2020 NHL Draft Rant: On the Tampa Bay Lightning’s strategy of size over skill

To put it bluntly, they dropped the ball. Hard.

The 2020 NHL Entry Draft has come and gone, and boy, there were some shocking picks. Between the New Jersey Devils taking Shakir Mukhamadullin about three rounds too early and the Columbus Blue Jackets drafting a player almost nobody had heard of, Round 1 was an absolute gong show.

That was a theme that would carry over into the next day for the remaining rounds. As top talents (and short kings) continued to plummet, I was a bit concerned by the time the Tampa Bay Lightning traded up to get the 57th pick. By the time we got to Round 6 (about six hours later), I was pretty irate.

As I am writing this, I am even more unhappy with the players they drafted and the decisions they made last Wednesday. I even took a couple of days off to try and calm down. So while this is pretty much an angry rant, I tried to take as calm and rational of an approach to this as I could have.

I will be blunt: once the dust settled after a marathon eight-hour Day 2, the Lightning had a low-key bad draft. I’m not even convinced they would have made a smart pick in the first round had they had a pick there. Obviously this is just my opinion, so if you disagree in any way, just bear with me as I try and explain why I wasn’t impressed with many of the selections the Lightning made this year.

Warning Signs

The Lightning seemed to be passing on smaller players with a lot more talent and higher ceilings, in exchange for players with lower upside, larger frames, and generally what I would consider to be safer picks. They weren’t the only team to do that, but given that most teams seemed to take at least one undersized, highly skilled player (or the Carolina Hurricanes, who drafted several), I was a little surprised that the Lightning went so far in this direction.

They do have a track record of drafting size over skill, but after what Brayden Point did during the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs, you’d think they’d at least consider a couple of smaller players like him (namely, Zion Nybeck, Tyler Tullio, or Sean Farrell, all of whom fell to the fourth or fifth round).

Hockey sense, or what I like to call instinctual play, has been something Tampa Bay has coveted in their prospects regardless of size or skill. I have some concerns regarding the instincts and decision-making abilities of most of the players the Lightning drafted this year.

Tampa Bay also seemed to place heavy emphasis on overage players this year, players that were passed over in drafts’ past. It’s one thing to draft an older player, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t emphasize that the Lightning passed over significant talent that was plummeting down the draft board, time and time again.

Three of their nine draft picks were overage players, and I would argue that the Lightning would’ve been a lot better off taking just one of Nybeck, Tullio or Farrell (all of whom are no worse than second round picks) than they are right now with all three of their overagers.

What I Liked

I wasn’t surprised to see the Lightning go back to American players, though they’ve leaned more towards the USHL than the US National Development Program in recent years. That track record didn’t stop them from taking Eamon Powell (4th Round, 116th overall) out of the NTDP. I thought he was a nice get in the fourth round. Powell is an exceptional skater, great on transition with good puck control. He’s effective entering the offensive zone and a great passer. A lot of his game is predicated on his smooth edgework and sturdy stance, and his defensive game needs to catch up. Powell is headed to Boston College in 2021 and has the potential to be a bottom-four defenseman in the NHL.

Amir Miftkahov (6th Round, 186th overall) was the Lightning’s best pick as far as talent and skill goes. He’s had a rough start in the KHL this season (and is currently injured), but he was a huge reason Russia won silver at the World Juniors last winter and he outperformed first-rounder Yaroslav Askarov in goal. Miftakhov will need to add to his 6’1, 165lb frame, but his puck-tracking and lateral movement are excellent, and he has the tools to become a solid goaltender in the future (and it goes without saying Russian goaltenders fare well in the NHL). After drafting three goaltenders in the last two drafts (Hugo Alnefelt in 2019 and Magnus Chrona and Ty Taylor in 2018), I wasn’t expecting the Lightning to take a goalie this year, but Miftakhov still being available in the sixth round was too good to pass up.

Declan McDonnell (7th Round, 217th overall) might be my favourite pick by the Lightning, which is saying a lot considering he was the absolute last player chosen at the draft this year. He put up 42 points in 63 points during his rookie season with the Kitchener Rangers and showed a lot of promise as far as his ability to create offense. He’s hard-working, speedy, great on the forecheck, and good at creating space for himself and his linemates. I feel there’s legitimate upside for McDonnell, so for a seventh-round pick, he’s a nice low risk, high reward pick for the Lightning. If he hits, it’s a steal, and if he doesn’t, nobody will bat an eyelash.

Could Go Either Way

True power forward Maxim Groshev (3rd Round, 85th overall) went to the Lightning in the third round. Neither a reach nor a steal, Groshev is the one player I can say confidently went around where he was supposed to at 85th overall. More of a jack-of-all-trades player, Groshev doesn’t have one big strength, but plays a physical, tough game and has a strong work ethic. There are a couple of concerns with Groshev: his offensive ceiling is likely lower than other power forwards that were available in this draft and his skating needs to improve. Groshev continues to hone his craft playing among men in the KHL, and he’s likely going to get a larger role to have a more noticeable impact with Nizhnekamsk this season. Whether he’s able to put it all together to be an effective NHLer remains to be seen, but I think there’s barely enough upside to make me cautiously optimistic.

