Lightning 2009 NHL Entry Draft Preview

Here’s a bold statement: the Tampa Bay Lightning are fully capable of becoming Stanley Cup champions within the next five seasons. With two legitimate franchise centers in longtime stalwart Vincent Lecavalier and star wunderkind Steven Stamkos and a bevy of young goaltenders headlined by the ultra-competitive Mike Smith, the Lightning actually have many of the key components necessary to become an elite NHL team. That may seem like an insane statement coming off of a year that the Lightning finished second-to-last in the league, but between their core pieces and a bevy of other young complimentary players like Paul Ranger, Andrej Meszaros, and Matt Lashoff, the future in Tampa Bay is brighter than anyone is giving the team credit for. However, for the Lightning to reach their full potential, they must keep Lecavalier and they must capitalize on their draft position in the deep 2009 NHL Entry Draft.

Make no mistake about it: this is the most important draft for the Lightning in 11 years. The 1998 draft was critical for the 2004 Stanley Cup team in supplying two core players (Lecavalier and Richards) and four players (including Dimitry Afanasenkov and Martin Cibak) overall to that championship roster. That draft seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime talent grab for the team, but with three picks in the top-60 in a talent rich year for youth, the new Lightning scouting staff might be set up to bring in an equally impressive fistfull of NHL talent. If they do, the Lightning may be just a few years away from reclimbing the ladder into the ranks of the NHL elite.

In terms of prospects, the team is deepest at the goaltending position. At 27 years of age, Mike Smith has proven he’s capable of being one of the 10 best goaltenders in the league if he can stay healthy. Behind him, the Lightning are three deep with Karri Ramo (who turns 23 in July), Riku Helenius (21), and Dustin Tokarski (who turns 20 in September). Ramo is the most athletic of the group and will likely serve as Smith’s backup next season. Two years ago he actually outperformed Smith down the stretch of the 2007-2008 season, but he took a step backwards last year while struggling in Norfolk. Helenius was the highest draft choice of the bunch (15th overall in 2006), but it took injuries to Smith and Olaf Kolzig in Tampa Bay forcing the recall of Ramo and Mike McKenna to provide a stage for Helenius in Norfolk to reintroduce himself to the team’s new hockey operations staff as a viable NHL prospect. Of the group, the team’s highest hopes are for ultra-competitive Dustin Tokarski, who has a nasty habit of rising to the occasion in big games and comes to the team with the most gaudy junior resume of any prospect in the team’s history. With that kind of depth, don't expect the Lightning to prioritize the goaltending position in this draft, especially considering this is considered a very poor year for netminders.

The team is also fairly well stocked with two-way and stay-at-home defenseman prospects. In Tampa Bay, the Lightning already have a lot of young two-way defensemen with Paul Ranger (who turns 25 in September), Andrej Meszaros (who turns 24 in October), and Matt Lashoff (who turns 23 in September). Matt Smaby (who turns 25 in October) anchors the Tampa Bay contingent of stay-at home defensemen. Beyond those four the Lightning have 21 year old Ty Wishart, who looks every bit a future NHLer. In the tier below Wishart are 22 year old former first round pick Vladimir Mihalik, who is monsterous in size but plays a painfully soft game, and fleet skating offensive defenseman prospect Kevin Quick (21). What the team could use, however, is a clear cut #1 defenseman prospect and some legitimate power play quarterback caliber offensive defensemen.

The situation at forward is a little more dicey. Should the Lightning keep Lecavalier, they seem solid at the center position. Vincent Lecavalier is still only 29 years old and Steven Stamkos is an unbelievable 19 years old. Beyond the two franchise centers, though, the Lightning are not terribly deep. Paul Szczechura (23) seems a capable, albeit injury-prone, future checking liner, and Mitch Fadden (21) has a shot at becoming an NHL scoring liner if he adopts a professional caliber work ethic. Hovering just beyond view is Alex Killorn (19), who is a talented prospect who will likely play a couple of more seasons for Harvard in the NCAA.

