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

Continuing on from part one in exploring the Lightning’s evolving draft strategy.

2016 NHL Draft - Round One Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

We’re back today and we have Part Two of this look at the Tampa Bay Lightning’s evolving draft strategy. In Part One yesterday, we looked at the 2011-2013 draft classes. Those classes were important as they set the tone for the direction Steve Yzerman and Al Murray were taking the team. There were some important strategy decisions made in restocking the bare cupboard of the Lightning’s prospect pipeline. In 2014, we saw a small shift and then another shift in 2016.

Today, we’ll finish the 2014-2017 draft classes and the strategies through those drafts. I’ll also wrap up with some final thoughts about how the team has gone through these drafts and some thoughts on the upcoming 2018 NHL Entry Draft.

2014 NHL Entry Draft

After only drafting four defensemen in the previous three drafts, it was becoming clear that the Lightning were in need of more talent on the blueline in the system. Looking at BoltProspects’ final rankings from 2013-14, the Lightning were loaded with talented players, though a number of players from the top of the 2012-13 rankings had graduated. Drouin, Vasilevskiy, Koekkoek, Namestnikov, and Erne were the top five prospects in the system. Going beyond that though, the talent had thinned back out with a lot of depth players.

The top ranked defensemen were Blujus at 13th, Witkowski at 15th, Nesterov at 18th, Dotchin at 19th, and Artem Sergeev at 24th. While there was some depth there, there wasn’t a projected top four defender in the group. That made the blueline a priority for the Lightning going into the 2014 draft. As always though, the front office would look for skill and value wherever it could.

Yzerman also took advantage of having two first round picks by turning his second one into an extra pick. Owning the 28th overall pick from the New York Rangers, he traded it to the New York Islanders to move down seven spots to 35th overall in the 2nd round and also pick up the 57th overall pick in the 2nd round. In hind sight, maybe taking Anthony Beauvilier with the pick would have been better.

  • 1st, 19th - Anthony DeAngelo
  • 2nd, 35th - Dominik Masin
  • 2nd, 57th - Johnathan MacLeod
  • 3rd, 79th - Brayden Point
  • 4th, 119th - Ben Thomas
  • 6th, 170th - Cristiano DiGiacinto
  • 7th, 185th - Cameron Darcy

Seeing a future Dan Boyle, Yzerman and Murray looked past some discipline and character issues to take DeAngelo with the 19th pick. The pick didn’t turn out so well as he did not take lessons of playing defense in the AHL and was moved out after two years in the organization for a second-round pick.

Masin has made his way to the AHL and is developing a bit more slowly there. While he’s still got a good chance at being a third pair defender, he’s got a ways to go in his development. MacLeod’s development has been up and down playing at Boston University. He went from being on a team with Jack Eichel his freshman year to being in and out of the lineup the next two seasons. He stayed in school for his senior season this year, but played barely any games as BU had a glut of very good young defensemen playing ahead of him. He is as of yet unsigned and will become a free agent in August if the Lightning do not sign him.

Point has certainly paid off for the Lightning in the third round turning into an offensively talented, defensively responsible second line center. At the time of his draft, the question marks on him were his size and smaller question marks on his skating. Since being drafted, he picked up a couple inches and 10-15 pounds of muscle that helped him play more physically to win battles in the corners. While Point was always a fast skater, he refined the little things in his skating that made him even more effective in his short area movements and perhaps even added a step or two to his top speed. Yzerman traded up a single spot in the third round to make sure he got Point.

Thomas was another player in this draft that Yzerman traded up to snag in the fourth round giving up two fifth-round picks to do so. Thomas struggled a bit in his last season as a junior in the WHL. He was traded to a bad team, but was also given more responsibilities as a top defenseman for the Vancouver Giants. Over the past two seasons, he’s moved up the prospect pecking order as his offense has started to shine through in the AHL. His defense is still a work in progress putting him in the same vein as a Barberio or Nesterov.

DiGiacinto was projected as a potential fourth line energy winger. Unfortunately, his offense never developed in the OHL and the Lightning did not sign him. He re-entered the draft and went undrafted. He played an overage season with the Windsor Spitfires and won a Memorial Cup with them. He made an attempt to play professionally in the ECHL, but left to go to USports, the Canadian university system.

