Draft Preview: War Gaming the 2014 NHL Entry Draft

By Pete Choquette (@jollymeangiant)

As noted in Bolt Prospects’ 2013-2014 Final Rankings, this past season was a banner year for the Lightning’s prospect system. Ten prospects, including eight prospects from our top-25 rankings and another two overage prospects, ultimately became contributors to the big club on their way to a surprising berth in the NHL playoffs.

That success may lull Lightning fans into a false sense of security about the team’s prospect system, but a look at the struggles of the Syracuse Crunch in the AHL this past season and a look at the significant drop-off after the first half-dozen remaining prospects in our top-25 rankings reveals there is much work to be done to restock the cupboard. Fortunately, the Lightning will go into this summer’s June draft with three top-60 draft picks, including a conditional first round pick acquired from the New York Rangers in the Martin St. Louis trade that was escalated from a second round pick by virtue of the Rangers advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Mind you, the Lightning may not make it to draft day with all three top-60 picks. The team’s first round sweep at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens showed the Achilles heel of the Lightning organization: a distinct lack of athleticism and depth at the defenseman position. With that in mind, we fully expect Steve Yzerman to dangle one or two of these picks as bait for defensive help for the big club, with the understanding that a top-60 pick in this draft would be preferable to move relative to a top-60 pick in next year’s draft, which is considered far deeper than this summer’s edition. So, we concede from the outset of this exercise that if the right deal comes along to help the NHL club immediately, we fully expect Yzerman to pull the trigger. If the Lightning keep all three picks, however, here’s a little preview of the pick-by-pick scenario that we think might go into the selections.

The Age Old Question: BPA vs. Need
Every draft presents the same question to every team in the NHL: do you draft the best player available (BPA) or do you draft for your organizational need(s)? A multitude of factors play into this philosophical decision, but ultimately the NHL is a league that leans toward the BPA philosophy. The reasoning is simple to understand: outside a handful of every draft’s top-10 or so picks, the overwhelming majority of the 17-18 year olds selected in the Entry Draft won’t see NHL ice for at least 2-3 years, at which time a team’s needs may have completely changed. By that time Victor Hedman may have morphed into a king-sized version of Nik Lidstrom and Radko Gudas may have become the beardy Czech Scott Stevens, at which point defense may hardly seem like a need anymore. You never know.

That’s why BPA seems to be the overwhelming philosophy of the current Lightning administration, which chose to forgo the obvious need pick last year (Seth Jones) for the player they believed to be the BPA (Jonathan Drouin). Indeed, the defense-starved Lightning selected zero defensemen last year and seemed perfectly content with their late season free agent acquisition of Andrej Sustr out of the University of Nebraska-Omaha. So, on the surface, it seems the Lightning are unlikely to be motivated purely by need when they make their selections, although we have a sneaking suspicion that their selection of Slater Koekkoek two summers ago actually was motivated by need, as Koekkoek was the last quality defenseman available after a run of quality defensemen high in the draft that year. So, perhaps they’re not entirely immune to drafting for need. Keep all of the above in mind. You will need it later.

First Round, 19th Overall
Sometime in what will no doubt feel like the 200th hour of the first round, the Lightning will finally get their turn at the podium with the 19th overall pick. Taking a reverse approach to deducing the pick, let’s look at what the needs-based pick might be: crickets. The fact of the matter is that there are only 2 defensemen who are considered to be consensus top-20 picks in this draft, Aaron Ekblad and Haydn Fleury, and the expectation is that both players will be long gone by pick 19. There is a smattering of other defensemen who might merit consideration at 19, most notably Julius Honka and Travis Sanheim, whom we will profile while looking at the Lightning’s second first round selection, but we believe that neither will be the BPA at 19.

The strength of this draft is undoubtedly at the forward position, and the Lightning’s head scout, Al Murray, has stated the premiere talent this summer is on the wings. We don’t disagree with that assessment, and looking at the multitude of players who will be available in the 10-20 range of the first round, we’ve come to the unmistakable conclusion that a lottery-pick talent or two will almost certainly slip to pick 19. It’s less a question of if and more a question of who and why:

C/W Robby Fabbri, 5’10” 170 lbs, Guelph (OHL)
Who he is: One of the most exciting players in this year’s draft class, Fabbri might be a poor man’s version of Jonathan Drouin. Fabbri mixes above average wheels, ridiculous puck handling ability, a quick release, and world-class tenacity in one hard working little package.

Why he could slip: His size is considered a liability, although the Lightning have certainly feasted on stealing top level talent that was considered too small to play in the league.

RW Nikita Scherbak, 6’1” 175 lbs, Saskatoon (WHL)
Who he is: Russian-born winger plays bigger than he actually is and is difficult to knock off the puck. Scherbak is scorer who makes his living potting goals in tight where the real estate is expensive and it takes great hands to get the job done. All in all, here’s a player whose game seems well-suited to the north-south style of the NHL, and a guy who could be a natural fit on a future line with fellow Russians Nikita Kucherov and Vladislav Namestnikov.

