After not having a first round pick last year, the Lightning returned to day one of the draft with the 27th pick. They used it to select the brother of their most recent first round pick. Winger Nolan Foote from the Kelowna Rockets joins his brother Cal, whom the Bolts selected 14th overall in 2017, as one of the top prospects in the Lightning organization.
When we did our pre-draft scouting series, we didn’t cover Foote. We thought he was ranked a bit too far down to be a realistic option at 27th overall. In our consolidated rankings, he was 50th. That’s the lowest of any player selected in the first round. Among the lists we used, his highest rank was 34th by Chris Peters at ESPN and his lowest rank was 81st by the Hockey Prospect Black Book.
To summarize what we read from all the scouting services, Foote is a player with some good tools but some obvious flaws. To start, most scouts don’t like his skating. He doesn’t have good top-end speed and he’s not particularly quick in small spaces. With the speed at which the game is played now, Foote will have to improve in that area to be able to make use of the rest of his tools.
The Lightning have shown some willingness to work with players who have skating issues. They’ve brought in Barb Underhill during the offseason and during camp to try to help players get up to speed. They even went so far as to bring her in for a session during the season this year.
For Foote, putting in the work to improve his footwork will be key over the next few years. Because if he can improve that element of his game, he has a lot of other tools. He has one of the better shots in this draft class and he wasn’t afraid to use it. He was one of the most frequent shooters among draft eligible players in the WHL this season.
Scouts also praise his hockey sense and his effort level. Much like his brother Cal, he’s a smart player who stays engaged in the play when he’s on the ice. That gives him some playmaking ability, especially as a passer from down low where he can use his size (6’3” 190 lbs) to create space for himself to find an open teammate.
Aside from the skating issues, Foote sounds like a prototypical Lightning pick. But the other issue is Foote’s lack of production this year. He only scored 63 points in 66 games. And of those 63 points, only 31 were scored at 5v5. As an older player for this class, we’d expect to see much higher production for a forward drafted in the first round. However, Foote did suffer from a wrist injury for much of the year and that could have hampered his production.
Heading into next season, the Lightning will be hoping to see an uptick in Foote’s production. One possible way for that to happen would be for him to get traded away from Kelowna. The Rockets were tied with the Kamloops Blazers as the fifth worst team in the WHL. Despite the team’s struggles Foote was one of only three players on the Rockets who had a positive goal differential. Of his 63 points, 36 were goals and only 17 were assists, which points to the possibility that his teammates weren’t finishing chances he created for them. The combination of a fully healthy season and a new setting could make Foote look significantly better than he did this season.
But even if he remains in Kelowna, just a healthy season should give a better idea of what he’s capable of doing. Two years ago, he was thought of as one of the best players in the draft class. He hasn’t been able to live up to that so far and his skating and lack of production are real concerns.
The Lightning are betting that with their support, he’ll be able to correct the weaknesses in his game. If he can do that, he has middle-six forward upside. His ceiling is probably as a second liner but at this point, a more likely projection would be as a third liner with some scoring pop. If his skating doesn’t improve or if the production this season is a true indication of his skill level, he might end up being more of a bottom six role player.
At the end of the first round, all of the available players have risk involved. Two of the popular names still available at the pick were Bobby Brink and Arthur Kaliyev. Both produced much better than Foote but both also have concerns about their game. Kaliyev’s effort level is questionable at best and Brink has maybe even more concerns with regard to his skating than Foote.
Instead of gambling on production, the Lightning decided to gamble on size and tools. Tracking Nolan as he follows in his brother’s footesteps, we’ll be looking to see improved production and slow steady improvement in his skating. If he can do that, he could hit Syracuse in the fall of 2020 and be an immediate impact player for the Crunch.