The Tampa Bay Lightning are enjoying an exceptionally strong start to the season. Four players have been instrumental to their success - Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov, and Andrei Vasilevskiy. I refer to these guys as the “Core Four” - a group of immensely talented players who define this era of Lightning hockey. People often debate who is most valuable to the team’s success, but that seems unfair given that they are all in different stages of their career.
I thought I should pose a more challenging question to the staffers here: Imagine you are Steve Yzerman walking up to the podium at the NHL Entry Draft. All four of these players are still on the board; which 18 year old prospect do you draft? Keep in mind your goal is to pick the best available player (don’t try to draft based on the current prospect pool or perceived organizational needs - just pick the best guy).
Tom: If it were today, with their history and future taken into account, I would have chosen Victor Hedman. At 18, it’s got to be Stamkos. A fresh, young, never broken Steven Stamkos is one of the most purely talented hockey players we’ve seen in the past few decades and he’s a player that sets the franchise up in the best way possible. Scoring is the most sought after skill in hockey and Stamkos is one of the most talented scorers of his generation. It’s impossible to go wrong with any of the choices, but all things being equal, I’ll choose the superstar 1C every time.
Geo: Vasilevskiy. It’s so hard though. You look at Montreal and they’ve had Carey Price and yet they still are not good because there is no one in front of him. You look at Edmonton with Connor McDavid and Ottawa with Erik Karlsson, but no one around them. I pick Vasilevskiy because I think that he can get a mediocre team to the playoffs through sheer will, just like Price has done for most of his career.
Alan: Kucherov. He’s currently a top two or three player in the NHL. He’s a two way player with absurd impacts regardless of who his linemates are. He has one of the best all-around creative offensive games of any player in the last ten years or so. As much as I like some of the other players on the list, I don’t think any of them will reach the height Kucherov is at currently.
Justin: Hedman. Look, all of these players would be fine cornerstones to start a team, but for my money a true number one defenseman is the way to go. Look at it this way - if you’re trading any of these players, then who is getting the biggest return? I say Hedman. There are so few number one defensemen in the league right now that to me it’s an easy choice.
Matt: I was torn between Vasilevskiy or Kucherov for a long time, but I have to lean towards Kucherov. Like Alan said, he is a top 2/3 player in the NHL currently. Wingers like Kucherov don’t appear often. Wingers are normally niche forwards, suited for offensive or defensive duties. To have a winger who can do both at an elite level and drive play is rare. The ones that come to mind are Hall of Famers or elite current NHL players. He’s that good. While we have to consider Montreal (goalie), Ottawa (defenseman), and Edmonton (forward), it’s hard to pick any of the players. This is why I groaned and yelled at Saima on the podcast about this question. I would pick Kucherov - with Vasilevskiy second, Hedman third, and Stamkos fourth. Which is absurd in its own right, but you tied our hands here...
Saima: I’d take an 18 year old Stamkos in a heartbeat. Legitimate number one centers are exceptionally hard to find and Stamkos is among the best players at that position in the past decade. He’s offensively gifted with an exceptional hockey IQ. Talented centers are a highly coveted asset and I have no hesitations about drafting Stamkos before the others (even though I obviously want all of them).
Acha: I am with Geo about Vasilevskiy because I (perhaps unwisely) agree with Jeff Marek that you build a team from the net outward -- so you nail down your number one goalie first, and then find good defensemen, and then find a few good forwards. Vasy is currently 23, and took five years to mature into this Vezina-quality goaltender, but at 18 he would still be worth investing in.
Hardev: Who I’d draft in order: Hedman, Stamkos, Vasy, Kucherov. Why? There are only a handful of bonafide top tier NHL defensemen in the league; Victor Hedman is one of those players. He can skate, he can move the puck, he’s massive, he’s got elite stick-work in the offensive and defensive zone. He’s everything you could ask for. Sure, I’d like a top tier NHL center on my team, but a top defenseman is worth so much more because of their ice time and how much they - especially Hedman - affect the offense as well as defense. Vasy is third because, although having an elite goaltender makes you an instant contender, having an above average goalie is more than enough to go deep in the playoffs when you have skaters of Hedman’s caliber. I think Kuch is better at right wing than Stamkos and Vasy are at their respective positions, but I put more value on centers and goalies than wingers. You can find a winger who scores 20 fewer points but is also a lot cheaper, which allows a team to put more money into a 25-minute-per-game defenseman or center.
With two votes to each player, there is no clear answer to my ridiculous question. Honestly, you could build a team around any one of these players. Select a goal-scoring machine in Kucherov, or a brilliant dynamic 1C in Stamkos, or a steady workhorse in Hedman, or a brick wall with cat-like reflexes in Vasilveskiy. Nobody would fault you for making any one of these choices.
Luckily we don’t have to choose in Tampa. We get to watch four of the most gifted players in the NHL benefit from getting the chance to play with each other. Kucherov and Stamkos have an undeniable chemistry that allows them to score at will. Hedman often joins in on the fun - when he’s not busy doing whatever it takes to help Vasilevskiy defends his own net. Vasilevskiy benefits from a reliable defender and two forwards scoring goals to ensure his valiant goaltending efforts do not go to waste. Let’s be honest - everybody benefits from the knowledge that Vasilevskiy is more than capable of bailing them out when they falter. We are exceptionally fortunate to witness their combined talents in Tampa.
Who would you choose?
So, back to my original question: You’re Steve Yzerman. You’re walking up to the podium at the NHL Entry Draft. Four promising prospects are still on the board and you have a major decision to make. One of these players will become a superstar for your franchise - and the other three will showcase their talents on opposing teams. Who do you select?