It is probably not be fair to release a ranking system of based on how great a player was for a team before that player’s career is over. After all, you wouldn’t walk out of the middle of Rogue One and then write 3,000 words about where it ranks among the other film in the Star Wars canon, would you?*
In sports, as in life, things aren’t always fair. So, even though his career is not even halfway over, I will rank where Steven Stamkos falls among the all-time first round picks for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Over the course of their existence the Lightning have had 22 first round picks. There were two years where they had two picks in the first round (2009 and 2012) and five years where they traded away their first round pick (1999, 2002, 2003, 2007 and 2015). Thirteen times they’ve had a pick in the top 10 (2013 3rd, 2012 10th, 2010 6th, 2009 2nd, 2008 1st, 2001 3rd, 2000 8th, 1998 1st, 1997 7th, 1995 5th, 1994 8th, 1993 3rd, 1992 1st) with three of those picks being number 1 overall (although does 1992 really count?). After all they only got to go first because they won a coin flip.
So among these 22 players who have the honor of calling themselves Tampa Bay Lightning first round picks, where does Stamkos rank? For this exercise we are only going to consider the time they were in the Tampa Bay organization, so that’s going to hurt some long-term NHLers like Roman Hamrlik and Daymond Langkow. Also, it’s much too early to make a call on Brett Howden and Andrei Vasilevskiy. With their removal, we have a nice round number of 20 to rank.
20. Andy Rogers (2004) 0 games with the Lightning or in the NHL
We’re going to have to assume that the Lightning brass were still hung over from the Stanley Cup victory celebration to have done any actual scouting for the draft. Rogers has the distinction of being one of two players from the first round of the 2004 draft to never play a game in the NHL.
Drafted with the hopes of being a rugged, stay-at-home blueliner, he literally stayed at home most of the time, nursing injuries and never playing more than 48 games in a season.
Best claim to fame - part of one of the odder trades in NHL history.
19. Anthony DeAngelo (2014) 0 games with Lightning
DeAngelo was drafted with the hopes that he could overcome his off the ice character issues. He didn’t and was shipped off during the 2016 draft. Ranked higher than Rogers only because the trade netted a better return (2nd round pick) than Rogers’ trade.
Best claim to fame - still having issues.
18. Riku Helenius (2006) 1 Game played, 0.00 GAA 1.000 Save Percentage
Best claim to fame - only Lightning goaltender in history that can boost he was never scored on in the NHL.
17. Mario Larocque (1996) 5 games with the Lightning
The first legitimate bust in the history of the organization. Despite never sticking in the NHL, he had a long professional career as he bounced around North America and Europe, playing hockey until 2015.
Best claim to fame: Made his NHL debut in his hometown of Montreal, but due to the airline delaying his luggage during the morning skate he used Stephane Richer’s gloves and Rob Zamuner’s skates.
16. Vladimir Mihalik (2005) 15 games with the Lightning, 3 assists
The Lightning did not have the best stretch of drafting during the post-cup years. Mihalik at least had a cup of coffee after being the 30th pick of the 2005 draft, which isn’t horrible until you see that James Neal and Marc-Edouard Vlasic were among the five picks right after him.
Best claim to fame: maybe that he is playing on the same team in the Slovakia with former Lightning prospect Ty Wishart?
15. Carter Ashton (2009) 0 games with the Lightning
Carter Ashton was once a well-respected prospect for the Lightning. He played well for the Norfolk Admirals in 2011-12, scoring 19 goals in 56 games before being dealt to Toronto for Keith Aulie in February of 2012. It cost him the chance to win the Calder Cup and despite playing a few games for the Maple Leafs, never managed to stick in the NHL. He is currently playing in the KHL.
Best claim to fame - son of former NHLer Brent Ashton, who was traded 9 times during his NHL career.
14. Alexander Svitov (2001) 74 games with the Lightning, 4 goals 7 assists
A big, hulking center who played in the Russian professional league at the age of 16, Svitov was compared a lot to Bobby Holik. A military obligation (read: Russian Ice Hockey Federation wanted to keep him in Russia) delayed his arrival to the Lightning by a year. He played in 63 games as a rookie in 2003-03 and put up a respectable 8 points as a checking center.
Why did the Lightning take a Russian with visa troubles who, at best, projected to be a defensive center? Well, the 2001 draft wasn’t very deep. The Lightning did manage to trade him to Columbus the following year for the final piece of the Stanley Cup puzzle, Darryl Sydor.
Best claim to fame: earned the nickname Alex “Spitov” after firing a loogy at Canada’s Brian Sutherby in the 2002 World Junior Championships.
13. Nikita Alexeev (2000) 144 games with the Lightning, 18 goals and 17 assists
In 2000, the Lightning had 10 picks, and five of the players they drafted were from Russia. Coming in first was Nikita Alexeev. Alexeev was a little different than other Russians at that time because he was already in North America playing for the Erie Otters. At 6’5” and 215 lbs, the smooth-skating winger was supposed to ride shotgun with Vincent Lecavalier as the Lightning skated and scored their way to dominating the league.
