For the fans that endured the lows of the Tampa Bay Lightning from 1997 until 2002, "tomorrow" finally arrived in 2003 when the Bolts finally made the playoffs again, and then hit a crescendo in 2004 when the Bolts won Lord Stanley's Cup. From 2003-2007, the team made the playoffs four times in a row.
But of course, with the playoffs comes lower draft picks, and picks more expendable while trying to keep the top-level club competitive. Trading those assets (draft picks) for immediate help becomes the thing to do when you are in contention and need a final piece of the puzzle or two.
It's a fact, though, that teams should be able to reap talent through their top picks (even if they're not at the top of the draft board), and re-stock the franchise with that crop of talent.
Sadly, the one repetitive feat that Jay Feaster accomplished from his first draft class through 2006 was to have weak top-60 picks.
The list starts in 2002 with Brampton Battalion left wing Adam Heinrich (2nd round, 60th overall), who never played a game in the NHL. His last games played were in Germany with the Hamburg Freezers.
2003, the year the Bolts made the playoffs for the first time since 1996, brought defensemen Mike Egener (34th overall) from the Calgary Hitmen of the WHL. Egener never played an NHL game and retired from hockey in the 2007-2008 off-season... Though he has picked it up again and had some success in the ECHL with the Ontario Reign.
In 2004, the Bolts went with another Calgary Hitmen defenseman: Andy Rogers (30th overall). Though Rogers flirted with making the Bolts at his first NHL training camp in 2005, he never got there. He's battled injuries his entire career, and was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs at the trade deadline in 2009. He has never played an NHL game.
2005 brought Vladmir Mihalik (30th overall), the towering (6'7") Slovakian defenseman has broken through to the NHL, playing 15 games in the past two seasons with the Lightning. The 23 year old will likely get another chance to make the club in the fall.
And then came 2006 draft pick Riku Helenius, a Finnish goaltender selected 15th overall (the Bolts highest draft pick, at the time, since 2001). Helenius was tabbed by Jay Feaster as being the Bolts goalie of the future and was the first goalie ever taken by the Lightning in the first round. While he had broken into the NHL in 2008-09, he played all of seven minutes in net. The team believes his development has plateaued, and during 2009-10, he was optioned to the Swedish Elitserien, where he will play in 20010-11.
Of these five top-60 picks, only 16 games have been played between them at the NHL level.
There is one exception to the Top-60 curse over this five year span. One player did break through, and has been contributing to the Lightning at times during the past three seasons: defenseman Matt Smaby (41st overall, 2003). He has played 90 NHL games, splitting time with the Norfolk Admirals or playing left-bench as a healthy scratch in Tampa. That, serving as a healthy scratch, was largely his role early in the 2009-10 season as the Bolts were overstocked with defensemen.
In general, these top-pick failings should not register entire drafts as failings. 2003's greatest success, in the form of getting an NHL player, was bruising center Nick Tarnasky (287th overall, 245 NHL games played between the Lightning, Nashville Predators, and Florida Panthers). 2004 netted d-man Mike Lundin (102nd overall, 155 GP) and goalie Kari Ramo (191st overall, 48 NHL GP). The 2005 draft produced wing Radek Smolenak (73rd overall, 7 NHL GP) and center Blair Jones (102nd overall, 38 NHL GP).
The high pick failings are part of why people have pointed out "years of weak drafting" when talking about the Bolts' entry drafts from the past decade. While some of this talent is still gestating in the system, they have largely come up empty in providing talent.
- 2003 (11 selections) -Smaby (0g, 6a, 6p, 90 NHL GP), Doug O'Brien (0g, 0a, 0p, 5 NHL GP), Gerald Coleman (0-0-1, 2.77 GAA, .882 S%, 2 NHL GP), Tarnasky (13g, 17a, 30p, 245 NHL GP)
- 2004 (8 selections) - Lundin (3g, 18a, 21p, 155 NHL GP), Ramo (11-21-10, 3.35 GAA, .895 S%, 48 NHL GP)
- 2005 (9 selections) - Mihalik (0g, 3a, 3p, 15 NHL GP), Smolenak (0g, 1a, 1p, 7 NHL GP), Jones (1g, 2a, 3p, 38 NHL GP)
- 2006 (4 selections) - Helenius (1 NHL GP, 2 SOG, 0 GA)