Darcy continued the overage trend in the late rounds. He was sent back to the QMJHL for an overage season. Despite his offensive prowess in the QMJHL, his offense never came around in the AHL for the Lightning and he was bought out of the last year of his entry level contract.

The Lightning had clear goals of drafting defensemen in this draft, and added four to the system. While a couple haven’t worked out, there’s still opportunity for the other two to make it in the NHL. Point again showed that the Lightning are not scared off by size concerns.

2015 NHL Entry Draft

The 2015 Entry Draft is an interesting one for Steve Yzerman. The team was coming off of a Stanley Cup Finals appearance and had moved a lot of picks around in various trades. Their own 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 7th round picks had been traded away in various deals. However, the team had acquired a 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 6th and 7th round pick in other trades.

Yzerman was not done wheeling and deal in this draft either. Like the previous season, he took his late first-round draft pick and turned it into an extra pick by spinning the 28th overall pick into a 2nd and 3rd round pick with the Islanders again. This marked the first time under Yzerman that the Lightning did not have a 1st round draft pick.

  • 2nd, 33rd - Mitchell Stephens
  • 2nd, 44th - Matthew Spencer
  • 3rd, 64th - Dennis Yan
  • 3rd, 72nd - Anthony Cirelli
  • 4th, 118th - Jonne Tammela
  • 4th, 120th - Mathieu Joseph
  • 5th, 150th - Ryan Zuhlsdorf
  • 6th, 153rd - Kristian Oldham
  • 6th, 180th - Bokondji Imama

This draft features a solid mix of positions as well as player types. It also really has the feeling of the Lightning taking the best player available at each pick. Six forwards, two defensemen, and a goaltender are featured in this draft class. Six of the nine picks came from the CHL leagues, with two NCAA bound Americans and a forward out of the Finnish Liiga.

In Stephens, Cirelli, and Joseph, the scouting staff was looking at offensive performers in juniors that displayed high hockey IQ, character and two-way talent. These are the kind of players that fill in the gaps around your skilled core players. Tammela also fits this mold as well, though to a lesser extent with the offensive skills as he is more of a pesty, energy winger than a two-way player.

Yan, a forward, and Zuhlsdorf, a defenseman, are the skilled value plays in this draft. Yan has an excellent shot and solid hockey IQ. Like many junior players, his defense is his biggest question. Zuhlsdorf was bound for the NCAA to play college hockey as a puck-moving offensive defenseman. He just finished his sophomore year with the Minnesota Golden Gophers. He’s still a work in progress, but his offensive output is expected to tick up in the next couple seasons with the Gophers as he gets more power play time as an upper-classmen.

Oldham marked the second NCAA bound goaltender Yzerman had drafted after Wilcox in 2011. Oldham was and still is a long shot, but by picking up an NCAA player, Yzerman will get four or five years to watch him develop there before ever committing an entry level contract to him.

Imama was the confusing choice here. He was a 2014 draft eligible player that was passed over. Known almost exclusively for his fighting, it didn’t seem like the kind of pick Yzerman would normally make. His skating was not great, nor was his offensive skills. He scored a lot of goals in his overage season but that was more due to being bigger and stronger than his competition, not an actual growth in his offensive abilities.

This 2015 draft saw Yzerman going back to a similar strategy he had used in the 2012 draft. With a talented core in place that could be in Tampa for years, he was looking to players that could be developed and contribute on the lower lines starting as early as the 2018-19 season. Looking back at how that group has developed, Stephens and Joseph should be in the conversation for call-ups for injury replacements during the 2018-19 season and looking for roster spots out of training camp in 2019. Cirelli made an early jump into the lineup as a professional rookie this season and played well in a third line center and penalty killing role.

Imama is still a pick that confuses me for Yzerman. Perhaps they thought he could develop over time into a defensively reliable fourth liner similar to former Lightning forward B.J. Crombeen. Ultimately, he did not develop in whatever way they hoped he would and traded him before his rights expired. It seems Yzerman made a good choice in trading him as he managed just one assist in 38 games in the AHL this season.

The other thing to note was the picks of Zuhlsdorf and Oldham late in the draft. Yzerman had previously picked Wilcox and Peca late in the 2011 draft as they were headed to NCAA and had used two other picks on NCAA players since then, both in the 2nd round. These were a couple of late round flyers on players with some upside that the team could keep an eye on as they developed. That strategy is something to watch to see how it works out.

