Five Days to Ottawa
We've been very quiet here at Bolt Prospects lately. It's not for a lack of interest in the team, mind you, or excitement about the impending draft. However, it's hard to post commentary at this time with so much up in the air. After years of having the same ownership and hockey operations team in place, it was easy to predict what the Lightning were going to do and what kind of players they would pursue. However, with new owner Oren Koules coming in with an ownership group suspected of also including former NHLers Len Barrie and Luc Robitaille and Head Coach John Tortorella cut loose with rumors of ESPN analyst Barry Melrose taking over, it's difficult to know what kind of players the Lightning will pursue. If Melrose does indeed take over, what will his system look like after 13 years out of coaching? How will he handle the new rules? No red line? It's impossible to say.
And so, my personal draft preview has to begin with this admission: I'm apprehensive about the ownership situation, and as the weeks go on I continue to wait for the next shoe to drop, and then the next, and then the next. Having a new ownership group which is more enthusiastic about hockey and willing to put more money into the on ice product is potentially exciting. But the idea of a cast of amateurs and/or people who have been away from the game for many, many years swooping in and hiring their cronies and giving them key positions of leadership in the hockey operations is frightening. I worry about the level of professionalism this new group is going to have, and without saying much of a word in the media Koules and his people have already managed to project the image of a traveling circus that is coming to town. Friday and Saturday's draft will be their first opportunity to show to the hockey world that they bring organizational discipline and rigor to the table, and not just the flash of a Hollywood production.
From a personnel standpoint, there's no secrets going into this draft. The biggest hole in the organization is at the second line center position, and Steve Stamkos will fill that hole immediately. Barring the Stamkos family car driving off a cliff on the way to Ottawa, the talented Sarnia pivot will be the number one pick Friday night, as evidenced by the fact the Lightning have been marketing the young man through their "Seen Stamkos?" campaign for the last two months. Having read the scouting reports from three independent organizations and having watched several of his World Junior Championships games, I have come to one conclusion: Steven Stamkos will be the most complete and most NHL ready player the Tampa Bay Lightning have ever selected in their history, including Vincent Lecavalier. He has been universally compared to former Red Wings great Steve Yzerman, and I have to say the comparisons are apt. On tape, like Yzerman, there's no one thing about Stamkos' game that makes me say, "Wow, he's going to be one of the best two or three in the game at that!" A guy like Mikkel Boedker, for instance, is a better skater than Stamkos, while heralded 2009 eligible John Tavares struck me as a better natural finisher. However, if you look across the board, there really are no weaknesses in Stamkos' game. He may not be the best at any one thing, but like Yzerman I suspect that when Stamkos matures he will be one of the best 10-15 players in the game at pretty much everything. Skating. Finishing. Passing the puck. Moving away from the puck. Back checking. Faceoffs. Battle level. Leadership intangibles. You have to put a check by every single one of these when looking at Stamkos.
And, the wonderful thing for Stamkos is that unlike when Vincent Lecavalier entered the league 10 years ago after the 1998 NHL Entry Draft, the current rules restricting clutching and grabbing have made it possible for younger players to have more of an impact right off the bat. When Lecavalier came into the league as a skinny, less physically mature 18 year old, teams neutralized him by essentially mugging him every time he touched the ice. That doesn't occur anymore, which is why tiny 2007 number one pick Patrick Kane, who stands at 5'9" and under 180 lbs was able to pot 21 goals and compile 72 points for the Blackhawks last season. Stamkos is bigger and more physically mature and has a more well-rounded game, so it's possible that he could easily eclipse Kane's production. Still, I think it's fair to look at 20 goals and 70 points as a safe expectation of what Stamkos can and should bring to the Lightning next season, and I can hardly wait to see #91 in a Lightning jersey.
What will happen on Saturday at the draft is much more up in the air. The Lightning will own picks 62, 122, 152, 160, 182, 196, and 203 heading into the draft. In the past, we could expect the Lightning to stand pat in the early rounds and make one or two trades to get extra picks in the late rounds to go after a handful of players who were still on their board. However, with Oren Koules calling the shots, we might see the Lightning move around earlier in the draft than usual. I don't think the Lightning will make a huge splash by moving into the first round for a second pick (they don't have the assets to pull that kind of deal off responsibly), but I could see Koules and Company pulling the trigger on a move into the second round to go after a player they've fallen in love with. We'll have to wait until Saturday to see if that's the case though and who that player is.
Assuming the Lightning stay at pick 62 in the third round, the conventional wisdom is that the Lightning will pursue a forward. That's their most pressing need, and I would think there's a 60-70% chance that's the route they'll go. However, in all honestly, the Lightning do need a bit of everything out of this draft. The organizational depth the Lightning built up from 2005 and prior has begun to work it's way through the developmental cycle. Mike Lundin made the team last season and Matt Smaby looks well on his way to the NHL while Vladimir Mihalik is probably one half to a full year away from the show. On the other hand, Mike Egener and Andy Rogers' injury problems are beginning to look insurmountable and Kevin Quick's dubious ending with the University of Michigan have dampened what looked like one of the lone bright spots of the team's thin 2006 class. Once Mihalik does make the jump by 2009-2010, there might be nothing behind him to pick up the mantle, unless Quick gets his career back on track.
Meanwhile, in goal, Karri Ramo looks well on his way to achieving his promise but there are some question marks behind him. 2006 first rounder Riku Helenius had a mediocre campaign last season after missing a year with shoulder surgery and 2003 3rd round pick Jonathan Boutin appears to be on the outs with the organization as he continues to play streaky, inconsistent hockey in the AHL. I expect the Lightning to take another goaltender in this draft to shore up what will be coming in behind Helenius, but it may not happen until the final two rounds.