The situation at wing is even more dire. The team has two speedy, pesky second/third line tweeners in Steve Downie (22) and Dana Tyrell (20), but the defections of Swedish power forward prospect Johan Harju (23) and sandpapery Radek Smolenak (22) to the Russian KHL have seriously crimped the Lightning’s depth at the position. The team also has high hopes for Latvian-born winger Martins Karsums (23), who was acquired along with Lashoff from the Boston organization at the deadline, but Bolt Prospects doesn’t quite share the organization’s enthusiasm for Karsums’ upside.

So, a rough sketch of the Lightning’s organizational needs heading into this draft includes the following priorities, in this order: 1.) A legitimate #1 defenseman prospect, 2.) Offensive defenseman prospects, 3.) More speed and skill at the wing positions, and 4.) Greater depth at the center position. In addition, given that the new hockey operations department has shown it prefers to carry an enforcer at the NHL level, it’s likely they will need to draft one or two tough guys in the later rounds to begin to stock the system with some legitimate pugilistic talent.

Fortunately, the team has the assets to address many of these needs during the two days of the draft. The team will have three picks within the first 60 picks of the draft: #2 overall, #32 overall, and #52 overall. In a deep draft, that bodes very well for the Lightning, especially considering that in recent history about 7 in 10 of the drafted prospects who have cracked the NHL ranks have come from the top sixty picks in their respective draft years. It’s quite a departure from previous years where the Lightning’s former scouts would be lucky if they had a single second round pick within the top sixty to work with. That is why this draft is so critical for the health of the Lightning organization.

The prevailing wisdom throughout the scouting community is that there are only three players that should be on the Lightning's radar at the #2 slot in the draft. Chief among those for the Lightning should be Swedish defenseman Victor Hedman. If Hedman does indeed fall to the Lightning at #2, which seems likely, it will be the second year in a row where the Lightning get a legitimate franchise caliber player that perfectly suits their organizational needs. Last year the Lightning were extremely fortunate to get the opportunity to draft Stamkos right after they dealt core center Brad Richards. This season, the Lightning may be equally fortunate to gain Hedman, a fleet skating 6’6” 220 lbs. behemoth, roughly a year after dealing Dan Boyle.

Hedman lies somewhere on the scale between former Norris Trophy winner Chris Pronger and Panthers defenseman Jay Bouwmeester. Victor may not have quite the same physical edge as Pronger, but after excelling in the Swedish Elitserien against grown men at 17-18 years old, he seems more poised than Bouwmeester. Red Line Report rates Hedman the best prospect in this draft class while THN ranks Hedman second. Drafting Hedman should provide the Lightning with a 40-50 point a year anchor on their blueline who is capable of logging 25-30 minutes a night once Hedman is fully developed. Lightning fans should be cautioned, though, that defensemen take longer to develop than forwards. Even though Hedman played 21 minutes a night against grown men for MODO in the Elitserien this year, don’t expect the same second half rookie season gratification that Stamkos provided from Hedman.

If, somehow, Hedman goes off the board to the Islanders at #1 overall, the Lightning will have their choice of a pair of talented centers. London center John Tavares appears the likely #1 choice to the Islanders. After scoring 72 goals and 134 points at age 16 three seasons ago for Oshawa, Tavares has seemed like a lock for the top spot in this draft year, and the hype surrounding Tavares is in the realm of Sidney Crosby’s in terms of the duration that he’s been in the hockey world’s consciousness. However, three seasons is a long time for the hockey world to nitpick a player’s weaknesses and Tavares’ skating and intensity have been knocked during the past two seasons as he has never matched the prolific numbers he set in his original breakout campaign of junior. As hard is it is to believe, Tavares actually saw his stock drop slightly following a 58 goal and 104 point campaign and some believe the Islanders could consider a different player to be the #1 overall. Tavares looks like a smaller, more talented version of Ottawa’s Jason Spezza, and if the Islanders were to take Hedman, the consolation prize could be a Stamkos/Tavares duo that would rival the Crosby/Malkin duo in Pittsburgh. That’s not a bad fallback position. The Lightning would likely move Tavares to wing if they selected him, and he's considered a lock to be an annual 40-goal scorer. Red Line report ranks him as the third best prospect in this class and in the mold of Brett Hull while THN ranks him the draft's best prospect.

