Will patience pay off for the Tampa Bay Lightning?
The Bolts have stockpiled elite talent with first-round picks over the past five years, but a roster full of veterans have kept Tampa Bay from shifting those prospects into its lineup.
That started to change last year as former picks Ondrej Palat, Radko Gudas and Richard Panik became regulars.
But after making the mistake of rushing winger Brett Connolly in 2011-12, GM Steve Yzerman has avoided putting the Bolts’ top prospects into high-pressure situations before they are ready.
For the most part, the strategy to develop youngsters has paid off. Palat and undrafted Tyler Johnson each spent two full seasons in the American Hockey League. Both are finalists for this year’s Calder Trophy, awarded to the NHL’s top rookie.
Following that same path are Connolly and Vladislav Namestnikov, who have shown consistent improvement after a couple seasons in the minors.
Next year is shaping up for Tampa Bay to finally get a good look at its prospects on a professional level. Its last three first-round selections — Jonathan Drouin, Slater Koekkoek and Andrey Vasilevskiy — are under contract and expected to make their pro debuts in the fall.
2013: W Jonathan Drouin, third overall (I): Based on his numbers in Halifax (QMJHL) — two consecutive 100-point seasons — this is an A-plus pick for Tampa Bay. But to what degree will that translate to the NHL level, and how fast? Drouin has incredible playmaking ability and puckhandling skills, making him the heir apparent for the void left by the departure of Martin St. Louis. Drouin could easily fit on either of Tampa Bay’s top two lines. If he ends up with sniper Steven Stamkos, expect his playmaking ability to shine; if he lands alongside two-way pivot Valtteri Filppula, his knack for scoring may stand out. Drouin should be regarded as a Calder candidate next season. But until the winger hits NHL ice, it is fair to reserve judgement.
2012: D Slater Koekkoek, 10th overall (I): After putting up average numbers with Peterborough (OHL), Koekkoek emerged as a solid puck-moving defenseman this past season with Windsor (OHL). The blueliner finished with career highs in goals (15), assists (38) and points (53), and earned OHL First-Team All-Star honors. At 6-foot-2, 184-pounds, Koekkoek could stand to add weight to his frame and improve his defensive play. That will likely be the focus when he transitions to Syracuse (AHL), and Koekkoek has plenty of time to hone those skills. With four of Tampa Bay’s veteran defensemen under contract for at least the next two seasons, Koekkoek may not be part of the NHL conversation until 2015 at the earliest.
2012: G Andrey Vasilevskiy, 19th overall (I): The Russian has been nothing short of spectacular at the international level, and now he’ll get the opportunity to show those skills in North America. As a member of Russia’s U20 team, Vasilevskiy earned a silver and two bronze medals and served as backup at the World Championships this past summer. He’s been touted as a franchise goalie, but that largely depends on how smoothly his transition goes.
2011: C Vladislav Namestnikov, 27th overall (B): The nephew of Yzerman’s former Red Wings teammate Vyacheslav Kozlov, Namestnikov has progressed well since beginning his pro career in Syracuse two seasons ago. The pivot more than doubled his totals in goals (19) and points (48) with the Crunch, despite appearing in just 56 games due to a broken hand. He made his NHL debut last season, but was held scoreless in four contests. But even with the ability to produce offensively, Namestnikov is strong at both ends of the ice, which should give him the opportunity to crack Tampa Bay’s lineup next season, even if it is as a third- or fourth-line center.
