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The Tampa Bay Lightning’s evolving draft strategy - Part One

Under Al Murray and Steve Yzerman, the Lightning have continually adjusted their strategies in the NHL Entry Draft.

2012 NHL Entry Draft - Rounds 2-7 Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The 2017-18 season is over for the Lightning. The regular season is in the books. The playoffs are over. The Stanley Cup has been handed to Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals. There was a lot of excitement over the past couple months as fans watched the Lightning on the ice. But for the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Director of Amateur Scouting Al Murray, he must always be thinking about the draft and even the draft after that.

Since being hired by Steve Yzerman and the Lightning to lead the amateur scouting department, Murray has been in the middle of the Lightning’s draft preparation. From scouting players himself, to compiling scouting reports from his staff, and ultimately ranking the draft board that decisions are made from. Murray is a key component.

In today’s NHL front offices, the biggest mistake that can be made is failing to adapt. Failure to adapt to changing situations in the league, in the draft, in player development, in team construction, in market inefficiencies. This is what leads to having a team that is forced into a re-build or even years of mediocrity and leads to front office staff looking for new jobs.

Looking back at the Lightning’s draft classes from 2011 through 2017, there’s been a few distinct changes that have been made. Some strategies have remained the same, like valuing hockey IQ and a player’s country or league of origin not being a concern, but others have shifted as the valuation of prospects and the needs of the organization have changed.

In part one today, we’ll go through the 2011-2013 draft classes. Part two will follow tomorrow and cover the 2014-2017 draft classes and some conclusions and thoughts about the strategy for the Lightning going into the 2018 NHL Entry Draft.

2011 NHL Entry Draft

While Yzerman was technically in charge for the 2010 draft class, the decisions were made by the previous regime’s scouting staff before they were replaced. Yzerman simply didn’t have enough time to get his own personnel in place. The 2011 draft firmly had his and Murray’s finger prints on it.

Yzerman inherited a prospect system that did not have a lot going for it. Looking back at BoltProspect.com’s rankings from the end of the 2010-11 season shows that too. Brett Connolly was at the top of the rankings and while he has turned into a decent NHLer, he isn’t the high end player that was dreamed of him. #2 Carter Ashton never panned out in the NHL. #3 Richard Panik took a very round about path to finally finding a steady spot with the Chicago Blackhawks after being waived by the Lightning, picked up by the Toronto Maple Leafs, and traded to Chicago for peanuts and now has landed with the Arizona Coyotes. #4 ranked goalie Dustin Tokarski had some flashes in the NHL, but never established himself.

The only players on the list still with the Lightning are #5 Alex Killorn and #9 Tyler Johnson. #7 Mark Barberio is still hanging on in the NHL with the Colorado Avalanche and #8 Radko Gudas has turned into a solid top-4 defenseman for the Philadelphia Flyers after being dealt for Braydon Coburn.

There were spots of talent there, but what the Lightning needed in the system was high end offensive skill. The Lightning took some risks that other teams weren’t willing to make and it has really paid off for them.

  • 1st, 27th - F Vladislav Namestnikov
  • 2nd, 58th - F Nikita Kucherov
  • 5th , 148th - D Nikita Nesterov
  • 6th, 178th - G Adam Wilcox
  • 7th, 201st - F Matthew Peca
  • 7th, 208th - F Ondrej Palat

Three big names jump out right away as the Lightning pulled three eventual top six forwards from their six draft picks in Namestnikov, Kucherov, and Palat. Nesterov, despite having left for the KHL, did have a solid career for a 5th round defenseman playing in 132 games in the NHL. Wilcox is now in his third organization as he didn’t work out for the Lightning in the AHL after his NCAA career. Matthew Peca is getting closer to making the NHL full time and played in 10 games with Tampa in 2016-17 and another 10 in 2017-18.

One thing this draft established was that Yzerman and Murray were willing to scour the globe for talent. It didn’t matter where a player came from and they weren’t afraid to draft talented players out of Russia while other teams were scared off by the “Russian Factor.” Add in the solid financial situation of Jeff Vinik and the team could afford to spend money on scouts to canvas Europe looking for talent.

It’s not hard to look at this draft and see the Lightning having four 100 game players out of this draft with two coming after the 4th round.

Skill was the number one priority, and they got that in each skater that they selected.

