The 2015 NHL Entry Draft gets underway later today at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida. Day 1 will cover the first round; tomorrow will cover Rounds 2-7.
What can we predict the Tampa Bay Lightning will do based on the knowledge we have from past drafts and their current situation?
What we know
First off, the Tampa Bay Lightning, by virtue of a bunch of wheeling and dealing over the past 18 months, hold 9 selections total in the draft, but just one today (28th overall, a pick originally belonging to the New York Rangers, from the Ryan Callahan-Martin St. Louis trade.)
They have two top-60 picks (44th overall being the other one, from the Boston Bruins) and hold the 64th overall pick as well, previously the Edmonton Oilers' pick. Scouts and media have been praising this draft class for months; it's deep, and it looks like a good one overall.
The cap will hamper any potential movement
The Bolts are right up against the newly announced $71.4 million cap. So while they might be involved in some draft-day player movement, it's far more likely to be of the "salary shedding" type. Names to watch out for which Tampa Bay might look to move: Matt Carle and Mark Barberio. Both guys become redundant on the blue line if the team trusts Nikita Nesterov moving forward; Carle is your best contract to try to move if you want to dump salary, and Barberio was eclipsed on the depth chart and needs a new contract he probably won't get from Tampa Bay.
There is a little rumor about the Lightning maybe moving up to the top-3 -- the Arizona Coyotes have fielded a handful of offers for that pick -- but it's hard to imagine Tampa Bay sweetening their offer enough to get the Coyotes to move down from 3rd overall to 28th. That's a mighty drop that will almost certainly cost you a player like Jonathan Drouin, who was a non-starter for Yzerman in last year's failed attempt to move up to pick Aaron Ekblad.
That sort of move seems unlikely, but you never rule anything out with Steve Yzerman. That said, moving Drouin now, even for a top-3 pick, resets the development clock on whomever you pick at #3 and robs of you of what looks like an elite scorer just about to materialize as a full-time, reliable top-line NHLer, with no guarantee that who you grab will ever have even the small impact Drouin has already had in a Lightning sweater.
Skill skill skill
As we've highlighted with our draft targets series (full draft section here with all the profiles so far), the Lightning favor skill and hockey sense over all else. Size is a tiebreaker at best, but the Bolts will almost always opt for the guy who can score over the guy who is big.
Russians don't dissuade them, and neither do off-ice issues or players criticized for lack of work ethic or inconsistency in juniors. They do their own research and make their own decisions on players. Skill, however, is always paramount.
Flexibility is key
As Steve Yzerman gets more comfortable at the draft table, we've seen the Lightning be more aggressive moving around at the draft to target specific players or to move down if the next handful of guys they like are expected to be available still later on.
At the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, the Bolts selected Anthony DeAngelo at 19th overall, then moved down with the 28th overall pick to get a pair of 2nd rounders (35th and 57th overall). They had moved their own 2nd rounder in the Jason Garrison trade, so they moved down 7 selections to add pick number 57, passing on adding a dynamic scoring forward like Joshua Ho-Sang or Ivan Barbashev to add a pair of project defensemen in Dominik Masin and Johnathan MacLeod.
In the third round, Yzerman used a 7th round pick to move up one spot, from 80th overall to the Minnesota Wild's 79th pick, to land Brayden Point, who had no business still being on the board that late in the draft. They moved up one more time -- in the 7th round -- from 200th overall to 185th to grab overager Cam Darcy.
Yzerman and Murray clearly have some form of tier system that rates players that they felt comfortable moving down (to get the D they got in Round 2), but also are not shy from targeting specific players, using spare picks as ammunition to get exactly who they want. With two 4ths, two 6ths, and a late 7th (from the Anaheim Ducks) all on hand this year, they have the assets to do this again if they so choose.
Time to get a goalie, just not in the first round
Andrei Vasilevskiy could very well end up being a once-in-a-lifetime talent. That's why Tampa Bay spent a 1st round pick on him, something you hardly see done with goaltenders any more. It helped that the pick was acquired from the Detroit Red Wings in the Steve Downie-Kyle Quincey three-way trade and the Bolts already had Slater Koekkoek in their back pocket, too.
That was a special situation, though, so don't expect Tampa Bay to burn an early pick for a goalie here. Still, it's time to add another one to the prospect pool.
Since the 2010 draft, Yzerman-Murray have drafted 3 goalies (Adam Wilcox, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Kristers Gudlevskis) in 5 years. The way the development cycle works -- and with 5 spots in the organization for goaltenders -- it's probably past time to pick another one. That said, even the "best" goalie prospects this year aren't really 1st round talents. Reaching for Ilya Samsonov or MacKenzie Blackwood would be just that -- reaching -- with so much skater talent available in the top-60.
Late picks are for the Syracuse Crunch
A lot of teams just throw 6th and 7th round picks away.
It's true, they have a very low chance of becoming NHLers. In many cases, because of this, 7th round picks especially are considered essentially valueless. Pot-sweeteners, or traded away just so there's something going the other way in a player's rights' deal.
The Lightning, however, are very strategic with their late picks, at least the ones they hold on to; they treat them like picks for the Syracuse Crunch, instead of for the Lightning.
We saw that just a few weeks ago when the Bolts acquired Daniel Walcott from the Rangers.
They like to grab overage players that maybe got passed over in previous draft years but have shown good skill at the junior, college, or European pro level; guys that are old enough to step immediately into the AHL if they're willing. Ondrej Palat is the model for this pick; drafted at age 20 in 2011, the Lightning burned a 7th to get his rights rather than inviting him to camp and having to compete with other teams. The rest is history.
The Bolts have repeated this process -- with less (NHL) success, obviously -- in landing Syracuse-bound prospects like Matt Peca, Joel Vermin, Henri Ikonen, and Cam Darcy. They also have the rights to Nikita Gusev and Saku Salminen, though whether they come to North America is still up in the air.
Hold on to your butts
Ultimately, looking at past drafts, the current structure and prospect pool of the organization, and pure guesswork can only do so much. This is Steve Yzerman we're talking about. Don't rule anything out. Don't assume anything. Anything is possible. Enjoy?