe that from 2002-2005 the team got too enamoured with drafting big forwards who were physical specemins rather than drafting hockey players regardless of their size. Indeed, that's a trap the Lightning have always seemed to fall in even back in the Esposito and Murdoch drafts. The team already, it should be noted, has taken steps to remedy that philosophical cul de sac investing all of their top four picks in the 2007 draft in forwards with speed and skill who were not in the 6'3"+ Adam Henrich/Radek Smolenak/Chris Lawrence mold the Lightning had become accustomed to. That's the next step for this staff: to go from good to great. The goal ought to be to become like Buffalo and Columbus and start turning out talent in both the early and the late rounds.

And, in my humble opinion, the facts show they deserve that opportunity to see if they can take that next step as a group.

NHLers Drafted Since 2002 NHL Entry Draft
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While I appreciate the work

While I appreciate the work you put into this, there are just way too many variables not accounted for in this system to let the current scouting staff (as well as the GM) off the hook for this mess.

Re: While I appreciate the work

CROMAG, that is easy to put two lines out there saying that there are too many variables not accounted for. How about you list some of your thoughts instead of just saying that.

I Agree- Give Me More

As I said on Sunsports, the only players I really regret not drafting that the Lightning missed were Bergeron, Weber, and Stastny.

If that is sufficient cause for you, fine. If not, bearing in mind that pretty much every other team in the league passed on those players at least once, I'd like to hear a more detailed rationale.

I've seen a lot of what I believe are knee jerk reactions about the scouting staff, but I would like someone to make a more iron clad case before you send away the best scouts in the league at finding late round talent.

1. How many of the same

1. How many of the same scouts are still employed by the Lightning now that were with those old regimes that you say should not be counted (i.e. before Feaster actually took over)?

2. The number of players that a team has reach the NHL for half a season or so doesn't necessarily mean they draft better. In fact, it would stand to reason that a team that drafts really well may not see their players as quickly (within the 6 year span that you are using) simply because their cupboard is much more full.

3. How are the players actually performing in the minors? Just because they haven't made the NHL yet doesn't mean that a team doesn't have loads of talent in their minor league system.

Just a couple.

1. Many of the scouts are

1. Many of the scouts are holdovers from Dudley's regime with a few going all the way back to Espo. However, I don't think it's fair to saddle them with Dudley's baggage though because it's quite obvious who was driving the train when it came to drafting as many Russians as possible the couple of years Dudley was fully in charge.

2. Isn't the old cliche about drafts "we'll know in five years"? And the reason for the six year span is simply that's when Feaster took over. We can't carry it out any longer than that? As for the time frame for players going up, as Claude Loiselle told me if a player is an NHLer they won't stay in the minors. Period. An organization will make room.

3. How a minor league team performs isn't always indicative of a team's strength at generating NHL prospects. For instance, Buffalo has been the best team in the league at drafting NHLers, and yet Rochester currently has the worst record in the AHL (albeit splitting the affiliation with Florida, which is more middle of the road). Columbus' farm team also has a sub-.500 record. Part of the reason is that these farm teams' best players move up taking away their best talent. How much different would Springfield have gone if Ranger, Craig, and Artyukhin hadn't gone up to the NHL? Wouldn't Norfolk be better if they had Lundin? Etc etc.

On the flip side Toronto, which has been awful at drafting, has the Marlies sitting with the second best record in the West. And that's because they buy up veterans and play them rather than the kids. That's another reason why an AHL team's record isn't always indicative of their developmental prowess.

1. If they aren't to be held

1. If they aren't to be held accountable then Feaster should be since he is the one letting them keep their jobs. In fairness to Jay, he has never been afraid to take that responsiblity. ( I really do respect Feaster as a person, but that doesn't mean he is doing everything that he could to help this team draft better, have a stronger minor league system, etc...)

2. Easy for Mr. Loiselle to say, but we have all seen players that probably could have played for the Lightning only to come up and be sent back down. It really does depend on the coach of the parent team as to whether that player sticks with the NHL team or not. To think there are not players in the AHL or even ECHL that could be perfectly good NHL players if given the chance is ludicrous. It is all about opportunity...and sometimes just getting on the right persons good side.