Why he could slip: He’s Russian, although, again, the Lightning have certainly enjoyed stealing top Russian talents like Andrei Vasilevskiy and Kucherov far later than their skills sets would’ve suggested that they should have gone.

C Ivan Barbashev, 6’0” 180 lbs, Moncton (QMJHL)
Who he is: Barbashev is another Russian-born forward who defies his home nation’s stereotypes. Yes, he possesses high-end skill, but his bread and butter is a well-rounded two-way game coupled with a high degree of tenacity on the forecheck and in puck pursuit. Ultimately, he’s just one of those great all-around hockey players that a coach can use in all situations. Somebody would have to move from center to make it happen, but one could see Barbashev’s skill set also making a fine compliment to those of fellow Russians Kucherov and Namestnikov in the future.

Why he could slip: OMG, he’s Russian too!?

LW Sonny Milano, 6’0” 183 lbs, USNTDP
Who he is: Here’s a straw that stirs the drink type of player that Red Line Report has compared to Ondrej Palat. What’s that you said? Ondrej Palat!? Sold!? Like Barbashev, he possesses high-end skill, particularly in the puck-handling department, but he plays the kind of all-around game that coaches find dreamy. He’s slated to take his talents to Boston College next season.

Why he could slip: Honestly, our suspicion is that because he’s so similar to Barbashev in some ways, a team looking at the two might lean toward Milano because of the Russian factor, thereby leaving Barbashev on the board.

RW/C Alex Tuch, 6’4” 213 lbs, USNTDP
Who he is: Finally, someone who isn’t 6’0” and ~180 lbs. Meet Alex Tuch, your prototypical power winger who goes to the net and provides net-front presence and a heavy, heavy shot. Like Milano, Tuch is also going to Boston College, which seems unfair to the rest of Hockey East.

Why he could slip: There are times Tuch can be a bit of a gentle giant, but honestly, it’s hard to foresee a scenario where he slips that far. The NHL is still enamored with the old Cam Neely type of power forward and Tuch has the tools to become a good one.

So, who’s the pick?
Best guess: Barbashev or Scherbak. The stigma of being Russian trumps the stigma of being small (Fabbri) at NHL draft tables these days. Lightning fans should be exceedingly excited to add any of the three to the cupboard, though.

First Round, 28th Overall
Here’s where the degree of difficulty goes up for the Lightning’s scouts. Whomever they select at 28 will probably be more of a project and require time to properly develop. Presuming the Lightning do select a forward with their top selection, we suspect there will be more of an impulse to shade toward need at this pick, especially given there are some long-term project blueliners whose value is more in line with this part of the draft.

D Julius Honka, 5’11” 180 lbs, Swift Current (WHL)(R)
Outside of Ekblad, Honka is the second-most skilled blueliner in this draft, and it isn’t even close. Honka’s a fantastic skater who doesn’t rattle easily under duress, distributes the puck like a fiend on the power play, and even shows surprising jam given his physical limitations. That said, he’s tiny. And, although that didn’t stop him from tearing up the uber-physical WHL, it’s a tough thing for an NHL scout to pull the trigger on a first round pick on a defenseman that’s small. With a righty shot and his skill set and the Lightning’s weapons around him, though, he could be a star in Tampa Bay.

D Travis Sanheim, 6’3” 181 lbs, Calgary (WHL)(L)
Sanheim is a late riser who wasn’t on anyone’s radar coming into this season and now looks like a healthy bet to sneak into the first round, given how bereft of defensive talent this year’s class is. Sanheim is an excellent skater who takes care of his own end first, but also has above average passing ability and a good shot. Central Scouting had him 167th in their Midterms, to give you an idea of how far he’s come in a short time. He’s a project with very little resume to go on, but did we mention how poor the defenseman crop was in this draft?

RW/C Adrian Kempe, 6’2” 187 lbs, MODO (SWE)
Aha! We slipped a forward in on you! Suppose we found you a projectable power forward who was a strong skater with a massive shot and responsible defensive game. Suppose he also had a surplus of snarl and nastiness to go along with his physical gifts. Would you be interested? Sound like a BPA pick? Enter Adrian Kempe. He doesn’t have the hockey sense of other forwards in this draft in the offensive third, so you could be spending a first round pick on a guy who ends up being a bull-in-a-china-shop lower liner. But, this is a type of player the Lightning does need more of.

D Markus Pettersson, 6’4” 167 lbs, Skelleftea (SWE)(L)
Here’s a prospect for those with some imagination for projection. At 6’4” and just 167 lbs Markus Pettersson is so skinny that even Kate Moss wants to buy him a cheeseburger. However, if you believe that once you get Pettersson on a weight training program he can fill out his tall frame, you may have a bit of a steal on your hands. He’s a good skater who switched from center just two years ago and brings a forward’s skill to the backline. All in all, a player not entirely dissimilar from Andrej Sustr.