2012 NHL Entry Draft

A year after making it to Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Lightning fell off hard and ended up with the 10th pick in the first round. They had also made some other deals selling off assets at the trade deadline, and turned Steve Downie into the Red Wing’s first round pick at 19th overall and turned Pavel Kubina into a 2012 2nd round pick and a future 3rd round pick.

Looking at BoltProspects’ 2011-12 final prospect rankings ,there is a definite influx of new talent at the top of their rankings. They had newly signed NCAA free agent J.T Brown at the top of the rankings followed by Cory Conacher, Killorn, Tokarski, and Barberio. Namestnikov followed them up at #6. Kucherov made it on to the list at #11 just ahead of #12 Keith Aulie who had been acquired for Carter Ashton. Palat sat at #14, Nesterov at #17, Peca at #18, and Luke Witkowski also joined their rankings at #20 after a solid junior year in NCAA hockey.

The talent was getting there and ultimately ended up being loaded at the top by future top six forwards, other than Brown whose offense from NCAA didn’t translate as well into the pro game. Defense was still a little bit of a question mark with Barberio and Gudas both looking good at the time, but little in the way of young talent in the next wave. Another lacking point in the system was size and grit, though Yzerman and Murray have shown that size is generally a secondary consideration as size is useless without skill, skating, and hockey IQ to complement it.

BoltProspects also had three goalies on the list. But even with their top goaltender Tokarski, they expressed some doubts about consistency and rebound control. The Lightning added goaltender Anders Lindback to the roster prior to the draft after BoltProspects put out their final rankings for the season, though he would not have qualified as a prospect.

  • 1st, 10th - D Slater Koekkoek
  • 1st, 19th - G Andrei Vasilevskiy
  • 2nd, 40th - D Dylan Blujus
  • 2nd, 53rd - F Brian Hart
  • 3rd, 71st - F Tanner Richard
  • 4th, 101st - F Cedric Paquette
  • 6th, 161st - D Jake Dotchin
  • 7th, 202nd - F Nikita Gusev

There is a very interesting mix of players here. Koekkoek had big question marks due to having missed much of the previous season with a shoulder injury and would end up losing parts of the next two seasons to two more shoulder injuries. Those injury issues look to be behind him now, but it definitely slowed his development. He was looked on as being a future #3 two-way defender to play behind Victor Hedman. He had hockey IQ and decent size to go with being an excellent skater.

Vasilevskiy was a player the Lightning took a risk on. Goaltenders are naturally risky, especially in the first round, but even more so to do it with a Russian goaltender. That gamble has paid off ten-fold as Vasilevskiy has settled in as the Lightning’s franchise goaltender. This again showed off their philosophy of where a player comes from doesn’t matter in their decisions.

Blujus and Hart were both size picks as Blujus was a big, mobile defenseman and Hart was a power forward coming out of high school. Unfortunately, neither of them worked out for the Lightning with Blujus only lasting three seasons and Hart two seasons after turning professional. Richard came over to the OHL after being passed over in his draft season. Viewed as a bottom line pest that could play center or wing, he had exhibited playmaking ability and put up a lot of assists in the OHL. He returned to Switzerland last summer with three NHL games on his resume.

Paquette and Dotchin again were size and grit selections. Paquette only had one season under his belt at the QMJHL level, and was an older prospect in his draft class. He quickly developed into a reliable fourth liner and penalty killer only spending a single full season in the AHL before making it to the NHL full-time.

Dotchin has been a bit of a surprise over the past two seasons. Perhaps overlooked among prospect watchers, he quickly developed a more responsible game during 2016-17 and earned a call-up for the last half of the season and has earned his way on to the roster for the 2017-18 season as well. He struggled in the last half of the season though and fell out of favor with the coaching staff. We’ll have to see how he looks in 2018-19.

The final pick, Nikita Gusev was purely an upside gamble as the overage Russian was developing into a KHL star. He’s yet to come over to the NHL and there’s a question of if he ever will with the Vegas Golden Knights now owning his rights.

You can see that Murray and Yzerman took the opportunity to get a player that they believed would eventually be a franchise goaltender and filled out the depth of the farm system for the next wave. Outside of Vasilevskiy, this draft hasn’t been superb, but the Lightning have gotten some value while failing with some draft picks. And that’s the nature of the draft; not everyone will work out the way you think or hope they will. Targeting three defensemen also boosted their depth on the farm on the back-end.

