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