3. I was thinking more about how the players are performing individually, not so much team standing wise. Individuals can be playing well on a poor team. Obviously, a team can suck because of many different reasons (players, system, coach, etc...). Buffalo has only been the best judging by the system you used, but I am sure there are people who would argue a team like Detroit or New Jersey has drafted better. As you pointed out, many minor league teams do well because of the players they rent, not because of the players they draft. I guess that is still a reflection on the scouting staff though. Even in that regard we have been subpar. Rochester sucks this year, but they were second in their division last year and made the playoffs (albeit losing in the first round).

1. They've performed well

1. They've performed well under Feaster. That was the point of my analysis.

2. Who?

3. I think what my analysis proves is that New Jersey is living off past reputation.

1. So says you. I don't

1. So says you. I don't think they have performed all that well. The fact that we have gotten a couple decent players in later rounds over the last six years doesn't say a whole lot.

2. If you are asking for just the Lightning, then Blair Jones comes to mind this year, as well as Matt Smaby and Kyle Wanvig (he could have easily been on the team the whole year). Other years, we have seen Craig and Tarnasky both be called up for short times only to be sent down when their play didn't dictate that they couldn't play here. Again, mostly because the coach didn't play them or he had some other reason to play a waste of a player in their place. Whether it be a Karlsson, Cibak, or whoever.

3. How so?

1. So says the facts. 2.

1. So says the facts.

2. Blair Jones hasn't had a point in the AHL in what seems like forever. Smaby struggled with the speed at the NHL level. Wanvig? The guy isn't a great skater, that's why it took forever for him to be called up.

3. New Jersey has only put 2 NHLers in the league in the last six drafts (Parise and Zajac).

1. Sure, your "facts". 2.

1. Sure, your "facts".

2. Maybe that is because his confidence has been completely screwed with by being the yo-yo. Just a thought. Smaby didn't struggle any more so then Lundin at the beginning of the year. When Smaby made a mistake he was benched and when Lundin made one nothing happened, that is called playing favorites...not the meritocracy that has always been preached. Then again, maybe the coach just had more confidence in Lundin since he knew that Mike didn't come from our minor league system. Wanvig isn't a great skater? I guess everybody on the Lightning is a great skater then?

3. You forgot Cam Janssen. I believe he more than meets your criteria. They also have David Clarkson as an undrafted free agent. He is a variable that isn't accounted for in your system.

1. If you have another set

1. If you have another set of facts I'd love to see them.

2. Jones is just struggling right now. I think that's why Keller got the All-Star nod over him. Loiselle said in an interview recently that Keller has moved ahead of Jones. I think the coach had greater confidence in Lundin versus Smaby because of Lundin's mobility.

3. Yes, I forgot Cam Janssen. I will add him. That's still just 3 players. I think their reputation seems a bit overblown. I mean, if you're going to poo-poo Craig and Tarnasky, how can you really jump up and down for Cam Janssen?

OK, I added Janssen. As you

OK, I added Janssen. As you can see, that didn't really alter the results very much.

1. The fact I believe in is

1. The fact I believe in is stated in my first post.

2. Nothing new here.

3. I never put Craig or Tarnasky down. In fact, I stated that IMO they could have been a regular part of the team earlier.

One point:

While I agree that the Lightning scouting staff has been scrutinized unjustly by much of the media, I do have to say that of the five players, you have one utility player (Tarnasky), one third liner/powerplay specialist (Craig), a backup goalie (Norrena), one rookie (Lundin), and just one player who has shown star power (Ranger). I will give credit to the Feaster scouting program for drafting NHL players in late rounds where it seems to be a craps shoot, and I also give kudos to the developmental system in that all of the players except Lundin have spent significant time in the Lightning developmental system. My main point is that the major criticism that they should have is despite his ability to pick up great utility talent (Tarnasky, Craig, Norrena), Feaster's hasn't drafted many possible future stars (Ranger and Ramo the exceptions). Of course, drafting Helenius in 2006 seems to be a step in the right direction, and hopefully with the unfortunate reality that the Lightning will most likely attain a lottery pick this season, they will be able to strike gold with a talented first rounder. Feaster's main problem isn't scouting. IMO, It is the budgetary problems and lack of depth on the main club which cause him to gamble on free agents, make recent questionable trades and raid the farm system for second rate talent.