The Lightning have already gotten over 100 games from Vasilevskiy, 200 games from Paquette, and Dotchin was on his way to hitting 100 games played this season before finding the press box. Koekkoek is a little behind that mark, but has played in 75 games in the NHL.

2013 NHL Entry Draft

As bad as 2011-12 was for the Lightning, the lockout shortened 2012-13 season was even worse seeing the end of head coach Guy Boucher’s time in Tampa and the beginning of the Jon Cooper era. Ben Bishop had also been added to the team at the trade deadline for forward Cory Conacher.

BoltProspects’ 2012-13 final rankings were delayed and they did not get a new ranking up until after the 2013 draft, so I will default to their 2012-13 mid-term rankings which came in February of the 2012-13 season just as the NHL was getting back from the lockout.

One of the most interesting things when I go down this ranking, is that the entirety of the top 12 are players that are currently playing in the NHL. Vasilevskiy, Conacher, Johnson, Killorn, Brown, Koekkoek, Panik, Barberio, Kucherov, Namestnikov, Gudas, and Palat. Going beyond the top 12, there are three others that have had significant NHL time in Nesterov, Witkowski, and Paquette. Richard and Korobov also appeared in a handful of NHL games.

With so much talent there, what did the Lightning need? One thing that comes to mind looking through that list and having the third overall pick, is a desire for a super-star to play alongside Steven Stamkos after Martin St. Louis retires. Otherwise, Yzerman and Murray had put themselves in a position of taking the best player available on their draft board without too much worry about position or other considerations.

  • 1st, 3rd - F Jonathan Drouin
  • 2nd, 33rd - F Adam Erne
  • 5th, 124th - G Kristers Gudlevskis
  • 6th, 154th - F Henri Ikonen
  • 7th , 184th - F Saku Salminen
  • 7th, 186th - F Joel Vermin

This draft and how it turned out is certainly interesting and the results were not like the Lightning’s previous two drafts. Drouin’s story is well-documented, so I won’t spend too much time on it. The big debate with that pick was between Drouin and right-handed defenseman Seth Jones. In hindsight, it would have been nice if the Lightning would have taken Jones who has turned into a very good defenseman. But it’s also easy to see what the team was looking for in Drouin as an eventual replacement for Martin St. Louis that could set up Steven Stamkos for goal after goal.

Erne was a nice pick at his spot as a power forward that has a wide frame and the ability to play hard in the corners. Like a lot of junior players, the big question for him was learning to play better defense and a consistent game. He got a nice taste of NHL action in 2016-17 and went back to the AHL this season where he started tearing it up after a slow start. He’s knocking on the door to the NHL and with his waiver exemption ending at the end of 2017-18, he’s likely to be finding himself in the NHL full-time next season. He got another good stint with the team this year and played better than he did in 2016-17. Unfortunately, his season was cut short by a lower body injury.

The late draft picks were another example of the team casting a wide net looking for talent and going after some overage draft picks. Gudlevskis was buried in Latvia and the team took a chance on him with only a few viewings. He was an overage pick and came over and made a splash by playing in the ECHL, AHL, NHL, Olympic Games, and World Championships all in one season, a first for any player. Inconsistent play in the AHL eventually doomed him and he was traded this past offseason.

Ikonen was another overage pick, and the Finn was taken out of the OHL. Like Palat prior to his draft, Ikonen put up some big numbers while playing with some very high end players. Unlike Palat, it turned out that Ikonen had been the beneficiary of that and didn’t develop the offensive talent in the AHL and returned to Finland to play in the KHL last summer.

Salminen was another overage pick as a center with size. He never came over to North America and dealt with a lot of injuries while struggling to find consistent playing time in the KHL with Jokerit. His rights have expired.

Vermin was yet another overage upside pick that had played very well in the Swiss NLA. The Lightning signed him to an entry level contract and burned the first year of it while he played another year for SC Bern in Switzerland. He got into 24 NHL games for the Lightning, but never found a roster spot in the NHL and returned home to Switzerland last summer.

This draft is certainly filled with disappointment. After hitting in the late rounds in the previous two drafts, the late round picks didn’t turn into much of anything for the Lightning this time around. Only Erne remains in the Lightning organization and Drouin’s time with the team was rocky and didn’t live up to the hype of his draft status.

Part Two Tomorrow

Check back tomorrow for Part Two as we dive into the 2014-2017 draft classes and wrap it up!