The Tampa Bay Lightning have had the first overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft more than a handful of times. Their firsts were used for Roman Hamrlik in 1992, and on Vincent Lecavalier in 1998. While the 1992 pick was owned by the Lightning from the get go, the 1998 pick was the result of a trade that allowed the Lightning the right to swap first round picks with the San Jose Sharks.
The Sharks had the first-overall pick and the Lightning had the second-overall pick, so they flipped, allowing the Lightning to draft Lecavalier.
With another bad season under their belt, the Lightning found themselves with their third first-overall pick in franchise history. Instead of using it though, the Lightning traded it to the Vancouver Canucks for the fourth-overall pick and two third-round picks. The Canucks were maneuvering themselves to draft the Sedin twins. The Canucks would end up with the second- and third-overall picks to take the Sedins while the Atlanta Thrashers ended up with the first-overall pick and selected Patrik Stefan.
The Lightning, not satisfied with the players available at fourth overall, then traded the pick to the New York Rangers for Dan Cloutier, Niklas Sundstrom, and two picks; a 2000 first- and third-round pick.
But what if they hadn’t made those trades? Or had only made the first trade? How could those players have altered the course of history? Let’s take a dive into both scenarios; keeping the first-overall and fourth-overall picks.
Keeping the First-Overall Pick
The big name in the draft was a Czech forward by the name of Patrik Stefan. The other big names were Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin. However, the twins had made it clear that they wanted to play together, which led to Vancouver making all of the trades they did. Picking one of the Sedins without the other likely would have been a waste since they could have easily decided to stay in Sweden. That meant that Stefan is almost certainly the choice the Lightning would have made if they’d kept the pick.
What They’d Get
Stefan came over to play in the IHL mid-way into the 1997-98 season. He started the year with HC Sparta Praha in the Czech league with eight points in 26 games. When he moved to the IHL with the Long Beach Ice Dogs, he scored five goals and 15 points over 25 games. He also added a goal and an assist for Team Czech Republic in the U20 World Junior Championships.
He remained in North America for the 1998-99 season, turning 18 in November of that season. He was back with the Ice Dogs in the IHL and scored 11 goals and 35 points over 33 games to capture the attention of NHL scouts.
After being drafted by the Atlanta Thrashers, Stefan played six seasons in Atlanta, with just two interruptions; a five game AHL stint in 2001-02 and the 2004 lockout. During the lockout he scored 41 points in 37 games for Ilves in the Finnish Liiga. For the Thrashers though, he didn’t find the franchise-defining success that was hoped for. He only managed to score 59 goals and 118 points in 414 career games for the Thrashers. His best season came in 2003-04 when he scored career highs in goals (14), assists (26) and points (40) as well as being the only season in which he played all 82 games.
Following the 2005-06 season, Stefan was traded to the Dallas Stars with Jaroslav Modry in exchange for Niko Kapanen and a 2006 7th round pick. Stefan played one season with the Stars where he scored five goals and 11 points in 41 games. He became a free agent in the offseason and signed with SC Bern of the Swiss NLA.
Stefan played in three games for SC Bern and then retired from professional hockey in October.
If Stefan had joined the Lightning instead, assuming that his point production had remained the same, he would have been t-8th, 7th, 9th, t-7th, 6th, 10th, and t-13th on the Lightning for points. Not exactly the kind of production you’d expect out of the 1st overall pick in the draft. By contrast, his ranks on the Atlanta Thrashers and Dallas Stars during his time were 6th, 4th, 8th, 5th, 5th, t-12th, and 18th.
What they’d miss out on
The Lightning would miss out on the fourth-overall pick as well as the two third-round picks they got in the trade. Plus what they got for trading the fourth-overall pick which I’ll cover in the next section about using that pick. With the two third-round picks the Lightning acquired in trading the first-overall pick, the Lightning selected Brett Scheffelmaier and Jimmie Olvestad.
Scheffelmaier was a 6’5” defenseman out of the WHL. He was coming off of a 13 point season with 252 penalty minutes. He followed that up with a 10 point, 281 penalty minute season and a 13 point, 279 penalty minute season. The Lightning did not sign him to an entry level contract and he went back in to the 2001 draft where the St. Louis Blues selected him in the sixth round. He would play professional for four seasons playing 81 games in the AHL and 13 games in the ECHL. He combined for eight points and 226 penalty minutes as a pro.