And the rebuttal to that is

And the rebuttal to that is that utility players, by and large, is all you can get outside of the top-60, and in fact its hard to get scoring forwards outside the top-20. Is it the scouts' faults where they've been selecting?

Undrafted signings....

What about a teams ability to pick up good undrafted players? Isn't that part of scouting? It would be nice to have a teddy purcell in norfolk this season...Granted it's rare, while Chicago was in tenure here they did a great job signing undrafted players and DEVELOPING them. Which seems to be the lightning organizations weak point. You can't even count lundin towards that because Maine developed his game not the lightning! Granted developement is a differant story it still ties into having the right personel in place to get the job done.

Agreeing with Pete

I'm wih Pete here. Why? With pretty much the same scouting personnel system in place as now the Lightning won a Stanley Cup, had two more seasons as a legitimate contender, and another one or two seasons as a reasonably strong squad. Now that they are struggling are the same scouts now bums? Have they suddenly lost their ability to scout? OK- You don't get an eternal moratorium for winning the Cup but...

As Pete has said, the main reason for a lack of sexy prospects in Norfolk was the Bolts' draft position. They've had only ONE pick higher than #30 in the past five drafts- that being a goalie, which was the need in the system at the time. So, if Chicago, St. Louis and other clubs have sexier prospects in their systems it's because they had bad teams for several years and were able to draft attractive prospects. It's not as if the Lightning scouts wouldn't have liked to pick up some of those players or passed on them out of ignorance, they simply didn't have those high picks (along with the Cup win, we got the worst lottery pick after the lockout, and Fester has traded away three first round picks and a second- correct me if I'm wrong).

The scouts can't be faulted for Fester trading away the picks. Any criticism regarding that should be directed as to whether the Bolts got equal value for those traded picks- which is not in the scouts' domain. Likewise, going back to the Dudley era (some current scouts were around then), it is not the scouts' fault that Artyukhin returned to Russia and the Polushin and Anton But never came over. These were correctly identified as talented players by the scouts but other factors came into play.

Someone mentioned undrafted players. Is that a part of scouting? Yeah- identifying the best FAs. But getting them to choose your club and offering them contracts so that they'll come is NOT the scouts job. Last season, everyone knew that Purcell was a hot prospect- I can be pretty sure the Bolt scouts did too. But all the scouts can do is send in reports and recommendations- they can't sign the guy. And in Purcell's case I uderstand that about 25 teams (including the Lightning) were after him.

Someone mentioned that Lundin wasn't developed in the Lightning's minor league system but in the NCAA (the post may have been a follow up comment to one of the other articles critical of the scouts that Pete referred to). Again, this is not up to the scouts. The scouts identify a player and get him into the system via the draft. How and where they develop after the draft has nothing to do with the scouts but with the coaches. Would it somehow be better if Lundin wasn't quite as good as he has been and went through a few years in the minors first to somehow legitimize his development in the system?

What you should judge scouts on is value for picking position. Now, what Feaster has done a few times to compensate for the lack of early picks is to add several late round picks via trades for the Bolts' scouts. So, in late rounds they've found Ramo, Ranger (both great picks for late rounds), Norrena, Lundin, Craig, Tarnasky- am I forgetting any? (Keller could become another late round gem). OK, the last three are not sexy picks but any time players taken past ...oh... pick 130 make it into the NHL, you are getting great value per pick.

The Bolts restocking of fowards began in last year's draft which means that they are still in junior (Tyrell, Fadden, Cunti), stayed in Sweden (Harju would have looked good in Norfolk), or HS (Killorn). These SEEM to be good picks as of now, but the the fact that these scouting choices are not in Norfolk contributing is a matter of age, not bad scouting.

OK- There have been some clinkers that the Bolt scouts have failed on (but as Pete said, check a league average on this). Rogers and Egener have not lived up to expectations- so far (although they were never expected to be sexy players). Alexeev (Dudley era) was not a good pick. Svitov has been mediocre at best- although everyone and his dog had Svitov top 5 that year. Tobin and Bartanus were not signed at all- which is not a good sign for top 3 rounders. Yeah- the scouts have missed some- but given how the Bolts have had the fewest top end picks in the NHL over the last 5 years (save perhaps Toronto), which is the age group that would normally be flourishing in the minors right now, I don't think the scouts have done too badly value-wise given their picking positions.

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