The prevailing thought over the last couple seasons has been the need for the Tampa Bay Lightning to add defensive depth, not just at the NHL level but throughout the organization.
The Lightning have been searching for a coveted right-handed shot defenseman for the last three seasons at the trade deadline, but other than bringing in Braydon Coburn during the Stanley Cup Final season in 2014-15, that perfect fit has proven elusive.
But with the addition last week of the highly-touted Mikhail Sergachev, a left-hand shot, through a trade with Montreal for Jonathan Drouin combined with the rise of prospects like Jake Dotchin and Slater Koekkoek, the need for help on the blueline doesn't appear to be as severe as it once was.
Too, the Lightning were able to acquire Erik Cernak, a former second round pick, from Los Angeles in the trade deadline deal that sent Ben Bishop to the Kings. And the Lightning have drafted well at the position over the last couple of years, recent picks Libor Hajek and Matt Spencer ready to make the jump full-time to the AHL in the upcoming season.
The need for the Lightning to stack the pipeline with defensive prospects isn't as pressing as it once was, and for that reason, it's likely Tampa Bay will take a best-player-available approach to this weekend's NHL Entry Draft at Chicago's United Center, which begins with the first round on Friday and continues Saturday with rounds two through seven.
"We've got some young D that are coming now with Mikhail Sergachev, Slater, Jake," Tampa Bay general manager Steve Yzerman said during his pre-Draft availability on Thursday. "We're really pleased with the development of Ben (Thomas) and (Dominik) Masin in Syracuse this year. Libor Hajek had a real good year, and we're looking forward to seeing Cernak and Spencer move into the American League. So they're coming. To target a specific position is difficult, and, really, most of these kids are three to five years away from playing and your team can change in that period of time. So, we try to get the best prospect with the pick that we have."
After dealing their second round pick in the upcoming draft along with a fourth round pick in 2018 and the negotiating rights to unsigned prospect Nikita Gusev to Vegas to ensure the Golden Knights would select Jason Garrison in the Expansion Draft, the Lightning hold just six picks in this weekend's draft. Tampa Bay holds the 14th overall pick, the 48th pick (second round) and the 76th pick (third round). The Lightning don't have a fourth or fifth round selection but have two available in the sixth (Nos. 169 and 180) and a single pick in the seventh (No. 200).
While the experts have pegged this draft class as lacking of talent at the top end unlike the previous few, there are still plenty of good players available. It's just a matter of finding those gems that can assimilate into the system and mature into NHL-caliber players in a few years.
"There are good prospects there, in the first round and throughout the draft," Yzerman said. "Time will tell, and you don't have an Auston Matthews or a Connor McDavid player this year, but I would think the teams picking first, second or third are pretty excited about their options right now."
The Lightning are unlikely to move up into one of those first handful of picks. Dallas, at No. 3, has been rumored to be shopping its pick, but Yzerman said the cost to move up that far would outweigh the benefits of doing so.
"I don't know how I could get that high without doing something ludicrous," he said.
With only six draft picks -- less than in recent years and considerably less than last season when the Lightning had three second round picks and selected 10 players total in Buffalo - the Bolts will have to make the most of their limited opportunities this weekend.
"We're not trying to make bad picks, regardless if we have 10 or six," Yzerman said. "We knew coming into this draft and part of it at the deadline was we better do some things to acquire picks because we might be having to buy ourselves out of, and we gave up two picks already to move, we had to give up a pick in the deal to move Val. We had to give up two picks here, a second round pick, to protect our assets and move Jason's contract. We knew we would potentially be in this position I guess without having as many picks, and it was important to acquire more just for that reason alone."
The Lightning might try to acquire additional picks as the 2017 Draft unfolds, but that's a proposition that will depend on how this weekend's draft plays out.
"It's more, the only way I can do it is if I trade back in the draft," Yzerman said. "That really happens pretty quickly on the floor because everybody's list depends on how things are evolving and shaping up. Either your phone starts ringing or it doesn't. It would really depend on our list, how the draft is unfolding and other teams. All of our lists are different. Some guys want to trade up and some guys' lists look different and say, 'I'm comfortable moving back.' Really the situation will determine whether we attempt to move up or move back."