The Tampa Bay Lightning are often lauded for their remarkable ability to find talent in later rounds of the draft. Nikita Kucherov is an obvious first-round talent that the Bolts picked up late in the second round. Ondrej Palat fell all the way to the seventh round before the Lightning claimed him. Brayden Point was a third-round steal. Tyler Johnson was undrafted. The list goes on and on.
However, in the Yzerman/Cooper era, the first round picks have truly floundered. Steve Yzerman took over at the helm of the Lightning in 2010, selecting Brett Connolly with the sixth overall pick. Most people agree that Yzerman did not have sufficient time to scout before that draft, so he’s given a pass for that year. With that in mind, let’s review all of the first round draft picks starting in 2011. Each of the players listed here made their NHL debuts in the Jon Cooper era.
2011: Vladislav Namestnikov (27th overall)
While Namestnikov is a regular in the lineup, his position is uncertain. He is bounced from first line to fourth line and everything in between. He is a natural center who is regularly pushed to either left or right wing with no discernible pattern. Sure, his game is not perfect, but he is quick to adapt on a nightly basis from a playmaking role to a checking role. That’s no easy task. With no clear identity, he appears to be struggling this season. It is fair to hold him accountable for his play, but the strategy for developing him is confusing. How is he going to develop chemistry if he has no regular linemates? How is he supposed to improve his skills when he is forced to change his approach night in and night out, depending on what line he lands on?
2012: Slater Koekkoek (10th overall)
To be perfectly honest, his recent demotion to the Syracuse Crunch is the inspiration for this piece. You can actually hear the frustration in his voice after last night’s game against the Albany Devils.
Question: Did Tampa Bay say anything when they sent you down, as far as a timetable?
Koekkoek: No, they didn’t. They just said, “Go play and get some minutes.”
Question: And when they said that to you, what was your reaction?
Koekkoek: I was upset. I don’t want to be sent down ever. But if I have to, then there’s nothing I can really do about it.
Question: What’s your perspective up there [in Tampa]? Obviously they’ve still been struggling, trying different lineups. I mean [Luke] Witkowski’s up, you were sitting. From your perspective, what do you see going on up there?
Koekkoek: Well I think we’re just going through a tough patch. Teams are good. Teams are after us. You know, with videos these days, they know how we play and we’ve got to adjust that. I think we’ll do it. It’s just going to take a little time.
Question: You’re a younger guy. You know, from the perspective of coming up and down a lot. Is it tough for you - patience and just sort of making your way to a full-time NHL job?
Koekkoek: Yeah, it’s tough. It wears on you. Like I was so thankful to get called up last time. I thought I was playing well. You know, to have that taken away is hard. But like I said before, there’s really nothing I could do about it. I have to come down here and play as hard as I can.
Question: Again, they just said, “Go play.” They didn’t say, “Go for the weekend,” or, “Go for a week.” They just said, “Go play.”
Koekkoek: No, they didn’t say anything like that.
Question: I guess on the plus side, you’re playing, so...
Koekkoek: Yeah, I - It was a good win tonight for Syracuse. That’s what I’m here for and we’ve got another game against Utica tomorrow night.
Question: What’s kind of the mindset, overall? I mean, as you get sent down - obviously, as you said, this isn’t something you want, but what’s kind of the mindset as you go through your time here?
Koekkoek: Well my mindset is to play as good as I can so I can get called up. Just do my job, defend well, and help Syracuse win. I think doing all those things should get me back to Tampa.
Question: You’ve been scratched a couple of times, right? Lately?
Koekkoek: Up there [in Tampa]?
Koekkoek: I got scratched the one game, the last game [against Vancouver].
Question: So it’s not something you probably would’ve saw coming, where they’ve got five or six scratches in a row. I mean, it must’ve been...
Koekkoek: No, it wasn’t. I thought I had a good weekend, the weekend before. We got three out of four points [against Washington and Carolina]. But then I guess coach [Jon Cooper] wanted to go with a different lineup.
