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Draft Depth in Lightning's Favor

by Mark Pukalo / Tampa Bay Lightning
It takes time to get the final answer on how good a draft crop really is.

The Hockey News recently did a story on how bad the 1999 draft turned out. The Alexander Ovechkin-Evgeny Malkin draft of 2004 is looking pretty good right now. The 2005 draft, with Sidney Crosby leading the way, doesn’t look bad either.

Many experts think this year’s list of draft-eligible players could turn out to be as good or maybe better as a whole. It is solid at the top, in the middle and at the end.

“There’s been a lot of high-end players out of the last few drafts,” Lightning Executive Vice President and General Manager Brian Lawton said. “This draft strikes me as one that has more depth than we’ve seen.”

The Lightning own the second pick in the draft, two in the second round and another in the middle of the third.

E.J. McGuire, the NHL’s Director of Central Scouting, said it is definitely a good year to have a pair of second-round choices.

“Those kids [rated in the second round] will play in the NHL a few years down the road,” McGuire said.

Lawton, who recruited draftees as an agent for 14 years, likes the position the team is in and has said he would like to add even more choices in the later rounds (they have picks in the fourth, sixth and seventh rounds).

The first round is June 26 in Montreal and the Lightning currently hold the second overall pick of the day and on June 27 they hold the No. 32 overall selection as well as the No. 52, acquired from Philadelphia in the trade deadline deal involving Vaclav Prospal in 2008. The third-round pick, 75th overall, was acquired along with defenseman Noah Welch, for defenseman Steve Eminger in March.

“I’ve seen some really good players that are rated in the 30-50 range,” Lawton said. “There are some real good guys to be had in the second and third round.

“We’re looking at all our options. We have a certain group of players we may move up to get. We have other guys that may make us move down.”

Scoring whiz John Tavares and hulking, smooth-skating Swedish defenseman Victor Hedman lead the way and dynamic center Matt Duchesne has made the biggest leap to be part of the top group in most ratings.

Last year was the year of the defenseman, with four going in order after the Lightning nabbed center Steven Stamkos No. 1 overall. There were 10 defensemen picked in the top 20 and 25 in the first two rounds. McGuire said it is possible there won’t be a goalie picked in the first round this year and there is a bit more depth among the forwards than in 2008. There’s also another group that will be very prominent.

“It’s the year of the Swede,” McGuire said.

The Swedish junior team, which lost to Canada in the final of the World Junior Championships in January, had a lot of draft-eligible players this time around. The top eight skaters in Central Scouting’s European ratings are from Sweden -- 17 of the top 30. Robin Lehner, another Swede, is the top-rated European goalie. Of the top 32 in the Hockey News ratings, which include all draft eligible players, seven are from Sweden.

Many of the Swedes, such as Hedman, winger Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson, as well as defensemen David Rundblad and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, have already played against men in the top league in their country.

Nine players from last year’s draft made opening-night rosters in the NHL and 12 played in the league. McGuire said that trend is likely to continue. One reason is economics in the salary-cap era. The second is the ability of the teenagers.

“Every year, the kids are more ready, more fit for the NHL,” McGuire said. “They are also cheaper, and if they need a few years to develop, they become prize assets in the bank for a franchise.”

The Lightning hope to get both this year. A goal is to increase the depth of talent in Norfolk, the Lightning’s American Hockey affiliate. The Admirals finished strong (6-3-1 in last 10), but missed the playoffs again.

“We want to upgrade that,” Lawton said. “We want to have more than a competitive team down there where our guys are getting the most out of the season, development-wise.”

The depth in this draft can help achieve that goal. It could also provide the Lightning with immediate impact.

“We finished 29th out of 30, but this is not a rebuild situation for us,” Lawton said. “We feel we can retool this club on the fly. But we’ve got to make some solid draft picks.”
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