It didn’t happen. After two seasons splitting time between Springfield and Tampa Bay, Alexeev hurt his shoulder and missed the Stanley Cup season. He eventually came back and played 63 games for the Lightning in 2006-07, but wasn’t the dynamic scorer they hoped he would be, and was traded to Chicago.
Best claim to fame: during the 2004-05 lockout, he played on an Omsk Avangard team that featured former Lightning players Sergei Gusev and Alex Svitov.
12. Paul Mara (1997) 101 games with the Lightning, 14 goals and 22 assists
Paul Mara played for 12 seasons in the NHL which is a pretty good career. Yet somehow it seems he never lived up to his potential. An American who was good enough to play in the OHL where he was better than a point-a-game player during his four years in the league, he was drafted 7th overall in a very deep 1997 draft.
He made his debut at the end of the 1998-99 season and picked up a goal and an assist in his only game. He drew comparisons to Paul Coffey for the way he moved the puck, but he seemed to plateau a bit in Tampa. In 2001 he was traded to Phoenix as part of the Nikolai Khabibulin deal that directly led to a Stanley Cup in Tampa. Mara enjoyed his best seasons in the desert, becoming a 40-point blueliner. Then he bounced around the league before retiring in 2013.
Best claim to fame: The trade that brought him to Phoenix was hashed out in a five-hour road trip.
11. Slater Koekkoek (2012) 40 games with the Lightning, 5 assists
Koekkoek was the 8th defender picked in the first 10 picks of the 2012 draft. He was a bit of a risk as he was recovering from a shoulder injury, and the hope is that he eventually develops into a top-four blueliner. In his first full year in the NHL he’s seen time in the press box and in Syracuse, but he is finally getting consistent starts and averaging 10 minute of ice time.
If he is able to earn Cooper’s trust, he could develop into a cornerstone on defense along with Victor Hedman. If not, he could be trade bait in a package deal with one of the Lightning’s higher-priced veterans.
Best claim to fame: Played for the Peterborough Petes, drafted by Steve Yzerman who played for….the Peterborough Petes.
10. Brett Connolly (2010) 134 games with the Lightning, 18 goals and 14 assist
“It’s either a grand slam or ground out.” So said Pierre McGuire when Connolly was drafted 6th overall in 2010. Connolly had all the talent in the world. In his one healthy season in the Western Hockey League prior to the draft he scored 30 goals in 65 games for Prince George. After one more season in the WHL he made it to the NHL. A strong training camp earned him a spot on the roster in 2011.
He scored 4 goals in the first month of the season and seemed like it was a good idea to keep him in the league. Then he went into a long funk. It would have been nice to be able to send him to the AHL for playing time, but he was only 19, and the NHL agreement with the Canadian junior leagues doesn’t allow for that. He would have had to go back to Prince George, and that wasn’t an option.
Following that season he would bounce back and forth between Syracuse and Tampa before the Lightning cut their losses and sent him to Boston for two second round draft picks at the 2015 trade deadline.
Best claim to fame: Connolly was the first player selected by Steve Yzerman.
9. Jason Weimer (1994) 232 games with the Lightning, 27 goals and 27 assists
Two years into their existence, the Lightning were looking to add some skill and muscle to their roster when they drafted Wiemer. In the season before he was drafted, Wiemer scored 45 goals and added 51 assists for the Portland Winter Hawks. He might have added more points, but he was spending a lot of time in the penalty box, having accumulated 236 PIMs in 72 games.
While his scoring never translated, he did keep his reputation as a tough player on the ice. He is 12th all-time for the Lightning in penalty minutes with 391. Having never lived up to the offensive expectations, he was traded to Calgary in 1998 for Sandy McCarthy, a third round pick, and a fifth round pick. He would play almost 500 more games in the NHL, racking up a total of 1420 penalty minutes.
Best claim to fame: the third round pick the Lightning received in the trade was used to draft Brad Richards.
8. Vlad Namestnikov (2011) 165 game with the Lightning, 27 goals and 39 assists
The first pick for the Lightning in their much-vaunted 2011 draft, Namestnikov was another Russian who had made his name in the OHL. An undersized forward, he could turn into a steal as he continues to improve his game. The “Russian Bieber” has been a bit of a Swiss Army knife for the Lightning this season, as he has seen time on all four lines.
Best claim to fame: Namestnikov’s uncle is Slava Kozlov, who played in Detroit with Steve Yzerman.
7. Daymond Langkow (1995) 173 games with the Lightning, 27 goals and 34 assists
There isn’t much difference between the roles that Langkow and Wiemer played for the Lightning. While in juniors, both were scorers who didn’t mind mixing it up. Prior to his draft, Langkow had 140 points and 142 penalty minutes in 72 games with the Tri-City Americans.
As John pointed out last year, Langkow was Jonathan Drouin almost twenty years before Drouin pulled his antics. The Lightning would eventually ship him out to Philadelphia for another member of this list, and Langkow would end up playing in over 1000 NHL games. Not a bad career.