Question: Was that the only scratch - the last game?
Koekkoek: No, I got scratched in St. Louis a couple games before that. So it was tough.
By all accounts Slater Koekkoek is a promising young defenseman. He skates exceptionally well and is defensively responsible while generating some offense. Think of him as Victor Hedman Light. Okay, Victor Hedman Ultra-Light. Koekkoek doesn’t have the natural talent of Hedman, but he approaches the game in a similar way. Koekkoek played well for the Lightning this season, feeding the transition game and showing that he’s ready for a full-time role in the NHL.
Let’s not forget that he stepped up in a major way during last year’s playoffs - going from black ace to full-time defenseman with major minutes by the end of the Eastern Conference Finals. As he mentioned in his interview, he played well in the games against the Capitals and the Hurricanes. The Lightning allowed a single goal and picked up three of four points. In the two games that he was a healthy scratch, the Lightning forfeited a total of nine goals.
That’s not to say that Koekkoek would magically fix the defense, but he’s definitely not the problem. With Garrison returning for the game against Vancouver, Cooper decided to keep Luke Witkowski in the line-up and scratch Koekkoek.
Pre-game Press Conference: Canucks at Lightning, December 8, 2016
Transcript from 2:25 to 3:00
Question: Luke [Witkowski] is back. What have you thought about the way he’s played?
Cooper: Well he’s a gamer. I think one of the things, in the back end, we’ve got some talented players back there but we need to be a little bit harder and that’s what he brings. He’s just one of those guys - I think the other team knows when he’s on the ice, ‘cause he will make you pay physically. And he’s a right-handed shot, which is something else we’ve needed back there. So he’s done nothing for us to pull him out of the lineup and we’re not gonna.
The Bolts need to be “harder” on defense, so that means demoting Koekkoek? He prefers puck possession to throwing hits, but that is exactly the style of play that feeds the Lightning’s stellar breakout system.
Again, Koekkoek’s approach to the game is comparable to Hedman’s - and nobody is expecting Hedman to throw more checks. Everyone would rather see him do what he does best, and that’s control possession.
The other notable comment is “[Witkowski] has done nothing for us to pull him out of the lineup” and while that may be true for Witkowski’s play, it implies that Koekkoek has done something worthy of pulling him out of the lineup. Koekkoek has been great for the Bolts on the blue line, so it’s unclear what would make Cooper think he has lost his spot not only in the lineup, but also on the NHL club roster.
Witkowski isn’t a bad defenseman, but he’s not better than Koekkoek. Truthfully, they are both playing better than Jason Garrison, but Cooper is unlikely to scratch a declining veteran in favor of younger, more promising talent (see: Matt Carle).
In the larger picture of player development, the wrong message is being sent to Slater Koekkoek. He has done nothing but work hard and perform well. For his effort, he was rewarded with a healthy scratch promptly followed by demotion to the American Hockey League.
Koekkoek needs NHL experience in order to be a better NHL player. By refusing to allow him to play consistently in the NHL, the Bolts are stalling Slater Koekkoek’s growth into the high-end second pairing defenseman that the Lightning so desperately need.
2012: Andrei Vasilevskiy (19th overall)
Vasilevskiy is another example of a young, dynamic Lightning player languishing in favor of a veteran. The Bolts started the season with a schedule that Cooper insisted would remain in place regardless of performance, ensuring that both goalies feel comfortable and are not playing with the fear of losing the starter position because of a bad game.
Pre-game Press Conference: Lightning at Senators, October 22, 2016
Transcript from 0:00 to 1:13
Question: How much of that was your stated mission to get [Vasilevskiy] in more games? How much of that is the performance at that position through four games?
