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Bolts Bolster Defense with Matt Walker

Further bolstering their defensive corps via free agency, the Lightning have signed stay-at-home veteran backliner Matt Walker. Walker played one year for the Chicago Blackhawks last season after spending 8 years in the St. Louis Blues organization. Walker has 2 goals, 23 assists, and 354 penalty minutes in 240 career NHL games.

“Matt [Walker] is the big, physical, intimidating presence that we lacked on the blue line last season,” said Lawton upon making the announcement today. “He is a high-character, team-first player and he demonstrated that last season, going right back in a playoff game after suffering an ugly, ugly broken finger. He is just the type of player that we were looking for to fill a specific defensive need.”

Lightning Sign Veteran Blueliner Mattias Ohlund

TSN.ca is reporting that the Tampa Bay Lightning have struck first in this year's NHL free agency by signing free agent veteran Swedish defenseman Mattias Ohlund to a 7-year, $26.5M contract. A Swedish-born veteran defenseman seems like the perfect fit for a team that not only struggled last season without a veteran presence on the blueline, but also just drafted Swedish defensive phenom Victor Hedman.

“We are thrilled Mattias [Ohlund] elected to sign with the Tampa Bay Lightning today,” said Lawton upon making the announcement. “With so many options in front of him, having him elect to play in Tampa demonstrates the faith he has in our team’s strategy and vision for success, which should be exciting for our fans. This signing accomplished two primary goals for us. First, we have added the top-two defenseman we coveted to lead our blue line and second, we have found a leader and a mentor for Victor Hedman as he prepares to play in the NHL this fall.”

Ohlund is a 12 year veteran of the Vancouver Canucks, drafted by the Vancouver 13th overall in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft. In 770 career regular season games, Ohlund has 93 goals and 232 assists for 325 points. He the leads the franchise all-time for defencemen in goals and points.

Keller, McKenna Not Qualified

According to Damian Cristodero of the St. Pete Times, the Tampa Bay Lightning have chosen not to qualify restricted free agents forward Justin Keller and goaltender Mike McKenna.

Players receiving qualifying offers were defensemen Lukas Krajicek, Matt Smaby, Matt Lashoff and Mike Lundin; forwards Martins Karsums, Blair Jones, Radek Smolenak and Lauri Tukonen; and goaltender Karri Ramo. Both Smolenak and Ramo have signed contracts to play in the KHL next season.

Best Draft Since 1998?

It's almost impossible to beat the haul the Lightning got in 1998 (Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards, Dimitry Afanasenkov, and Martin Cibak), but I think the Lightning might've just completed their second best draft in team history. They already completed a first in history making a pair of first round picks on night one of the draft with Victor Hedman and Carter Ashton, so they were on their way already.

However, their second and fourth round selections really put this draft over the top. Richard Panik is a big time gamble, but he's going to a very good program in Windsor and will be playing for Bob Boughner. On pure talent, he could be even better than Ashton if you can get his head on straight, and he'll be in the environment in Windsor to facilitate that.

And, we love that Alex Hutchings pick. Absolutely love it. You got a hockey player who can play center or wing. Good skater. Good hockey sense. He can pass. He can shoot. He mucks well for a little guy. He just knows how to play the game. It's shocking he fell into the Lightning's lap in the fourth round, and in getting Hutchings the Lightning completed a very successful first four rounds where they got 4 of the top 48 rated prospects by THN and 4 of the top 60 by Red Line. That's in a deep draft, no less, so they got a lot of quality.

The goaltenders, Zador and Janus, seem like a reaction to Karri Ramo's defection. Zador's got to get playing time, but he was a first rounder in the OHL Priority Draft in 2007, so he's got raw ability. Janus made his name at the WJC's and had decent statistics for Erie this season. Because Janus was an overager, he'll probably only have one more year in junior. Zador probably gets two. You're just wishing and hoping one of them develops the way Ramo did when the Lightning took a sixth rounder on him out of Lahti.

I have a feeling the Lightning got some value out of that Gotovets pick. I'm guessing if his name was Johnson or Wilson, he might've gone a couple of rounds sooner, but teams are terrified of the KHL poaching their players. Yes, there's a danger if Gotovets develops he could be poached by Dynamo Minsk, but he's already taken the step of coming over to Shattuck and he already speaks pretty flawless English. I don't think you make that commitment and go to an Ivy League school like Cornell only to turn back around and go back to Belarus, and I have yet to hear about anything glaringly wrong with his game other than the fact he's pretty skinny. He'll be a darkhorse to watch over the next few years.

