For those paying attention to the past three drafts by Steve Yzerman and Al Murray, the Tampa brain trust seems to cast an eye on at least one juniors or European player that can provide immediate help to the AHL affiliate or at least fast tracked to help the following season.
In 2011, then 20-year old Ondrej Palat was drafted in the 7th round and joined the Norfolk Admirals for the Calder championship season. That same draft, 18-year old Vladislav Namestnikov was selected in the 1st round, but he would turn 20 before the end of 2012 allowing him to join the Syracuse Crunch the following season for their 2012-13 Calder Cup finalist season.
In 2012, the Lightning drafted 19 year old Tanner Richard and 18 year old Cedric Pacquette, both of whose birthdays allowed them to spend just one more season in juniors before making their AHL debuts with the Crunch last season.
Last summer, Yzerman and Murray dipped into the European draft pool and fetched out Kristers Gudlevskis, signed him to an entry-level contract, and he became the first goaltender to play in the ECHL, AHL, NHL, and Olympics in same year. They also drafted 19 year old Henri Ikonen out of juniors last summer, and he is slated to join the Crunch this season as the organization looks to restock its pipeline that saw an unprecedented 9 prospects graduate from Syracuse to Tampa in the 2013-14 season.
With the NHL convening in Philadelphia next weekend for the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, let's explore some players that could be draft-and-sign guys for immediate help in Syracuse, or older players that could be fast tracked to Syracuse for the following season in 2015.
C Colby Cave (dob: 26-Dec-94) -- Wore the "C" for Swift Current en route to a point-per-game campaign in the WHL. He's 19, but will turn 20 the day after Christmas, making him eligible start this season in Syracuse. Red Line's scouting report says he plays a complete game and can excel at any role. Cave projects to go in the 3rd round and could be available when the Bolts pick at #80. Like Palat in 2011, Cave would be an option to return to Swift Current for an overage year, or slot in a depth role in Syracuse as a rookie with an eye to move up to a greater role if/when Cody Kunyk or Namestnikov get recalled to Tampa.
LW Edgars Kulda (dob: 13-Nov-94) -- Fresh off being named the Memorial Cup MVP for the CHL champions Edmonton Oil Kings is Latvian LW'er Edgars Kulda. A point-per-gamer all season in the WHL, Kulda also put up a point-per-game during the Memorial Cup playoffs including 4-3-7 in 5 games during the four-team final playoff. His stock has definitely risen since the Oil Kings run, only #145 on Central Scouting's list after the regular season ended, but may go as high as the 3rd round. Central Scouting's ranking projects him somewhere in the 5th round, but it's difficult to predict what NHL teams think about him. He turns 20 before Thanksgiving, so he'd be eligible to start the 2014 season with Syracuse, and could be a player to immediately bring an infusion of offense into a depleted Syracuse roster. Without a 4th round pick this year, the Bolts might have to reach for him in the 3rd or cross fingers to see if he drops to the late 5th round.
C Philippe Gadoury (dob: 14-Feb-94) -- Signed as a free agent by Halifax in January for their stretch run, Gadoury promptly put up 26 points in 19 games followed by 25 points in 16 playoff games with Bolt prospect phenom Jonathan Drouin and the Mooseheads. He's got another year of eligibility as an overager for Halifax, but he's already 20 and could play for Syracuse straight up this fall. He's a projected 7th round pick, so Yzerman and Murray might take a late round flyer for some possible Syracuse depth. Lightning scouts probably saw a good bit of Gadoury as they tracked Drouin's development this season at Halifax.
F Roberts Lipsbergs (dob: 29-Jul-94) -- Seattle Thunderbirds forward Roberts Lipsbergs is another Latvian-born player that could be a potential late-round draft-and-sign infusion for Syracuse. Built a bit like a fireplug, Lipsbergs clicked off a point-per-game for the 'Birds in both the regular season and playoffs. Seattle-based BoltProspects message board member "astro" characterizes Lipsberg as a player who occasionally throws the big hit and who had great chemistry with Florida Panther 2012 draftee Alexander Delnov. At 19, Lipsberg already is 4-year veteran of international tournament play, including a roster spot on the 2014 Latvia World Championship team that included Bolt prospect Kristers Gudlevskis.
RW Cameron Darcy (dob: 02-Mar-94) -- Admittedly, Darcy may not even get drafted. This South Boston native was product of the USNTDP before committing or Northeastern U for the 2012-13 season. He played the first 9 games of the season as a true freshman before mysteriously leaving school for personal reasons, and playing the balance of the 2012-13 season in the USHL. He then signed as a free agent with Cape Breton of the QMJHL for the 2013-14 season, promptly leading the team this season in scoring with 82 points in 65 games and a QMJHL 2nd Team All Star Selection. He's had a long and winding hockey road, but this 20 year old could step right onto the Syracuse squad in more than just a depth role.
Casting a future eye to the Syracuse 2015-16 season, let's explore some 18 and 19 year old juniors and some Europeans in this summer's draft that could be on the "one more year" fast track development path like Namestnikov, Richard, Pacquette, and Joel Vermin.
