With the Lightning not holding a draft pick until the final selection in the third round this year and the compressed schedule that lumped the Seattle Expansion Draft and the Entry Draft so close to the team’s successful title defense, it’s been an oddly subdued draft year for the Lightning. That’s compounded by the oddity of the scouting world trying to read tea leaves in the shadow of the COVID virus and the disruptions it’s caused to life, in general, and the sport of hockey, specifically. That may be a blessing in disguise for a Lightning franchise already renowned for selecting late round gems. This year holds the potential to have a higher volume of late round steals because of limited viewings and the uncertainty cause by the young athletes having fewer games to aid their development.
Third Round, 96th Overall
RHD Roman Schmidt, 6’5″ 210 lbs, USNTDP
Ranked as high as 37th overall by Red Line Report and as low as 137th by McKeen’s, the Lightning’s first selection of the Entry Draft underlines the level of uncertainty in the scouting world this season. A quick perusal of the tape reveals why the Lightning surely feel satisfied they got great value with this pick. Schmidt made tremendous leaps with his skating from the 2019-2020 to the 2020-2021 and now is a projectable mix of size, strength, and mobility at a premium NHL position. Readers of this website will know, if you look at the value tree in hockey, the only thing harder to find than a good right handed d-man is a top notch starting goaltender, so if you can get either you shouldn’t hesitate to pull the trigger. Schmidt will be heading to Kitchener of the OHL next season, which should help him continue to refine his game. To this point, he’s been more defensive-minded with a calm, almost effortless approach to puck moving on the breakout, but he believes there may be more offense in his game. Even if there’s not, he has the look of a future second pair defenseman and Red Line has given him the comparable of Brandon Carlo.
Fourth Round, 126th Overall
LW Dylan Duke, 5’10” 175 lbs, USNTDP
Several scouting services had Duke hovering around the 40’s, so this is another potential high-value pick for the Lightning from the USNTDP, albeit from a lower value position. I strongly suspect if Duke were 3-4 inches taller he might’ve been a top-60 pick, but as it is the Lightning traded up into the fourth round to take this ultra-competitive firebrand. Duke is just a gamer who, despite somewhat average size and athleticsm, will gnaw the ends off the boards to make plays to win hockey games. A perusal of his tape reveals a cavalcade of goals all seemingly scored from within about five feet of the goal line. The young man relishes going to the dirty areas and seems to have a knack for scoring there. Red Line gives him the comparable of Patric Hornqvist and notes he would be a perfect third line winger for a strong club. After a few Barb Underhill skating sessions, Duke might just live up to that projection.
Fifth Round, 160th Overall
C Cameron MacDonald, 6’1″ 190 lbs, St. John (QMJHL)
The Lightning used their fifth round selection on toolsy pest Cameron MacDonald out of the QMJHL. Whether center is actually MacDonald’s long-term position remains to be seen, but the long-striding pivot plays a simple north-south game and relishes storming into high-traffic areas to create chaos. Lightning Head Scout Al Murray has pegged him in the mold of a Barclay Goodrow or Cedric Paquette type of lower six forward. For their part, Red Line Report had MacDonald as their 115th overall prospect and projected him as a fourth line centerman in the mold of ex-Lightning prospect Brett Howden, albeit not as big physically.
Sixth Round, 192nd Overall
LHD Alex Gagne, 6’4″ 205 lbs, Muskegon (USHL)
The Lightning seemingly go off page to the USHL and high school ranks 2-3 times a year for these draft and stash athletes that go to the NCAA ranks, and the first of this type this year was Alex Gagne. Despite earning Third Team USHL honors, the two-way defenseman failed to garner much attention from the scouting services, many of whom had him unranked. Gagne’s got decent mobility, although he still needs to work on his skating, and plays pretty well in all three zones. He’s committed to the University of New Hampshire in Hockey East and the Lightning will now give him a good two or three season in a NCAA strength and conditioning program playing against older and better players to develop before they make their call on whether to move him along to Syracuse.
Seventh Round, 196th Overall
LHD Daniil Pylenkov, 6’1″ 194 lbs, Podolsk (RUS)
Another annual tradition for the Lightning is the yearly poaching of overage prospects who’ve become late bloomers. This year there was only one such player, but it’s potentially a pretty good one. Daniil Pylenkov had a very respectable 19 points in 54 KHL games this season for Vtyaz Podolsk in the KHL in his second full season at Russia’s top level. Pylenkov looks to be a well rounded player, albeit a little below the average size the Lightning typically covet. He’s reasonably mobile, has decent skills and a little swagger to him, and isn’t afraid to mix it up physically either. His progression was good enough this past season that KHL superclub SKA St. Petersburg promptly poached him from the smaller Podolsk club. That’s a good sign the Lightning got a good prospect, but it also begs the question what the Lightning’s strategy is for getting Pylenkov over to North America.
Seventh Round, 211th Overall
LW Robert “Cooper” Flinton, 6’2″ 210 lbs, St. Pauls School (USHS)
Way off the beaten path comes Cooper Flinton from the US High School ranks, who is committed to Dartmouth of the ECAC. Flinton would be an under-the-radar prospect in a regular year, but with COVID limiting his viewings even more this may be the stealthiest of stealth prospects the team has drafted to date. There’s a lot to like with Flinton from the standpoint that at 17 years old he’s one of the absolute youngest prospects in this draft class and yet he’s already a stout 6’2″ and 210 lbs. He’s a head taller than just about anyone he’s faced in New Hampshire high school hockey and with his big frame and decent snap shot he really hasn’t been challenged in the prep school ranks. Good news: he’s going into a NCAA strength and conditioning program and will get even bigger and stronger. Uncertain news: what will Flinton do when he’s no longer “the big kid on the Little League team” in college? It’s hardly a big gamble in the seventh round though and I must confess, parts of Flinton’s story have odd callbacks to when the Lightning drafted Alex Killorn.
Seventh Round, 224th Overall
RW Niko Huuhtanen, 6’2″ 204 lbs, Tappara U20 (FIN)
The Lightning closed out the draft with an intriguing swing for the fences taking sniper Niko Huuhtanen out of Finland. A classic power winger, Huuhtanen put up a scorching hot 20 goals and 34 points in 37 games in the Finnish junior ranks en route to being selected by Everett of the WHL in the Import Draft, where he’ll play next season. He’s big, he’s strong, he’s a little mean (73 PIM’s) and he was rated by Red Line Report as the 13th best natural goal scorer in this draft class. Heck, he even did it on the international stage with 2 goals and 5 points in 7 games at the U18 WJC’s. “So what’s the catch,” you ask? Review the tape and you quickly see a skating stride reminiscent of a young Cedric Paquette before he got to Syracuse. Indeed, I had to coin the word “dumptruckulent” to describe Huuhtanen’s skating. Barb Underhill has to do a little work to get a prospect like Dylan Duke’s skating stride into shape. She deserves a Congressional Medal of Honor if she pulls off the same with Huuhtanen. There’s practically no risk for the Lightning to try, though, with the last pick in the whole draft and oh so much upside if Huuhtanen’s skating can ascend the same developmental curve Paquette’s did.