Best claim to fame: while playing with Calgary, he was struck in the neck by a puck. The damage was so bad he had a 50/50 chance of never playing again. After a year of rehab he made it back on the ice.
6. Roman Hamrlik (1992) 377 games with the Lightning, 52 goals and 133 assists
The Lightning had the number-one overall pick, and the decision came down to defense or offense. For the only time in their history the Lightning went with defense, which, for a brand new hockey club, was probably a smart decision. Alexi Yashin (who went second to the Senators) had a great career, but at the time the Bolts needed a leader on the blueline, even if he didn’t speak english at the time.
It didn’t hurt that Hamrlik could chip in on offense. His 49 assists in 1995-96 are a team record for a blueliner and were a big reason the Lightning reached the playoffs for the first time in their history. Following a 40-point season in 1996-97, he was shipped out during the great purge of 1998, traded to Edmonton for Jason Bonsignore, Bryan Marchment, and Steve Kelly.
While he would never reach the heights of his 95-96 season, he was a solid defender for Edmonton, Montreal, and the New York Islanders. He finished his career with 1395 games played and 638 points. Not a bad choice for a first round pick.
Best claim to fame: being late for a team meeting because he was fishing outside Expo Hall.
5. Jonathan Drouin (2013) 126 games with the Lightning, 21 goals and 48 assists
It’s funny how things change in a year. If I had written this last season, Drouin would probably have been closer to 15th than 5. In a little less than a year, he’s gone from being suspended to being the best player on the team.
Another example of the Lightning having to choose between offense and defense with a top five pick, they picked the slick puck-handler over Seth Jones (who would have looked great next to Hedman for a decade), after Florida somewhat surprisingly took Aleksander Barkov with the second pick. While a lot of scouts thought he was the most talented, some thought his gaudy point totals were a result of his linemates in Halifax.
It took a while, but Drouin is starting to show why the Lightning picked him and held onto him.
Best claim to fame: Coach Cooper hashed out their differences at a hotel breakfast in April of 2016. No word on who picked up the bill.
4. Chris Gratton (1993) - 482 games with the Lightning, 98 goals and 161 assists
If Lecavalier is the forerunner for Stamkos, then Gratton was the forerunner for Lecavalier. Drafted high, burdened with unreal expectations, and assigned the captain’s “C” at a young age, Gratton would have been a great pick if he was allowed to be what he was built to be, a large center who played a physical game and could chip in goals occasionally.
Unfortunately, fans and management wanted more out of him. While he did eventually hit the 30 goal plateau in 1996-97, there was a feeling that he was a bit of a consolation prize. I ponder sometimes that if Hartford hadn’t taken Chris Pronger with the second pick, Gratton might never have been a member of the Lightning. While we’re playing what-ifs, imagine if Phil Esposito hadn’t been enamored with size and physical play and selected a 5’9” forward out of the University of Maine with that pick. Paul Kariya in a Lightning uniform? That could have been fun. [My favorite player ever! - Acha]
Best claim to fame: c’mon, it’s the “smudged” fax incident.
3. Victor Hedman (2009) - 513 games with the Lightning, 56 goals and 212 assists
Even though he’s only in his 8th season, it’s ok to say he’s the best defender in Lightning history. After the Islanders took John Tavares with the first pick, the Lightning were more than happy to draft the Big Swede (OMG look how young he was!). Described as a cross between Chris Pronger and Nick Lidstrom, he was ready to step on the ice from day one. Thank god the cowboys didn’t screw the pick up.
At the time they desperately needed a cornerstone on defense to build around (sadly it was not to be Matt Smaby) and Hedman fit the build. Smooth-skating, large enough to move people out of the way, and experienced from playing against men in the Swedish elite league, he was the perfect fit for the Lightning.
Biggest claim to fame: his 266 points (and counting) is the most by a Tampa blueliner in franchise history.
2. Steven Stamkos (2008) - 586 games with the Lightning 321 goals and 261 assists
So close to number one, but there is one thing that he still needs to achieve to be number one, and the next guy has it.
1. Vincent Lecavalier (1998) - 1037 games with the Lightning, 383 goals and 491 assists
That one thing is obviously a Stanley Cup championship. Once Stamkos gets his, this position becomes a bigger debate. Lecavalier was a no-brainer number one in 1998, and after some adversity, emerged as a key part of the franchise’s climb from the gutter. He survived bad ownership, benchings, and injuries, to become the all-time leader in goals for the franchise, and the face of the Lightning for many, many years.
Biggest claim to fame: so many to choose from, but I’ll go with the Stanley Cup Finals fight with Jarome Iginla. It wasn’t a great fight, but it pretty much summed up that team - they didn’t give an inch to anyone and could beat you with skill or physical play.
There you have it. Steven Stamkos is second to Vinny in the Bolts’ all-time first-round picks.
Did I get it right? Thoughts and questions are welcome in the comments.
*The answer is that Rogue One ranks third among Star Wars movies, but that is a post for another website.