D Jack Dougherty, 6’1” 186 lbs, USNTDP(R)
No frills, solid, 2-way NHL defenseman. That’s what Jack Dougherty projects to be. He’s not a giant. He’s not going to completely blow your doors off with his skill. But, he’s a poised player in all three zones who can eat minutes. Goodness knows the Lightning could use more players like that. Dougherty is committed to the University of Wisconsin.

D Rowland McKeown, 6’1” 195 lbs, Kingston (OHL)(R)
Skating virtuoso. That’s what Rowland McKeown is. His 4-way agility, acceleration, and blazing speed are the stuff of legends. On that alone he should be a minute-eating NHL defenseman. However, the quality of those minutes may depend on how he adapts to the physicality of the pro game and whether his offensive hockey sense ever catches up with his skating. He’s inconsistent in the physical game and up and down offensively, which makes one wonder if they’re drafting Cam Fowler or, gulp, Lukas Krajicek.

D Jack Glover, 6’3” 190 lbs, USNTDP(R)
Like Dougherty, Jack Glover isn’t overly flashy, but he’s very competent. He lacks the offensive upside of Dougherty, but has bigger size that he uses effectively along the wall and to clear the front porch. With good mobility and a decent ability to move the puck out of danger, as well, he has the look of a potential, reliable shut down defenseman. He’s committed to play with Lightning prospect Adam Wilcox at Minnesota.

D Anthony DeAngelo, 5’11” 175 lbs, Sarnia (OHL)(R)
Here’s a real wild card in the draft, and I don’t mean that in a kind way. Anthony DeAngelo, athletically, has just about everything you want in an offensive defenseman. He displayed those talents in leading all OHL defensemen in scoring: skating, puck skills, and shot. He’s got it all, except possibly the map, compass, or GPS he needs to find his way around the defensive third of the rink. That’s not the red flag, though. What scares teams off of DeAngelo is his attitude and lack of character/leadership traits, which culminated in a much ballyhooed 8-game suspension by the OHL for directing comments that violated the league’s policy against racist, sexist, or homophobic comments (yes, indeed, he’s a real prince). The Lightning have had a pretty strong developmental apparatus the past several seasons in Norfolk-Syracuse. But, do they have the life-coaching ability to straighten DeAngelo out?

LW Jakub Vrana, 5’11” 185 lbs, Linkopings (SWE)
There’s a fair amount of disagreement on how Czech-born, Swedish-based forward Jakub Vrana projects as an NHLer. There’s no disagreement on his skill set. He’s got excellent speed and skill, particularly with the puck. He’s got filthy puck-handling ability and burst, which could make him an elite player, but he’s also enigmatic. Vrana doesn’t appear to be a self-starter and his commitment to the defensive end of the rink is lacking. Would the Lightning have the magic to coax Vrana to reach his potential?

So, who’s the pick?
Here’s the thing, Lightning fans: there’s a chance one of the players that we listed as potential BPA at 19, most notably Fabbri, Barbashev, or Scherbak, might still be on the board at 28. All three of NHL.com’s recent mock drafts present scenarios where the Lightning will have the opportunity to pick two of the top-15 talents in this draft, as ranked by Red Line Report. This draft is that wide open, and while Lightning fans should be extremely happy to get any one of those three players, getting two of the three might be something to be over-the-moon excited about. Should that scenario pan out, we would expect that player to be the pick, with one caveat. We doubt Julius Honka falls all the way to 28. In fact, many mock drafts have Honka going in the 12-18 range, given how defensively shallow this draft is. But, should Honka still be sitting there at 28, he might be impossible to pass on. He’s not a fit for every organization, but we’re absolutely certain Honka could become a superstar in Jon Cooper’s system with the set of weapons Honka will have around him on the power play.

Beyond that, we’ll use the deductive process on the remainder of the crowd. We doubt Sanheim, Kempe, and Vrana will last to 28. Sanheim was considered a sleeper a month ago, before everyone in the free world jumped on the Sanheim bandwagon. That sleeper is wide-awake now, and given the lack of defensemen in this draft, we expect him to be gone in the 20-25 range. NHL GM’s love them some power forwards, so we expect Kempe to be gone in that range, too, and Vrana’s skill set will attract someone. We’ll also assume that the Lightning won’t come within a country mile of the radioactive plume that shrouds Anthony DeAngelo. That leaves Pettersson, McKeown, Dougherty, and Glover, of which, we can probably narrow the field down to Petterson and McKeown. Pettersson, as noted, is kind of a left-handed version of Andrej Sustr. McKeown, on the other hand, has been viewed regularly by the Lightning, which had a stake in keeping an eye on McKeown’s teammate Henri Ikonen.

So, best guesses:

19: C Ivan Barbashev, Moncton (QMJHL) or RW Nikita Scherbak, Saskatoon (WHL)

28: D Markus Pettersson, Skelleftea (SWE) or D Rowland McKeown, Kingston (OHL)

And, if the above predictions pan out, the rest of the Bolt Prospects staff is taking me to Vegas. I prefer Aria or the Cosmopolitan, boys.