The really brave pick, however, might be Brampton center Matt Duchene. Duchene stormed into the conversation after a strong playoff run in which scouts began to compare the fleet skating, character rich Battallion pivot to Stamkos, or even Joe Sakic. Red Line Report even moved Duchene ahead of Tavares in their recent rankings based on how he might project in a year once top prospect Cody Hodgson moves on from Brampton and he becomes the focal point of his team. Still, it will take a GM with a stomach made of cast iron to pass on Tavares for a center who only managed 31 goals and 79 points based on how he might project to play if he were the focal point of his team in a more freewheeling system. In addition, Duchene probably isn’t physically mature enough to play in the NHL right away, which would be even more perilous for such a GM if Tavares stepped in as a rookie and made an impact right away. Red Line Report ranks Duchene the second best prospect in this draft class while THN ranks him third.

Lightning Options for the #2 Overall Pick:
D Victor Hedman, 6’6” 220 lbs, MODO (SWE)
C John Tavares, 6’0” 195 lbs, London (OHL)
C Matt Duchene, 5’11” 200 lbs, Brampton (OHL)

Whomever the Lightning select with the #2 overall pick, I expect their priorities at picks #32 and #52 to revolve around acquiring an offensive defenseman and a scoring forward. In such a deep draft, the Lightning are also in a good position to trade into the second half of the first round if there’s a player they decide they absolutely have to have. Who might that player be?

The beauty of this draft is that there are 40 or 50 guys who can be legitimately claimed to be first round caliber talents, and many of them are offensive defensemen. In a perfect world, the Lightning might be able to move up and nab righty Swedish defenseman David Rundblad who, along with Hedman, might anchor the Lightning’s power play for a generation. He’s a great skater with superb offensive skills who is still rounding out his defensive game and could be a greater point producer in the NHL than Hedman. However, he’s shot up the board late in the year to 10th in THN’s rankings and 12th in Red Line Report’s. Another great fit would be diminuitive Ryan Ellis of Windsor, whose small size disguises the fact he wields a punishing howitzer for a shot. However, he also looks destined to be a late lottery pick, ranked 13th by Red Line and 17th by THN.

As far as righty shots go, things start to get interesting after Rundblad and Ellis move off the board. THN touts Saskatoon’s Stefan Elliott as a potential Mike Green clone as the draft’s 27th best prospect while Red Line pans him as ultra-soft at 41. The opposite is true for Shawinigan’s Charles Olivier-Roussel whom Red Line raves about at 14 while THN has him all the way down at 35. Finally, there’s Dylan Olsen out of Camrose who will play for Minnesota-Duluth starting in the Fall. Olsen is a big, strong, solid defenseman who plays a more all-around game rather than a purely offensive one. Red Line has Olsen at 28 while THN has him down at 41. The Lightning could just wait at pick 32 if they don’t have a preference, or they could strike if one of these defensemen, or another player, really catches their eye.

If you’re not hung up on getting a righty shot, there are plenty of potential targets who shoot southpaw as well. John Moore out of Chicago in the USHL, where Luca Cunti played last season, is a superbly powerful skater with a high skill level who will play his freshman campaign for Colorado College in the WCHA next season. He checks in at 18th in THN and 21st in Red Line. Calvin De Haan of Oshawa in the OHL had a mind-blowing 63 point campaign, and if he bulks up has the look of a big point-producer in the NHL. THN has De Haan at 22 while Red Line has him at 20. The wild card is Swedish defenseman Tim Erixon of Skelleftea. Some scouts see him as a quiet stay-at-home defenseman, while others see untapped offensive upside. THN has Erixon at 32, while Red Line has him at 23.

If the Lightning choose not to go for an offensive defenseman with this pick, expect them to focus on the forward position. On the wing, sniping C/LW Landon Ferraro of Red Deer might be a great pick if he slips to #32 not only because he is a good skater with strong hockey sense, but also because his Lightning-hating father, former Thrashers center Ray Ferraro, might have his head explode if the Lightning take him. THN has Ferraro at 28, while Red Line puts him 38th. There’s also tiny Finnish sniper Toni Rajala, who could earn extra money over the summers as a stunt double for the Rohloffs on Little People Big World. Red Line has him at 34 while THN puts him at 49. Another Finnish product, Eric Haula, is a wild card who merits attention given the Koules family’s ties to the Shattucks hockey program. THN has him at 42 while Red Line has him all the way down at 118. Laying in the weeds is RW/C Alex Hutchings of Barrie, who is universally hailed as a smart, talented, hard-working player but mysteriously is as low as 48th in THN and 43rd in Red Line Report.