2016 NHL Entry Draft

In this draft, we continue to see the strategy from 2015 of providing depth, role players, and hole pluggers while buying a couple lottery tickets. If any of them turn into big time producers, it’s a nice bonus. But the big aim here is to draft and develop players that are contributing at the NHL level in 3-5 years. With the state of the farm system, the scouting staff is also more free to take some home run shots in the later rounds on players with question marks and a few key strengths that if they can overcome their shortcomings can become productive NHLers.

  • 1st, 27th - Brett Howden
  • 2nd, 37th - Libor Hajek
  • 2nd, 44th - Boris Katchouk
  • 2nd, 58th - Taylor Raddysh
  • 3rd, 88th - Connor Ingram
  • 4th, 118th - Ross Colton
  • 5th, 148th - Christopher Paquette
  • 6th, 178th - Oleg Sosunov
  • 7th, 206th - Otto Somppi
  • 7th, 208th - Ryan Lohin

Unlike the past two drafts, Yzerman and Murray had a player on their board at the end of the first round that they wanted. They took Brett Howden, a two-way center with size and offensive skill that projected as a second line center. Having a first round grade on Hajek and him still being available, Yzerman flipped a toxic asset in Anthony DeAngelo for a pick to take Hajek. Hajek is a more solid two-way defenseman who has a lower ceiling, but a higher floor than DeAngelo. Both players were traded at the deadline this year in the Ryan McDonagh-J.T. Miller-Vladislav Namestnikov trade.

Katchouk and Raddysh in the second round were great pick ups as skilled players that can develop into middle six forwards to plug into any holes that come up for the Lightning down the line. Somppi late in the draft was a similar play picking an offensive player with question marks that could develop. He developed enough to earn an entry level contract and will be with the Syracuse Crunch next season.

Paquette, a second cousin of Cedric Paquette, was more of a projection pick. He had been stuck on the lower lines of a very deep team and was expected to pick up his production when he moved up the line-up and was a possibility as a fourth line center in the future. He didn’t progress as the team hoped, was not signed, and will re-enter the draft.

Sosunov was another projection pick. He is an absolute giant of a defenseman and showed very little offensive skill while playing in Russian Juniors. After a few viewings, the Lightning decided to take a chance and attempt to develop him. Fortunately, they were able to get him signed and bring him over to play for Moose Jaw in the WHL this season. Moose Jaw gave him some power play time and he was surrounded by one of the best teams in the WHL. With seven goals and 26 points, he had his best offensive season he’s ever had. He’ll be in Syracuse next season where he’s expected to be a shut down, defensive defenseman and has the potential to develop further into a 6/7 defenseman in the NHL.

Colton and Lohin continued a trend of picking NCAA bound players, though in this instance, both were players that had gone undrafted in their draft years. Al Murray at the time explained that they used the draft picks on these players so that they wouldn’t be fighting to try to sign them as free agents when they came out of NCAA. This allows the team to build a relationship with the players and have more of an opportunity to sign them before they reach free agency after finishing their college careers. This continued the trend from 2016 when they took Oldham and Zuhlsdorf late in the draft.

2017 NHL Entry Draft

The Lightning came into this draft with their highest first round pick since drafting third overall in 2013 after missing the playoffs. After the departure of DeAngelo at the previous draft and the acquisition of Mikhail Sergachev, there was a need for a right-handed defenseman in the system. Otherwise, the strategy remained the same of seeking value at every pick with no other obvious needs.

  • 1st, 14th - Cal Foote
  • 2nd, 48th - Alexander Volkov
  • 3rd, 76th - Alexei Lipanov
  • 6th, 169th - Nick Perbix
  • 6th, 180th - Cole Guttman
  • 7th, 200th - Samuel Walker

The top of this draft looks a lot more like the earlier Yzerman-Murray drafts. Three high hockey IQ, high skill players. Foote gave them the right-handed top-four defenseman they were seeking at the top of their draft class. A mediocre skater, he has the hockey IQ to make up for it with his positioning and can still improve his skating. He’s also an older draft pick and will be eligible for the AHL in 2018-19 to continue his development at the professional level. As a sign of his development and importance to the organization, he was a regular for the Crunch after his WHL season ended playing in six games and then another seven in the playoffs. He could be in the NHL as soon as 2019-20.