The only regret is that the Lightning didn't find a way to get an offensive defenseman or two into the system. That'll be something they'll need to look at next year, and they'll certainly continue to try to flesh out their forward depth. Getting Ashton, Panik, and Hutchings was a whale of a start, though. Very good draft. I suspect they get at least three NHL players out of this group.

Update:
Evidently, Janus would've gone to Russia to play in the KHL if he hadn't been drafted, and he wants to play pro this season and not go back to junior. That's an interesting problem for a Lightning organization that has Riku Helenius and Dustin Tokarski all but inked into the lineup in Norfolk next season.

Seventh Round, 183rd Overall

Name: Kirill Gotovets
Postion: D
Height: 5.11
Weight: 175 lbs
Shoots: Left
Club: Shattuck St. Mary's (USHS)
Rankings: CSS-179 (North American Skater) Red Line- 123
Statistics: Shattuck (USHS), 50 GP, 6-23-29, 66 PIM

The Koules family's connection to Shattuck St. Mary's strikes late as the Lightning have selected smallish puckmoving defenseman Kirill Gotovets. The Belarussian born defenseman has committed to play for Cornell of the ECACHL and has international experience with the Belarussian junior team. He's a good skater who might be suffering from NHL teams' new fears surrounding losing players to the KHL. Gotovets' KHL rights are held by his hometown club Dynamo Minsk. If Gotovets bypasses Cornell, for some reason, the Brandon Wheat Kings of the WHL hold his rights.

Money quote from Red Line Report: "Smallish, finesse rearguard is a fine puck mover."

Sixth Round, 162nd Overall

Name: Jaroslav Janus
Position: G
Height: 5.11
Weight: 192 lbs
Catches: Left
Club: Erie (OHL)
Rankings: CSS- 13 (North American Goaltenders), Red Line- 103
Statistics: Erie (OHL), 49 GP, 25-20-3-1, 3 SO, 3.24 GAA, .908 sv%

The Lightning continue to add more organizational depth in net by selecting Jaroslav Janus, who was passed over in last year's draft. The Slovakian born netminder rose based on his work for the national team at the World Junior Championships, where he was named the best goaltender in the tournament. He's an athletic reflex goaltender who is very competitive, and has good rebound control. The knocks on Janus are that he doesn't play his angles well consistently and he does not have a good glove hand. Red Line projects him as a goaltender who will be a number three type in the organization and compares his style to that of Cristobal Huet or Jaroslav Halak. Because he's an overage prospect, he might find his way into the minor league for the system before Zador.

Money quote from Red Line: "Not a sure thing but we really love his competitiveness."

Fifth Round, 148th Overall

The Lightning traded next year's 5th round pick to acquire pick 148 in the 5th round.

Name: Michael Zador
Position: G
Height: 6.02
Weight: 172 lbs
Catches: Left
Club: Oshawa (OHL)
Rankings: CSS- 10 (North American Goaltenders), Red Line- 220, THN (NR)
Statistics: London/Oshawa (OHL), 28 GP, 11-13-0-1, 0 SO, 3.65 GAA, .897 sv%

The Lightning grabbed the project goaltender we thought they might get by selecting Oshawa's Michael Zador. He was selected in the 1st round of the OHL Priority Draft in 2007 and has good size and plays an efficient, butterfly style. He plays with an economy of motion but needs to get technically more sound, particularly with his angles and rebound control. He'll play two more years in junior and the Lightning will see what they have.

Fourth Round, 93rd Overall

Name: Alex Hutchings
Position: C/RW
Height: 5.10
Weight: 173 lbs
Club: Barrie (OHL)
Shoots: Right
Rankings: CSS- 44(North American Skater), Red Line- 43, THN- 48, TSN- 58
Statistics: Barrie (OHL), 63 GP, 34-34-68, 60 PIM

Thievery. That's how we feel about getting Alex Hutchings in the fourth round. Pure thievery. We wouldn't have blinked if the Lightning took him in the second round, so the fact he's slipped this far is very exciting. Hutchings is one of the best skaters in the OHL and he is intelligent with a high motor. He plays in all phases of the game, and for a little guy he's surprisingly willing to get his nose dirty along the wall. Hutchings has scoring line upside, and unlike Panik, he plays an honest enough game that he can also play on your lower lines if you need him to. Bottom line: the Lightning got a hockey player. Red Line compares Hutchings to Chris Kunitz.

Money quote from Brian Lawton tweeting from the draft, "Our Dir. of Amateur Scouting Jim Hammett was so excited about getting Hutchings he started drinking my pop on accident." If we were there, we'd be drinking Lawton's pop too.

Update:
Bonus money quote from Red Line, which rates Hutchings as the 14th most underrated prospect in this draft: "Skates well, scores a bunch of goals, plays hard, and sound in his own end. Yet no one seems to take much notice." In addition, Red Line ranks Hutchings as having the 12th best hockey sense in this draft class. Victor Hedman, incidentally, was 2nd.

