Hereâ€™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.