Volkov was an unknown coming out of Russia and was a surprise pick to many prospect watchers. It came out sometime after the draft that the Lightning had Volkov and Lipanov next to each other in their rankings and were more than happy to have the skilled Lipanov fall to them in the third round. Volkov in his first year with the Syracuse Crunch has looked a bit like a lesser version of Ondrej Palat. He plays a 200-foot game and has good size and hands. Unlike Palat, he’s more of a shooter than a playmaker.

The last three picks are all NCAA bound players. Perbix has size and hockey IQ, but lacks offense on the blueline. He has the look of a prospect that with some luck could develop into a Braydon Coburn type of third pair defenseman. Guttman is a super small, speedy, offensive specialist. Walker falls into the same category. For both players, it will be about gaining strength and size, developing their defensive games, and showing they can put up points in NCAA to earn entry level contracts.

Conclusions

The overriding factor in every draft has been that this front office highly values hockey IQ. It’s one of the things in a players game that cannot or is very hard to teach. Some players just naturally get it, and some players have to work hard to get it. After that, skill and production are important. Size and skating can be tiebreakers when the IQ, skill, and production are similar, but both are lower down the list. Where a player comes from or plays prior to the draft seems to mean very little for the scouting staff. If they find them and think they can become NHLers for the organization, they go on the board.

One of the trends to see as well in the past few drafts has been targeting NCAA bound players late in the draft. This seems like an opportunity where the Lightning are looking to take advantage of market inefficiencies. In the past, many of these players would have been overlooked in the draft because they didn’t have the size or production to get drafted. For the Lightning scouting staff, they’re projecting a lot for these players.

By drafting these NCAA players, the Lightning are able to bring them in each summer for a few days during their post-draft development camp. It’s an opportunity for the players to work with the coaching and strength and conditioning staff to work on their skills. They gain valuable coaching as well as building relationships not only with the staff but also their fellow prospects. Familiarity and comfort is not something to overlook when it comes to where a player would like to land when he has the option of going somewhere else.

We don’t have much time left until the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. It will be interesting to see how Al Murray and the Lightning staff adjust their drafting strategy for this season. They’ll be without a first round pick and will need to look harder for the diamonds in the rough.

I have a few thoughts on the kinds of players I’d like to see the Lightning pick up in this upcoming draft. While best player available is the most likely pick for the Lightning at this point, there are a handful of player types I’d like to see them add to the system in this draft.

  • A young CHL or NCAA bound goaltender in the later rounds with some chance of developing into a back-up.
  • A two-way, left-handed defenseman.
  • Two-way forwards with hockey IQ and offensive upside.
  • A center with size and projection as a future fourth line center.

I don’t view any of these preferences as huge needs for the team though. I think there needs to be another goaltender coming because Connor Ingram could be the back-up in the NHL in a few more seasons and the Lightning will need someone coming along besides Oldham that can be the next goaltender to develop with the Crunch.

After the trade of Hajek at the trade deadline, the Lightning are a little short on two-way, left-handed defensemen. They have Masin and Sosunov in the pipeline, but both project more as stay-at-home defenders than two-way players.

You can never have enough two-way forwards with hockey IQ and offensive upside. Basically, looking for another Katchouk and Raddysh that has room to grow into elite CHLers that can then contribute at the AHL level as they develop further. Center or winger doesn’t matter too much as the Lightning are strong for a while at center and center prospects have an easier time moving to the wing.

Cedric Paquette is getting closer to the end of his time with the Lightning. While Cirelli could be very good in a fourth line role, he showed that he’s a perfectly capable third line center. Most of the other centers the Lightning have in the system project more as third line contributors than fourth line grinders. Someone with some size, already sound defensive skills, and good enough offense from the CHL would be a nice pick-up in the fourth through sixth rounds.

Make sure to follow along here at RawCharge as we cover the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. We’ll be live on Twitter following along with all of the Lightning’s picks. In addition, we’ll be putting out profiles on every draft pick with some analysis about their futures and how they should fit into the Lightning organization. We’ll also be watching at development camp that will be held shortly after the draft that will give us a first look at most if not all of the Lightning’s draft picks.