Second Round, 52nd Overall

Name: Richard Panik
Position: RW/C
Height: 6.02
Weight: 203 lbs
Club: Trinec (CZE)
Shoots: Left
Rankings: CSS- 13 (European Skater), Red Line- 60, THN- 31, TSN- 38
Statistics: Trinec J-20 (CZE J-20), 16 GP, 10-9-19, 36 PIM
Havirov (CZE2), 3 GP, 2-1-3, 0 PIM
Trinec (CZE), 15 GP, 1-1-2, 4 PIM

The Lightning took a tremendous swing for the fences with high risk, high reward forward Richard Panik from Slovakia by way of the Czech Republic. In terms of raw skills and athleticism, he has first round talent. He has great outside speed and a sharp snap shot with great playmaking abilities too. He's also very strong on his stick and is a tank when he brings his battle level up. The problem with Panik is that there are big questions about his attitude and his work ethic, and he's been criticized for allowing himself to get out of shape too. Red Line Report projects him as either a second line scorer in the NHL or a total bust, with upside to be like Marian Hossa. There's no safety net with Panik, though.

The money quote on Panik from Red Line, "Excellent size/skills combination - on talent alone he'd be first round material." Let's hope he gets his head on straight. The Windsor Spitfires of the OHL hold his Import Draft rights and Brian Lawton just tweeted he will play in North America next season.

Rock Solid First Round for the Lightning

Hard to argue with what the Lightning accomplished tonight at the draft. I think the two players they got are definitely going to be NHLers and their athleticism is bullet-proof. For the second year in a row, they got the perfect fit getting Victor Hedman. He's exactly what the Lightning needed, and he has the ability to make the entire defensive corps better. In a perfect world, the Lightning would've been able to get one of those pure offensive defensemen to pair with him that they could just turn loose, but it wasn't in the cards.

Credit to Brian Lawton for being aggressive trying to move up. From about pick #10 or #11, the Lightning were trying to move back into the first round to acquire another prospect. This is the first time in team history they've been this aggressive, and they got a good payoff for it. I was worried that the ownership squabbles were such a distraction that Lawton would sit on his hands tonight, but that wasn't the case. They had the resources to make moves, and they tried to do so.

I have no problem moving a pick outside of the top-60 to move up a few picks to get a player you believe is going to be an NHLer, and Carter Ashton was very good value at pick 29. He should have gone around pick 20 and there are several forwards who were taken ahead of him that simply aren't better players than he is. The Lightning got a guy who's going to be that Modin type player who does the board work for you and drives the slot and bangs 25-30 goals home for you. They've desperately needed a player like that since Modin was dealt. Even Ryan Malone, as good as he is around the opposing crease, could be stronger along the wall. Ashton's great along the wall, with the added dimension of being a good fighter if you provoke him. He might end up being a good protector for Stamkos down the road. A simple meat and potatoes game like he has translates well on any line you put him on. I thought the Lightning might take a player like Ashton like Budish, for instance, with the pick at 32. I never though Ashton would slide down as low as 29 to be a possibility for the Lightning. Definitely a rock solid pick.

The only downside from the first night of the draft is that because the Lightning don't pick again until 52, I don't know if they'll be able to grab a righty shot offensive defenseman. There are some players still on the board they could use: Charles Olivier Roussel of Shawinigan and Stefan Elliott of Saskatoon are still out there. Eric Gelinas of Lewiston is a lefty shot defenseman with a lot of offensive upside who is still out there as well. I doubt they'll make it to 52, though, and I doubt the Lightning have the resources left to move up from 52 to get one.

Chad and Tim from our staff made a good point to me: now that you have Ashton to go along with a prospect like Johan Harju, you need a playmaker to set these big snipers up because they're not the type of players who make their own offense on the rush. But, other than Alex Hutchings of Barrie, there's not many playmakers left. There are some snipers like Jeremy Morin of the USNTDP, Toni Rajala from the Ilves program, Landon Ferraro of Red Deer, and Ben Hanowski of Little Falls High School. There's also a wild card like Zach Budish, who's a power forward who can do it all, but was hurt all year. So, there's a lot of talent still hanging around. I just wish the Lightning could be at about 42 rather than 52 to know they're going to get a player like that.

Another thought is that Rick Tocchet tweeted that there's a scary enforcer who the Lightning should take a look at. Defenseman Brayden McNabb, who is rated at 66 by Red Line and 54 by THN is one of the toughest players in this draft, apparently bit someone somewhere along the way this season. Cannibalism qualifies as scary.

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