Cooper: No, it’s just about getting Vasy in. So like, we don’t - from the time I’ve been here, I don’t know if we’ve ever sat here and said, “Oh, this goalie’s playing until we decide not to play him.” We have a plan with how we’re playing the guys and I think, over time, in the last couple of years with Vasy we’ve tried to slowly put him in. We’re gonna - the mandate is to get him more games this year. So there’s no - its not, “Oh this guy played poorly, or we think he played poorly.” Our goaltending has been great this year. I’ve actually never seen a couple guys get so unlucky on some plays. I look at our goals scored against us - three-quarters of them have touched us last before they’ve gone into our own net. Whether it’s - and then you look at the stanchion goal, the one off the zamboni door. So we’ve had a couple tough breaks, but no. Vasy’s in because we’re getting him in minimum of one game a week and this is his game.
It was a simple schedule where Vasilevskiy was promised one game a week. Fast-forward to Bishop performing well and securing three out of four points in back-to-back games against the Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes.
All of the sudden the goalie schedule becomes a novel, unenforceable concept and Vasilevskiy goes over a week without seeing the net.
Pre-game Press Conference: Canucks at Lightning, December 8, 2016
Transcript from 1:30 - 2:25
Question: First time you’ve had the same goalie start three straight games. Is that by design? Or at you just at a point in the season where you just…?
Cooper: Well, no. It’s - [sigh] - you lay [sigh]. I guess you can lay out a plan at the beginning of the year and you try best case scenario to follow it, but you know how things go. The ups and downs of the season - some guys are hot, some are not. Does this, you know, mean we’re just going to keep going with Bish? No it doesn’t. And this could have easily been Vasilevskiy, but we’ve - both these guys are in our plans. It’s been weird because we’ve played all these games right in a row and now we have a couple days off. Somebody’s gotta play, but both these guys are gonna play down in the next little while here, so don’t read anything into the - because Bish is getting three in a row.
Keep in mind that earlier this season Vasilevskiy posted shutouts in consecutive starts while Bishop struggled, but that didn’t alter the goalie schedule. Bishop continued to get starts despite less-than-stellar play while a red-hot Vasilevskiy patiently waited for his turn to start games once a week.
There’s a reason the old adage “actions speak louder than words” is so profound - it’s because that is the truth. It’s fine to say, “don’t read anything into” the decision to deviate from the goalie schedule, but there is a pattern here.
It lines up with all of Cooper’s previous decisions. When the young guy plays exceptionally well, everything is status quo. When the veteran plays decently well, the young guy finds himself on the bench.
2013: Jonathan Drouin (3rd overall)
Drouin’s situation is well-documented. He spent his first year of NHL eligibility playing junior hockey for the Halifax Mooseheads. He followed that up with a debut on the Lightning roster in the 2014-2015 season.
Because of his poor defensive play, Drouin was often relegated to the third or fourth line, receiving limited ice time and making little to no use of his dynamic skill set as a playmaker. He started the 2015-2016 season with the Bolts, but he continued to spend most of his time on the lower lines and was inexplicably absent from the power play.
Eventually, he was sent to the AHL for a prolonged conditioning stint. He refused to report for a game, went public with his trade request, and was suspended without pay. Several weeks after the trade deadline passed, he ultimately decided to report to the AHL team.
Steven Stamkos was injured late in the season, leading to Drouin being recalled to the Lightning where he proceeded to be an absolute powerhouse in the playoffs. Because of his success, many Lightning fans use Drouin’s growth as justification for Cooper’s insistence on stifling young players. They argue that Drouin rescinded his trade request and that’s why his intermittent scratches, fourth line duty, and eventual demotion followed by suspension were all correct choices for his development.
A key factor in Drouin’s decision to return to the team is the now infamous “breakfast summit” between Cooper and Drouin, originally reported by Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times.
"We probably said some things to each other that we'd thought about but had never said," Cooper said. "I told him this was my thought: 'This is what I believed when I was doing things, but now, listening to you, maybe there were some things I shouldn't have done. Now that I look back, maybe I was wrong.' And vice versa.