2010: W Brett Connolly, sixth overall (C): The reason so many Lightning prospects register incomplete grades can be attributed to the lesson learned by Tampa Bay in developing Connolly. Coming off a 46-goal season with Prince George (WHL), the Lightning added the winger to their lineup as a 19-year-old in 2011-12. He appeared in 68 games, but struggled with just four goals and 11 assists. Connolly joined Syracuse during the NHL lockout and regained confidence. But when the NHL resumed, Tampa Bay opted to leave Connolly in the minors. The winger responded well, posting at least one point in all but five of 22 games in January and February. He finished with 31 goals and 32 assists in 71 games. In 2013, though, Connolly found himself bumped down on the depth chart due to the success of Tampa Bay’s "Kid Line" of Palat, Johnson and Panik. Connolly’s numbers dipped last season, but not to a point of concern. Having just 16 NHL games to account for over the last two seasons, it is hard to judge whether this pick ends up being a bust due to Tampa Bay’s error or salvaged by patience.
2009: D Victor Hedman, second overall (A): During his first four seasons in the NHL, there was reason to believe early comparisons to Chris Pronger were premature. Hedman hovered around the 20- to 25-point plateau despite logging more than 20 minutes of ice time per game. He is defensively sound, with a good balance of physical play and shot-blocking ability. This past season, though, everything clicked. The Swede shattered his previous career highs in goals (13), assists (42), points (55) and plus-minus (5). His goal total alone was more than triple his average over the past four years. He finished fifth among NHL defensemen in points. There’s speculation that while he is not a finalist for the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman, his vote totals are at the very least among the top 10. At 23, there is still time for Hedman to grow offensively, especially with Tampa Bay boasting a young, talented group up front. Perhaps the Pronger comparisons are not far off after all.
2009: W Carter Ashton, 29th overall (F): The Lightning drafted Ashton on the heels of a 30-goal, 50-point season with Lethbridge (WHL). He had the frame of a power forward at 18, and NHL lineage in being the son of former player Brent. Despite playing for three different teams in the WHL in post-draft seasons, he posted decent numbers at the junior level, but nothing eye-popping. The same for his stint with Norfolk (AHL) in his pro debut. Despite posting 35 points in 56 games with the Admirals, Ashton struggled with consistency. On Feb. 27, 2012, Tampa Bay traded Ashton to the Toronto Maple Leafs for defenseman Keith Aulie.
D Brock Beukeboom, 2010, third-round, 63rd overall: Touted as blueliner with skill at both ends before the draft, frequent injuries derailed Beukeboom’s junior career. After posting a 26 points in 66 games with Sault Ste. Marie (OHL) in 2010, his numbers tailed off. The Lightning traded Beukeboom rights to the St. Louis Blues in exchange for defenseman Eric Brewer. The Blues opted not to sign Beukeboom. He received an opportunity to skate at New York Rangers development camp in 2013, but that did not result in a contract, either. The blueliner appeared in 20 games for University of Prince Edward Island (CIS) last season, registering three assists.
D Radko Gudas, 2010, third round, 66th overall: For as disappointing as Beukeboom turned out to be, Gudas ended up being a gem, selected just three picks later. The Czech became a full-time player this past season, logging nearly 20 minutes of ice time per game. And despite keeping a focus on physical play — he posted triple digits in hits (273) and blocked shots (138) — Gudas also contributed three goals and 22 assists.
W Ondrej Palat, 2011, seventh round, 208th overall: Even after posting 96 points in 61 games for Drummondville (QMJHL), Palat plummeted in his draft class. Following two years of seasoning in the AHL, the Czech displayed his offensive talents from juniors at the NHL level, posting a team-leading 59 points in 81 games last season. He’s a finalist for this year’s Calder Trophy, and if he wins, Palat would be the lowest drafted player to claim the award since Calgary’s Sergei Makarov in 1990.
G Kristers Gudlevskis, 2013, fifth round, 124th overall: The Latvian became the first player to appear in ECHL, AHL, NHL, Olympic Games and World Championship in the same season, which also happened to be the same year of his professional debut. With all indictions pointing to the Lightning declining to give restricted free agent Anders Lindback a qualifying offer, expect Gudlevskis to serve as Ben Bishop’s backup next season.
The breakdown of the past five drafts and how many players remain with the Lightning is as follows:
2013: 6 players drafted/1 on current roster/5 under contract