A left winger from Sweden, Olvestad was the Lightning’s 88th overall pick in the third round. He stuck around the SHL in Sweden for a couple more seasons winning two SHL Championships before making the move to the NHL. Olvestad spent a season in a half at the NHL level with the Lightning from 2001-02 to 2002-03. He played in 111 NHL games with 17 points. He spent six games in the AHL in 2002-03 and all of 2003-04 in the AHL. Following the end of his contract, Olvestad returned to Sweden and played with Djurgardens IF for nine more seasons before retiring following the 2012-13 season.
Now, who knows how things could have been different for him. Maybe he would have shifted to the wing instead of playing center, especially after Brad Richards broke into the NHL. The Thrashers had some top end talent during Stefan’s time in Atlanta, but they didn’t have the same kind of depth that the Lightning built up in the years after Lecavalier was drafted.
However, we can’t really make much of a verdict on this one until we do the second part of the review. The two third round picks didn’t do much for the Lightning and it doesn’t seem like Stefan would have done much either. So it really comes down to that 4th overall pick and who would have been selected with that pick and the return the Lightning got for the 4th overall pick.
Keeping the fourth-overall pick
Alright. So now let’s assume that the team didn’t want Stefan and so goes through with the first trade and ends up with the fourth-overall pick. We already know that the Lightning didn’t get much out of the extra picks they got for trading down. So the what-if here more revolves around who they could have drafted and fourth overall and what they actually got back in the real life trade to the New York Rangers.
What They Get
There’s always a bit of a drop off in talent level around the third or fourth pick in the NHL Entry Draft. Usually you get your “for sure” franchise players in the first pick or two and then hopefully there’s a couple more players that can be elite to follow up in the 3rd to 5th picks.
The Lightning probably would of had one of two names at the top of their board after Stefan and the Sedin Twins went one through three; Pavel Brendl and Tim Connolly.
Pavel Brendl ended up being the fourth-overall pick by the New York Rangers. The Czech right winger had come to North America to play in the WHL with the Calgary Hitmen prior to his draft year. Over his three years in the WHL, including two years post-draft, he put up tremendous offensive numbers. It’s easy to see why he was so highly thought of as a junior player.
Prior to the 2001-02 season, the New York Rangers traded Brendl to the Philadelphia Flyers as a part of a trade to acquire the rights to Eric Lindros. Brendl played in eight games for the Flyers in 2001-02, but spent the rest of the season in the AHL. In 2002-03, he’d stay up in the NHL, but only put up 12 points in 42 games before being traded to the Carolina Hurricanes. He spent two more seasons in North America sandwiched around the 2004-05 lockout before returning to Europe for good. In total, he played 78 NHL games with only 22 points.
The other option was Tim Connolly. A center drafted out of the OHL with the Erie Otters, Connolly ended up going 5th overall to the New York Islanders. He made an immediate jump to the NHL with the Islanders scoring 14 goals and 34 points in 81 games in his rookie season. He spent two years with the Islanders before being traded to the Buffalo Sabres with Taylor Pyatt for the rights to Michael Peca.
Connolly continued on with the Sabres for nine seasons, though he would miss all of 2003-04 and all but two games in 2006-07. In his seven full seasons with the Sabres, he averaged 45 points per season. He finished up his career with two years in Toronto; one year in the NHL and one in the AHL. He retired following the 2012-13 season. In total, Connolly played 697 NHL games with 131 goals and 431 points. Not a bad career at all.
What they miss out on
By trading the fourth-overall pick to the Rangers, the Lightning received goaltender Dan Cloutier, Niklas Sundstrom, a 2000 first round pick, and a 2000 third round pick. This trade could probably use it’s own full article to explain everything that happens from here. So I’ll try to keep it as short and concise as possible. However, it’s not great so feel free to skip down to the Verdict section.
Cloutier only lasted a season and a half with the Lightning. With only 34 NHL games under his belt before being acquired, he played in 84 games in the 1999-00 and 2000-01 seasons for the Lightning and did not play well. He was traded during the season to the Vancouver Canucks for defenseman Adrian Aucoin and a 2001 second round pick.
Aucoin only lasted until the end of the season with the Lightning. In the offseason, he was traded to the New York Islanders for defenseman Mathieu Biron and a 2002 2nd round pick. Biron played 36 games in 2001-02 for the Lightning with... zero points. He was “lost” in the waiver draft to the expansion Columbus Blue Jackets.