RW Nikita Scherbak (dob: 20-Dec-95) -- Possibly one of the most least talked about high-end talents in this year's draft. He's like Richard Panik without the enigmatic streak, and he could very well be on the board when Tampa picks at #19. Extra gear, deadly shot, tenacious with the puck, a beast in tight, and a Russian that's already in North America and playing in the physical WHL for Saskatoon. He turns 20 on December 30, 2015, which makes him another Namestnikov-type pick and eligible for the Syracuse roster for the 2015-16 AHL campaign. He's a future top line scoring winger with size, and there's a little known Russian hockey proverb that says you can never have too many Nikita's.
C Ivan Barbeshev (dob: 14-Dec-95) -- One of the most complete forwards in the draft with size, skill, shot, and heart, and who could also be on the board when the Bolts pick at #19. Barbeshev is another Russian playing in juniors that turns 20 before the end of 2015, and thus eligible to join the Syracuse squad at the beginning of the 2015-16 season. He showed at the U20 WJC's this winter that he could switch from an offensive role to a shutdown role and still be an effective player. This bodes well as a "safe" NHL pick where you need young guys to be able to contribute in ways other than just on a scoring line. Projects as a big two-way 2nd line center in an organization that is light in the size department down the middle.
D Julius Honka (dob: 03-Dec-95) -- Most Bolt fans drool at the thought of Yzerman and Murray having the chance to draft this right-handed elite offensive defenseman. Probably the best power play QB in the draft that also projects as a Top-4 guy at even strength. The problem is you can't pass up a Scherbak or Barbeshev at 19 for Honka, and there's a risk he'll be off the board when the Bolts pick again at #28. If some miracle transpires, Honka's December '95 birth date would allow him to join Syracuse for the 2015-16 season.
RW Hunter Smith (dob: 11-Sep-95) -- Not sure if this 6-6 210 monster will still be on the board when the Lightning picks 80th in the 3rd round, but if you are looking for an enforcer that can take a regular shift, Smith is an intriguing consideration and he turns 20 before the 2015 Syracuse training camp starts. He scored 40 points for Oshawa this season, including 16 goals and was a point-per-gamer during the playoffs. There always NHL teams that reach for players like Smith, and without a 4th round pick this summer, chances are Smith won't be around late in the 5th where Tampa holds two picks. Honestly, I can't see Yzerman and Murray spending a Top-90 pick on Smith, which is what they would have to do if they want to add his skill set to the organizational pipeline
RW Alex Schoenborn (dob: 12-Dec-95) -- Schoenborn seems like a real Cooper type of player -- rugged winger that can hit, fight, score, and skate with high hockey IQ. Not an enforcer type at all, but more of an Abdelkader type of player on a deep Portland team. Schoenborn is another winger with the fast-track development option that can be in Syracuse for the 2015-16 season. Probably have to grab him in the 3rd, but he's more of the kind of physical grit and toughness that Cooper and Yzerman gravitate towards than the Hunter Smith's of the hockey world.
D Mikko Lehtonen (dob: 16-Jan-94) -- Red Line scouts him as an intelligent and poised defender that rarely makes mistakes. Lehtonen won gold with the WJC U20 champion Finnish team this past winter, but he got a one-year extension from TPS to play in the Liiga next season. He's projected to go 4th round this draft, and without a 4th round pick this summer, TBL may miss out on a chance to draft a solid prospect that could be in Syracuse by October 2015. But, if Mikko falls to the 5th round, he might be a crafty selection with of the team's two 5th round picks.
D Andrei Mironov (dob: 29-Jul-94) -- Red Lind scouts him as a big strong mistake-free right-handed blueliner that could play in the NHL now. He already has 110 KHL games under his belt playing for Dynamo as a 18 and 19 year old, to go along with his bronze medal from the Russian WJC U20 team as a teammate of Bolt prospects Nikita Kucherov and Nikita Nesterov. He wore an "A" on his jersey for that U20 squad, so there's some leadership qualities as well. Dynamo has him under contract through the end of the 2014-15 season, but he could possibly be in play for Syracuse (or Tampa) for the 2015-16 season. He's projected to go in the 5th round of this draft, of which the Lightning have two picks.
G Elvis Merzlikins (dob: 13-Apr-94) -- If you're looking for a super-sleeper 6th round goalie pick, Elvis is your man. This Latvian 6'3" 19 year old dominated the Swiss NLA at times last year for Lugano. Merzlikins sports advanced technique for his age, aggressive on the shooter, and has good rebound control. Not sure what his contract situation with Lugano is for next year, but grabbing Elvis in the 5th or 6th would give Yzerman options if he wanted to trade Anders Lindback and go with Gudlevskis as the Tampa backup. Or, like Joel Vermin last summer, Yzerman could give Elvis another year in the Swiss league and have the pipeline setup for 2015-16 in the event Wilcox decides to stay at Minnesota for his senior year.