At center, Kyle Palmieri has good speed and great strength for a smaller player, and his dismissal from the USNTDP earlier this season might knock him down to #32 for the Lightning to snag him. Here’s the rub: almost all of the US program’s kids have a knock on their character this season. But, they’re also extremely talented and are physically very well trained. Do you gamble? A safer pick would be center Jordan Caron of Rimouski. Caron is an average skater with above average battle level and skill who excels on the forecheck. Caron isn’t a sexy pick, but he could be the Lightning’s third line center for a generation, and could chip in 20 goals many a season in the process.

Lightning Options for the #32 Overall Pick:
D David Rundblad, 6’2” 190 lbs, Skelleftea (SWE)
D Stefan Elliot, 6’1” 184 lbs, Saskatoon (WHL)
D Calvin De Haan, 6’0” 173 lbs, Oshawa (OHL)
D Charles Olivier Rousell, 6’1” 200 lbs, Sawinigan (QMJHL)

RW Landon Ferraro, 6’0” 170 lbs, Red Deer (WHL)
LW Toni Rajala, 5’9” 154 lbs, Ilves Jr. A (FIN Jr. A)
LW Erik Haula, 5’10” 170 lbs, Shattuck (USHS)
RW/C Alex Hutchings, 5’10” 179 lbs, Barrie (OHL)

C Kyle Palmieri, 5’10” 193 lbs, USNTDP (USA)
C Jordan Caron, 6’2” 196 lbs, Rimouski (QMJHL)

If the Lightning decide to hold onto the #52 pick and not package their picks to move up to grab a player in the second half of the first round, they have a viable fallback position if they want to add a right handed offensive defenseman. Tyson Barrie, son of owner Len Barrie, is a smallish speedster with good offensive ability. He struggles a bit in his own end and he could put the charge of nepotism on the table in the organization if the Lightning choose to select him. However, it’s hard for me to argue that he doesn’t fit the Lightning’s organizational needs. He checks in at 77th in THN and 100th in Red Line. Watching the Memorial Cup, I really wanted to hate him, but his defense didn’t offend my eyes as much as others said it would.

On the wing, Josh Birkholz of Fargo in the USHL is a great skater with a big shot, but has earned a rap for being soft and inconsistent. He’s at 57th in THN and 97th in Red Line. A personal favorite of mine is Ben Hanowski of Little Falls in the Minnesota high school ranks. Hanowski broke the Minnesota career scoring mark for high school players and scored at an over 4 points a game clip this season. He is an average skater, but has one of the best shots in the draft. THN has him at 84th, but Red Line has him at a respectable 59th. The young man scored 405 points in high school. It’s a miracle he doesn’t have skin cancer from the amount of times he helped light the lamp.

At center, why not center Ryan Bourque of the US U-18 program? Ray Bourque’s youngest son was a standout for the American program, despite his small size, and has committed to go play for Patrick Roy and Quebec in the QMJHL next season. He brings good speed and skill, and would also bring #77 to town for a few Lightning games, no doubt. But, again, the USNTDP was not known for its character this year.

Lightning Options for the #52 Overall Pick:
D Tyson Barrie, 5’10” 190 lbs, Kelowna (WHL)

RW Josh Birkholz, 6’1” 185 lbs, Fargo (USHL)
LW Ben Hanowski, 6’2” 198 lbs, Little Falls (USHS)

C Ryan Bourque, 5’9” 163 lbs, USNTDP (USA)

Just as a reminder, Bolt Prospects has added a chat function to the website for the first time in anticipation of this year's draft. So join us Friday and Saturday for a virtual draft party as we celebrate the addition of the Lightning organization's newest members. The chat is available to anyone who has signed up for the Bolt Prospects message board, so lurkers be sure to register if you want to join the fun.