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Lightning have knack for finding upside in undrafted players

by Peter Pupello / Tampa Bay Lightning

The Tampa Bay Lightning are seemingly becoming experts at proving that the NHL Draft is far from an exact science.

How exactly?

Consider that none of the team’s 14 first or second round picks from 1999-2007, with the exception of perhaps Dana Tyrell and Matt Smaby, made a splash at the NHL level.

Yet, even during that span, the Lightning still managed to find success by acquiring players, who in contrast, actually went undrafted.

The pinnacle of that success came in 2004, when the Lightning won the Stanley Cup. While Brad Richards may have been the one to skate off with the Conn Smythe Trophy that year as the postseason’s most valuable player, two of his teammates in particular certainly just as much proved their worth.

With the Calgary Flames leading the best-of-seven Stanley Cup Finals series three-games-to-two, Martin St. Louis scored the game-winner in double overtime of Game 6 to tie the series at three games apiece and force a decisive Game 7 in Tampa Bay.

Two nights later, Ruslan Fedotenko scored twice, including the game-winner, in the final contest of the series to propel the Bolts to their first-ever championship in franchise history.

The drama alone that unfolded during those 48 hours makes the story of the Lightning’s 2004 Stanley Cup championship run compelling enough.

But here’s the kicker: Both St. Louis and Fedotenko went undrafted.

There was also a third member of that team, Dan Boyle, who also went undrafted, and like St. Louis, didn't find success in the NHL until joining the Lightning.

Although both management and personnel has changed since then, the trend of discovering upside in undrafted players, for the most part, hasn’t.

Take for example, Teddy Purcell.

Undrafted out of the University of Maine, Purcell struggled to earn playing time as a member of the Los Angeles Kings before being acquired in a trade with the Lightning in March 2010. Since arriving, Purcell has recorded back-to-back career years in each of his first two full seasons with the Bolts and has transformed himself from virtually an unknown player to a top-six forward in the NHL.

Lightning forward Teddy Purcell originally went undrafted out of the University of Maine.

Few would disagree that in each case, there lies a nice story, but there is also a clear precedent that Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman is now following.

Since being appointed as general manager in May of 2010, Yzerman has expressed the importance of developing young players within the team’s own farm system.

That includes drafting well, but as Yzerman has illustrated, it also entails scouring the college and junior ranks for talent that has otherwise been overlooked.

Among those that the Lightning have discovered are the reigning AHL MVP and goal-scoring leader in Cory Conacher, the AHL’s seventh-leading scorer this past season in Tyler Johnson, a proven AHL veteran in Mike Angelidis, the AHL’s sixth-leading scorer this past season in Trevor Smith and a sized forward in Pierre-Cedric Labrie, who despite all going undrafted, put up big numbers this season with the team’s top affiliate in Norfolk. Angelidis, Smith and Labrie also were among those who saw action at the NHL level in 2011-12 in a call-up role.

In some cases it’s hard to believe, but there is logistical reasoning as to why certain players often are caught flying under the radar.

According to the Lightning’s Director of Amateur Scouting Al Murray, the evaluation process begins with a team’s scouting department and trickles down through the front office and even the coaching staff.

Age and size, of course, always seems to be a factor as to why certain players go undrafted, but in certain cases, there are also coaches in the collegiate or junior ranks who simply don’t invest the time that it takes to help a player mature physically and mentally. In those cases, it is up to the players themselves to continue to work hard, and perhaps do what is more difficult, which is to keep their own confidence level high.

“It’s not an easy thing to do, especially when you see other guys getting called up instead of you, you can start to question yourself and question your ability,” Angelidis said. “But you also have to remember that every player takes a different path to the NHL, so that serves as a little reminder to keep competing and working hard and just doing the things that you can control.”

That the undrafted players currently in the Lightning’s system have found success is just as much a testament to their own talents as it is to the keen eye of Yzerman, Murray and the rest of the Lightning’s hockey operations and scouting staff.

Rather than sacrificing prospects and picks for the goal of trying to win a Stanley Cup immediately, going after overlooked and late blooming undrafted free agents has helped Tampa Bay restock its cupboard by utilizing an efficient method outside of the annual NHL Entry Draft.

Historically, the approach has paid off. Currently, however, it serves as a reminder of something that perhaps Conacher himself said best:

“It’s not important how you get to the NHL, all that matters is that you get there.”


Undrafted Player Lightning Years Lightning Totals
Dino Ciccarelli 1996-98 46g-31a-77p in 111 GP
Dan Boyle 2001-08 66g-187a-253p in 394 GP
Martin St. Louis 2000-Present 319g-513a-832p in 862 GP
Ruslan Fedotenko 2002-07 74g-70a-144p in 313 GP
Teddy Purcell 2010-Present 44g-81a-125p in 181 GP
Dwayne Roloson 2011-Present 31-28-7-5 in 74 GP
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