The Lightning were interested in Portland Winterhawks overage forward Jaydon Dureau (5th Round, 147th overall) from the very beginning, it seemed. He fielded multiple calls from Lightning scout Grant Armstrong throughout the off-season, so it’s not surprising that the Lightning called his name in the fifth round. Dureau exploded offensively in his second year of draft eligibility, finishing with 70 points in 61 games (second to teammate Seth Jarvis, who went in the first round to Carolina). The playmaker is one of the smallest of his fellow draft peers, at just 5’11”, and this is one instance where the team went for skill over size. Dureau will be a prospect to watch this coming season (when the WHL starts), just to see if he can take his game to yet another level in Portland, but I’m hesitant to pencil him into the Lightning’s future lineup right now.

Baffling Selections

The run of baffling selections began when the Lightning made their first pick of the 2020 draft, trading up to select WHL behemoth Jack Finley (2nd Round, 57th overall). He’s a solid defensive player, but the main knock against him is his skating. Finley will have to work extremely hard with Lightning skating coach Barb Underhill if he’s going to have an NHL impact. Now, when a team trades up to select a player, it usually means they really like them and are worried they won’t be around when they do pick next. Given the fact that the Lightning didn’t have to trade their actual second round pick at 62 to move up was interesting. But Finley was a player many scouts had pegged as a fourth round player with little, if any, upside. What you see now is what you’ll probably get with Finley five years down the road. I thought he went far too early here, let alone for the team to trade up to get him.

The Lightning were back on the board five picks later when they selected another WHL player, Gage Goncalves (2nd Round, 62nd overall). Goncalves was passed over in the 2019 draft, but worked extremely hard to up his production this season, enough that the Lightning took a chance on him with their second pick in Round 2. Goncalves went from a non-factor in the offensive zone to a game-breaking offensive threat. My main issue with this pick is not a knock against Goncalves so much as the Lightning passed on younger, more talented players with higher upside (who had fallen dramatically) to select him here. Goncalves was a player I saw teams betting on much later, but I have higher hopes for his potential than I do for Finley at this point.

With their third pick, Tampa Bay went back to the OHL for the first time since 2016, drafting defenseman Jack Thompson (3rd Round, 93rd overall) from the Sudbury Wolves. This was a mystifying pick for me, simply because I didn’t think Thompson fit their typical player profile. He’s a strong skater and passer, but the decisions he tends to make on the ice are head-scratchers for sure. While his positioning is also questionable at times, Thompson checks a lot of boxes for the modern-day NHL defenseman. These things won’t make him a liability by any means, but I was confused by the fact that the Lightning drafted him so high. Given the fact that there was still significant talent on the board heading to the fourth round (like fellow d-man Michael Benning, who went to the Florida Panthers two picks later), I definitely think the Lightning missed on this pick.

I don’t necessarily have a problem with where the Lightning drafted Nick Capone (6th Round, 157th overall), from Tri-City of the USHL, but with the fact that there doesn’t seem to be any NHL potential or upside here with this pick. Capone was suspended 15 games this season: two separate kneeing incidents that saw him miss five games, a checking-from-behind suspension that lasted four games, and an additional six games for cross-checking. He’s going to have to reign in his physical play as he heads to the NCAA, where they hand out ejections for head hits. Aside from discipline concerns, Capone also lacks the toolset and skating ability that is typically required to make the NHL. Best case scenario, I see him topping out at the AHL level. Capone was yet another questionable selection the Lightning made, as they continued to pass on smaller forwards with higher ceilings like Connor McClennon or Theo Rochette (who went undrafted).

Overall Grade: D

I liked some of the players the Lightning drafted this year. What I didn’t love was how most of their picks were significant reaches, how they seemed to make a point of favoring size over skill (or hockey sense), and the players they did select don’t have a ton of upside or NHL potential. I wouldn’t necessarily call this draft a complete failure (like I’ve seen some sites grade them), but I wouldn’t call this a mediocre draft for them either (which would be a C grade in my book).

I’m not trying to knock any of these players or write them off as busts less than a week since they were drafted. I would love nothing more than to be wrong about every single player I wrote about here and see them become remarkable stories in the NHL one day, watch them have long professional careers and win championships.

What I would love to understand is the thought process behind the decisions the Lightning organization made at the draft. Did their recent Stanley Cup run sort of shift the organizational mindset that they should be drafting bigger and meaner? That it would be beneficial to the organization’s future to draft and develop players like Patrick Maroon, Luke Schenn or Zach Bogosian?

The Lightning didn’t win the Cup just because of those players. Their team was driven by undersized but highly skilled players like Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov (albeit mid-round picks in their draft years), who brought their A-game to the postseason and never took their foot off the gas pedal. The rest of the team, their depth players, rose to the occasion with them.

Yes, size and physicality is important. But I look at the depth chart of the Lightning organization, past the team in Tampa Bay and beyond to Syracuse and Orlando, and players in junior leagues still. I’m not all that optimistic that there are enough diamonds in the rough within the organization right now. This would have been a great year, given the depth of the draft and the amount of talent within it, to fix that.

The Lightning’s 2020 draft class consists of nine long-term projects, none of whom I see in the NHL in the next 2-3 seasons. And that’s absolutely okay for a team that is coming off a championship. I just can’t help but think that there was a huge missed opportunity to restock the cupboard with talent this year, and I think the Lightning dropped the ball with this draft.

Statistics from Elite Prospects.