The 2001 second round pick from the Aucoin trade was used on Russian winger Alexander Polushin. He never came to North America. The 2002 2nd round pick in the Biron trade was traded for a 2001 2nd round pick with the Washington Capitals and used to select Andreas Holmqvist. Holmqvist spent two years in North America split between the ECHL and AHL in 2003-04 and 2004-05 before returning to Europe.
Niklas Sundstrom and the 2000 third round pick from the original deal with the Rangers didn’t even last two months with the Lightning. Both were sent to the San Jose Sharks in August, 1999 for Andrei Zyuzin, Bill Houlder, Shawn Burr, and Steve Guolla.
Zyuzin played for the Lightning for two and a half seasons before being traded to the New Jersey Devils with the Lightning receiving Josef Boumedienne, Sascha Goc and the rights to Anton But.
Boumedienne played for three games for the Lightning and spent the rest of the season in the AHL. Boumedienne was traded to the Ottawa Senators for a 7th round pick. That 7th round pick was used to select Fredrik Norrena. Norrena was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets with Fredrik Modin for Marc Denis before the 2006-07 season. Denis lasted for two seasons with the Lightning and then had his contract bought out before the final season of his deal.
Sascha Goc played nine games for the Lightning and 36 games for the organization in the AHL in 2001-02. He then left the organization to return to his homeland of Germany where he continues to play professional hockey. Anton But never left Russia and never played for the Lightning.
Bill Houlder served as the Lightning’s captain for 14 games during the 1999-00 season. He was then waived and claimed by the Nashville Predators. Shawn Burr played four games for the Lightning in 1999-00. He also played in 28 IHL minor league games and retired at the end of the season. Steve Guolla played in 46 games for the Lightning in the 1999-00 season before being waived and claimed by the Atlanta Thrashers.
The last piece is the 2000 first round pick from the original trade. That pick was used to select Nikita Alexeyev 8th overall in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft. A big right wing Russian playing with the Erie Otters in the OHL, Alexeyev promised some offense in his game to go with his big size. Unfortunately, he didn’t do much of that in the NHL. He played all but 15 of his 156 NHL games with the Lightning and had 37 career points; 35 with the Lightning. He had bounced back and forth between the NHL and AHL and even went home to Russia for the 2005-06 season before coming back to the Lightning.
Alexeyev was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks at the deadline in the 2006-07 season. The Lightning got back Karl Stewart and a 2008 sixth-round pick. Stewart finished out the season with the Lightning playing in seven games without recording a point. He returned in 2007-08 and played in another nine games without a point for the Lightning and spent the rest of the season in the AHL. He spent another year in the AHL before going to Europe.
That 2008 sixth-round pick ended up being the last piece of this whole trade tree to impact the Tampa Bay Lightning organization. That pick was used to select Luke Witkowski. Witkowski was an NCAA defenseman that got a later start in professional hockey with the AHL Syracuse Crunch. He served as the Crunch’s Captain for part of last season. He left this past offseason as a restricted free agent.
Ok. Now that that’s done. The jist of it is — as it played out the Lightning got basically nothing of any substance out of the real-life trade. They also likely wouldn’t have gotten much out of Pavel Brindl. The only way that any of these scenarios works out for the Lightning is if they draft Tim Connolly and he produces the same way he did for the Islanders and Sabres.
Hind-sight is always 20-20. Unfortunately, nothing really looks great for the Lightning in this situation. The top overall pick didn’t do much. The fourth-overall pick didn’t do much. The guy that went 5th overall would have been solid, but not spectacular. And actually, outside of the Sedin Twins, the 1999 first round was just not very good. Taylor Pyatt (8th) and Barret Jackman (17th) were the only other first rounders to break 800 games and they weren’t incredible scorers. Martin Havlat (26th) certainly held up as he has 790 games and 594 points to his name.
Even going beyond the 1st round, there aren’t a lot of great big names that stick out until you get to some long shots in the later rounds. Henrik Zetterberg, seventh round. Radim Vrbata, seventh round. Martin Erat, seventh round. Ryan Malone, fourth round. Mike Comrie, third round. Niklas Hagman, 3rd round. That’s the entirety of the players outside of the 1st round that scored 300 or more points in the NHL. For goalies, the only big names are Ryan Miller and Craig Anderson. Only two other goalies from the draft broke 100 games in the NHL.