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Lightning Look To Continue Building Foundation Through Strong Draft

by Mark Pukalo / Tampa Bay Lightning

You can make good trades and sign the right free agents, but NHL teams better be good at the draft table if they are to lift the Stanley Cup.

From the 1970s and 80s when the Edmonton Oilers and New York Islanders built dynasties with smart decisions, to June 11 when the Los Angeles Kings won it all, making the correct choices on which 17-19 year olds to add to the organization has been essential.

Of the 22 who suited up for the Kings in the 2011-12 playoff run, 12 were drafted by the team and four others were acquired through trades of players they selected. Scott Parse, selected in 2004, also played nine games for the Kings in the regular season before being injured.

Lightning Director of Amateur Scouting Al Murray had the same job with the Kings for more than a decade before joining Team Canada in 2007. He picked Captain Dustin Brown in 2003, along with Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Quick in 2005. From the 2003 draft to 2009, Los Angeles added at least one player to its current roster every year.

“You are always looking to put a nucleus of players together that can stay as a group and grow,” Murray said. “When you look at the great organizations over the years, Detroit has been able to do that, Edmonton and the Islanders did it, New Jersey as well. It’s much easier if you can add a couple pieces every year to a solid core. You can maintain an organizational depth and maintain a high position in the standings year after year. If you only have that one big draft, or two, it’s difficult to keep that team together.”

When Lightning Vice President and GM Steve Yzerman took over in 2010, one of his goals was to build organizational depth and the dividends are starting to pay off. The American Hockey League affiliate Norfolk Admirals finished the season 43-3 over their final 46 games to win the Calder Cup and several young players will fight for roster spots next fall.

Tampa Bay could be on one of those draft runs, which started in 2007 with Dana Tyrell and Alex Killorn. Steven Stamkos, Dustin Tokarski and Mark Barberio were added in 2008, followed by Victor Hedman, Richard Panik and Jaroslav Janus. Brett Connolly, Radko Gudas and college standout Jimmy Mullin joined the pipeline in 2010.

Murray came for the 2011 draft and picked Vladmir Namestnikov, who had a big year in juniors this season, and Russian prospects Nikita Kucherov and Nikita Nesterov. Ondrej Palat, picked in the seventh round last year, became an integral part of the Admirals’ run. The Lightning also signed talented free-agent rookies J.T. Brown, AHL Player of the Year Cory Conacher and Tyler Johnson.

“I think we are [on a good run],” Murray said. “The people before me have put some nice players in place.

“You have to keep an open mind by looking at all different areas, whether it’s Europe, North America, junior or college free agents or late-maturing guys. If you can get enough players of any type that can play, you can trade some of them for what you might be missing.”

The Kings traded 2000 draft pick Lubomir Visnovsky to Edmonton for Jarret Stoll and Matt Greene, who both played key roles this season. They also traded picks Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn to Philadelphia to get Mike Richards. Their second No. 1 pick in 2008, Colten Teubert, was shipped to Edmonton for Dustin Penner.

The Lightning had a surplus in forwards, which allowed them to trade 2009 first-round pick Carter Ashton to Toronto for defenseman Keith Aulie last March.

Murray said it’s essential to keep supplementing the base of talent after three or four solid years of drafting, “because you are going to lose players in the salary cap era.”

It is also difficult to keep that run going, because when you are close to a championship it is tempting to trade picks for veteran players.

Some of the best teams have put together amazing years of drafting, starting with the Islanders. In a six-year period, New York added nine or 10 players that were important to winning Cups from 1980-83. Bob Nystrom was picked in 1972, Denis Potvin went first overall in 1973, Clark Gillies and Bryan Trottier came in 1974, Ken Morrow in 1976 and Mike Bossy in 1977.

Edmonton added Wayne Gretzky in a 1978 trade, then picked Kevin Lowe, Mark Messier and Glenn Anderson in 1979. Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri and Andy Moog came in 1980, while Grant Fuhr and Steve Smith were added in 1981. Only Coffey and Fuhr were picked in the top 20. The Oilers won cups in 1984, 85, 87, 88 and 90.

Yzerman’s 1997 and 98 Cup teams in Detroit were built with some intelligent drafting. Nicklas Lidstrom, Sergei Federov and Vladimir Konstantinov were picked in 1989, Slava Kozlov in 1990 and Martin Lapointe, Chris Osgood and Mike Knuble in 1991. In addition, the Wings picked Keith Primeau in 1990 and traded him for Brendan Shanahan. Of all the selections, only Primeau and Lapointe were picked in the top 44. Detroit also picked Pavel Datsyuk (1998) and Henrik Zetterberg (1999) in the sixth and seventh rounds, respectively, to help build a 2003 Cup winner.

In 1998, the Lightning picked four players who were part of the 2004 Cup winners – Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards, Dmitry Afanasenkov and Martin Cibak. The Bolts also selected Pavel Kubina in 1996 and Paul Mara in 1997, before trading him in a deal for Nikolai Khabibulin.

It takes preparation, quick thinking at the draft table, some guts and plenty of luck to get on a drafting streak that leads to a championship.

“You prepare a list of athletes that you believe are top players and you want to add to your organization,” Murray said. “But, most of the time, you get only one pick every 30 selections and you have to hope that other teams see things a little differently.

“A lot of it comes down to directions from the top, on what attributes you want your players to have. We’ve had great direction from [Yzerman]. We can focus in on certain types of players. There is a plan in place. You have to have that core of players that matches what your management wants.”

The Lightning are building that foundation and history says that could pay off soon.

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