"This is what I was thinking: 'This is what I wanted out of you, this is what I got, and you made this decision.' And maybe he sits there and goes, 'Maybe I shouldn't have done that.' But when you get to the bottom bones of it, (I was) just trying to make Jo Drouin the best he could be."
This revelation was a beacon of hope for those concerned by Jon Cooper’s decisions. Maybe this was a worthwhile learning experience for Cooper. Maybe he would grow from this situation, ensuring he never made these mistakes again.
This year Drouin finds himself on the third line again with his playmaking ability being wasted on players who simply can’t finish his dynamic passes.
2014: Anthony DeAngelo (19th overall)
DeAngelo’s situation is a bit more complex. His offensive ability was worthy of a top-ten pick, but serious concerns about his attitude dropped him all the way down to 19. Yzerman took the risk, hoping that DeAngelo’s character issues would resolve once he was fully integrated into the Lightning system.
DeAngelo was never very defensively-sound, but his offensive upside has always been impressive. Despite being incredibly productive in the AHL, DeAngelo was a coach’s decision healthy scratch for eight games last season. The prevailing opinion is that DeAngelo was not making enough progress in the defensive aspect of the game.
He was traded to Arizona at this year’s draft. According to DeAngelo’s father, one of the driving forces for the trade was a desire to accelerate DeAngelo’s development. “We were looking for an opportunity to play in the NHL sooner rather than later."
So yet another first round pick felt his development was being stifled by the Lightning organization. Regardless of DeAngelo’s personal shortcomings, when his story is placed alongside Yzerman and Cooper’s track records, it comes as no surprise that he wanted out of the Bolts pipeline.
DeAngelo made his NHL debut with the Coyotes this year, posting 11 points in seven games. He is currently back in the AHL, but at least he spent some time playing at the highest level - something he would not have done for at least another year if he stayed with the Lightning.
The Lightning did not have a first round draft pick in 2015
2016: Brett Howden (27th overall)
Much like his predecessors, Howden is a promising young first round draft pick who is a powerful force in juniors. He is currently with five other Lightning prospects at Team Canada’s World Junior Championship Camp. All six of those players have serious potential to make the NHL.
Are they are talking among themselves, discussing legitimate concerns about being members of an organization that continues to value veterans over superior young players?
This is not a call-to-arms about Jon Cooper. He has been a fantastic coach for the Lightning over the past three-plus years, taking the team to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2015 followed by Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals last season. He is thoughtful and dynamic in the playoffs.
Last year, he unleashed the full power of Jonathan Drouin and realized that Slater Koekkoek deserved to play over Nikita Nesterov and Matt Carle. He rapidly adapted and adjusted whenever possible.
Where is that coach during the regular season? Why does he fall back into old habits of relying on his favorite players in place of those who are actually performing well? Where is the accountability?
Part of the issue stems from the fact that Cooper has never been in this situation before. His rapid ascent to NHL coach featured stops of no more than two years at most levels - back-to-back championships with the St. Louis Bandits in 2007 and 2008, followed by two years culminating in a championship with the Green Bay Gamblers, then onto the Norfolk Admirals for a couple of years and a Calder Cup, and then a brief stint in Syracuse before finally landing with the Lightning.
In that model of rapid success, consistency is key because the ultimate goal is achieved in two seasons. He came close to repeating that success with the Bolts, leading them to the Stanley Cup Finals in his second full season behind the bench.
The Lightning have preached stability as the key to their success, but that stability may have turned into stagnation. Attempting to ice a virtually unchanged team for the third year in a row fails to take into account that the veterans are getting worn out.
It’s time to replace some of them with fresh blood; young players who are able to keep up with the pace of today’s NHL. There are signs of that approach in the lineup, namely the surprising selection of rookie Brayden Point to the opening night roster. However, this circles back to the original premise of this article.
The trouble is not with developing players selected in later rounds, it is a specific problem dealing with high-end first round talent. Koekkoek’s recent demotion just highlights what has become an increasingly concerning issue for the Lightning and one that they must address if they want to maximize the potential in the pipeline.