And that brings us to the forward position. Getting Stamkos will be a huge boon to the NHL club, but there is still a need for organizational depth at center and along the wings. The Lightning began to address the problem last season with a mold-breaking draft that was, in my opinion, probably their best since 2002. The Lightning broke with tradition by choosing smaller, quicker players who bring some more skill at the expense of bulk. Dana Tyrell, Alex Killorn, and Mitch Fadden all had good seasons while Luca Cunti suffered at the hands of a poor decision by the NCAA. Still, Cunti has an elite skill level. These four, in my opinion, will help redefine the Lightning organization in the coming years, starting with Fadden in the AHL this year.
Ideally, I'd like to see the Lightning continue what they started last season by continuing to draft smaller, quicker players. However, looking at this draft, the best players available by pick 62 may be in the more traditional Lightning mold from the 2005 draft and prior: players like Radek Smolenak and Blair Jones. If you held a gun to my head and forced me to guess three names who the Lightning might be looking at for pick 62 on Saturday here are my guesses:
C Luke Adam, 6'2" 203 lbs, St. John's (QMJHL)
70 GP, 36-30-66, 72 PIM
Rankings: CSS #42 North American Skater, Red Line #83 Overall, THN #64 Overall
This is a big, strong, young man from the circles down who is somewhat reminiscent of Ryan Craig before his injury problems of the past two seasons. He has good hands and has a quick release and is good at deflections just like Craig. Unfortunately, he skates like Craig too, which is why he probably will slip down to the third round, if not further.
LW Josh Brittain, 6'4" 202 lbs, Kingston (OHL)
68 GP, 28-23-51, 106 PIM
Rankings: CSS #66 North American Skater, Red Line #56 Overall, THN NR
Brittain is kind of a wild card of the second and third rounds of this draft, in my opinion. My suspicion is that there are a handful of teams that project Brittain to have a lot of upside, and I wouldn't be surprised if the Lightning are one of them. He was very strong in the second half of the season last year and seems to be a bigger, better skating version of Adam when he's on his game. Red Line goes so far as to compare him to former Lightning assistant captain Fredrik Modin. With an endorsement like that, how can a Lightning fan say no?
LW Geordie Wudrick, 6'3" 204 lbs, Swift Current (WHL)
66 GP, 20-24-44, 72 PIM
Rankings: CSS #71 North American Skater, Red Line #48 Overall, THN #53 Overall
There's nothing terribly pretty about Wudrick's game, he's just a big strong crease crashing power forward. He's the best skater of the three, but he also probably has the worst hands of the three as well. Still, he's the kind of player who has the body and the skating to project to be an NHLer, which is why he may go well before the other two.
Of course, if the Lightning do go after a little guy, there are some who may be on the board. These will be warts-and-all type players though, with some issues that may be unattractive to the Lightning's scouts:
C Eric O'Dell, 6'0" 174 lbs, Sudbury (OHL)
28 GP, 14-18-32, 19 PIM
Rankings: CSS #51 North American Skater, Red Line #54 Overall, THN #73 Overall
O'Dell spent half of last season in Junior A before bursting onto the scene with Sudbury and quickly rising up the charts. He's a good skater blessed with great skill, but also is weak on the puck and doesn't know a back check from a back scratcher. Still, if you're looking at raw potential from a player who has so little junior experience and room to grow as a player, maybe O'Dell is your guy.
LW David Toews, 5'10" 175 lbs, Shattuck St. Mary's (USHS)
51 GP, 44-56-100, 20 PIM
Rankings: CSS #71 North America, Red Line #102 Overall, THN #40 Overall
Jonathan Toews' little brother is another player who has wildly divergent opinions about him. Almost all of the independent scouting agencies see a player with good speed and skill just like his brother, but there's some worry about his durability and his burst.
And then, of course, there's the possibility that one or two players considered to be top-60 picks will fall to the Lightning at 62. It happened a year ago when Luca Cunti, who was considered a first round talent by THN, fell all the way to Tampa Bay's pick in the third. There's no way of knowing which player(s) will drop this year, but that never stops me from taking a stab:
C Tyler Ennis, 5'9" 146 lbs, Medicine Hat (WHL)
70 GP, 43-48-91, 42 PIM
Rankings: CSS #31 North American Skater, #46 Red Line, #41 THN
In the new NHL with the new rules, size is less of a factor, but when a player weighs only around 150 pounds, I'm sorry, that has to be a red flag. He's a good skater with a great skill level, but at the end of the day I could see him slipping. And, I could see the team that gave Martin St. Louis his shot taking a swing for the fences with Ennis.
RW Mikhail Stefanovich, 6'2" 202 lbs, Quebec (QMJHL)
62 GP, 32-34-66, 32 PIM
Rankings: CSS #57 North American Skater, Red Line #33 Overall, THN #20 Overall
The Belarusian born winger probably has one of the five to ten best skill sets in the draft, but he also has a reputation as a lazy player who isn't a self starter in the motivation department. He could fall, and if he does, the Lightning might take a homerun swing and pick him.
C Mitch Wahl, 6'0" 175 lbs, Spokane (WHL)
67 GP, 20-53-73, 63 PIM
Rankings: CSS #64 North American Skater, Red Line #64 Overall, THN #37 Overall
Wahl is a good skater who has a decent skill level and will backcheck. But he's also considered to be one of the softest players in this draft with a reputation of being deathly afraid of the high traffic areas on the ice. Red flags abound for a player who doesn't have the physical courage to compete. But if you take him and he gains that courage, he's potentially a game breaker.