Steven Stamkos was the obvious first choice overall for the Lightning in 2008.
Even though Islanders GM Garth Snow’s poker face and evasive interviews and signals added to the intrigue, Victor Hedman seemed destined for Tampa Bay with the second pick last year.
This time around, trying to guess the Lightning’s first pick at the NHL Entry Draft Friday night at the Staples Center in Los Angeles is a difficult proposition. Mock drafts done by experts all over the hockey world have projected the Lightning to pick many different players at No. 6.
It would be a shock if forwards Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin did not go with the first two overall picks, but the next three selections will set the table for the Lightning.
“You never know what is going to happen,” said Jim Hammett, the Lightning’s director of player personnel. “After the top two guys, not much is going to surprise me. From everything we hear opinions on some players are varied.”
It can be argued that three defensemen could go third, fourth and fifth. Still, Florida at three, Columbus at four and the Islanders at five could go another way, or even trade down. None of the scenarios are bad news for the Lightning.
“In talking to our guys, there are a lot of good players, a lot of different directions you can go,” Lightning vice president and GM Steve Yzerman said. “We’re confident that we’re going to get a guy that’s going to be a highly-skilled player in the NHL for a long time. I don’t think we’re going to get a player that’s going to play for us next year in Tampa. You’re getting a 17, 18, 19-year old boy who is going to need a couple years to develop.”
Hammett said the scouting staff has narrowed its list down to six or seven players for the sixth pick, but have gone through every imaginable scenario possible. They are excited about the pick.
“We’ll take the best player available,” said Darryl Plandowski, the Lightning’s head amateur scout. “We have needs, but I think you’re crazy not to just take the top player. We’re after a difference maker.”
So who are the top possibilities at No. 6? You can make a case for five defensemen, seven forwards and a well-decorated goalie.
The defensemen all have different characteristics.
Cam Fowler, at 6-foot-1, 190 pounds from Michigan, is an outstanding skater with perhaps the biggest offensive upside of the group. He helped the United States win the World Juniors in January and won the Memorial Cup with Windsor earlier this month.
“He’s a power-play specialist right now,” said E.J. McGuire, the NHL’s director of central scouting. “But he also has the size and potential to become a tremendous all-around player.”
Erik Gudbranson has made his presence known in the defensive zone for Kingston, using his 6-4, 195-pound frame. He was also named the Ontario Hockey League’s scholastic player of the year, an award won by Stamkos in 2006-07 and Colorado’s Matt Duchene last year.
“He has a mean streak,” McGuire said. “But he is also a very good passer.”
Brandon Gormley played a lot of minutes paired with Lightning prospect Mark Barberio for the Moncton Wildcats, winners of the Quebec Junior Hockey League. Gormley could be considered a cross between Gudbanson and Fowler, with solid skills in every zone.
Moncton coach Danny Flynn said Gormley needs time and strength, but he has already shown the ability to come up huge in big games. Gormley reminds Flynn of a young Wade Redden.
“He’s not going to pull you out of your seat with an end to end rush or a big hit,” Flynn said. “But he’s got poise and great hockey sense. He plays a smart, smart game. He’s the steady defenseman every team wants.”
Mark Pysyk and Derek Forbort have also been mentioned as possible top-10 picks. Pysyk, touted for his tremendous skating ability, was a hard read this season due to a foot injury and playing for a struggling Edmonton Oil Kings team (16 wins in 72 games). Forbort, from Duluth, Minnesota, is known as a strong skater for his size (6-5, 198).
Gudbranson and Pysyk are right shots and the other three are lefties.
The forwards are a diverse group as well.
The biggest dilemma will be where Brett Connolly will land. The 6-2, 181-pound right wing from British Columbia has struggled with injuries to both hips. McGuire compares Connolly to Peter Forsberg, not only because of his talent, but his injury problems. Team doctors will be very important in the decision. If it is merely one year of bad injury luck for Connolly, some team might just get the best player in the draft.
After Connolly, two Portland Winterhawks, two Russians, a Finnish flash and a scoring dynamo from Kitchener of the OHL could be considered.
Center Ryan Johansen and wing Nino Niederreiter combined for 61 goals and 129 points in Portland this season.
The 6-2, 201-pound Niederreiter had an outstanding World Juniors for Switzerland. McGuire said he answered every skeptic along the way and Portland coach Mike Johnston said “El Nino” showed great personal qualities.
“He wanted to come over and prove he could play in North America,” Johnston said. “He is extremely focused. He’s a good kid and a good teammate. He had the knack of rising up and playing his best hockey at the right times.”
Johansen is 6-2, 192 and has to fill out and get much stronger. Johnston said he looks like he’s 14, but his game and attitude are mature.
“He’s got outstanding skill,” Johnston said. “He has great vision and protects the puck well. He has everything you need in a center. There are very few areas of the game he is not top notch.”
The Russians may be as big a gamble as Connolly. The difference in them is that Alexander Burmistrov played on North America for Barrie of the OHL this season and Vladimir Tarasenko for HC Sibir in Russia’s KHL.
Burmistrov has incredible skills, scoring more than a point a game for the Colts, but he is listed at 157 pounds and may be smaller. Tarasenko is 6-0, 191 and had 13 goals in 42 games in the KHL, starting the season as a 17-year old.
Another European who could go in the top 10 is Mikael Granlund from Finland. He had 40 points in 43 games in the Finnish League and shined at World Junior competitions. He has had 26 points in 12 games at the Under-18 Worlds over two years and had a goal and six assists in six World Junior matches last winter. Granlund, at 5-10, 180, is compared to countryman Saku Koivu – small, but tough.
Jeff Skinner can flat-out score. The 5-10, 182-pound center, who was once a figure skater, had 50 goals and 90 points for Kitchener of the OHL and 77 goals over two seasons. He also had 20 goals in 20 playoff games. Some mock drafts have him going in the top 10, but he is ranked 25th overall by The Hockey News and 34th by CSB among North American skaters. The International Scouting Service ranks Skinner ninth overall.
Another wildcard is goalie Jack Campbell. Will someone deal up to get the goalie who has won two Under-18 World titles and a World Junior title? Teams like winners. Not only has he won, but he will be playing with Windsor next year, winners of the past two Memorial Cups.
All should make for must-see TV on Versus Friday night.
Rounds 2-7 will start at 1 p.m. EST Saturday. The Lightning currently hold picks No. 63, 66, 72, 96 and 118 in the third and fourth rounds.
“We like having multiple picks in the third round,” Hammett said. “That gives us a lot of options.”