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Lightning look to make most of top picks in 2012 NHL Entry Draft

by Mark Pukalo / Tampa Bay Lightning

More than a year of preparation work in rinks from British Columbia to Eastern Europe has been done.

With a little more than six weeks left, the Tampa Bay Lightning scouting staff can take a breath and evaluate the many reports and piles of data on hundreds of players eligible for the 2012 NHL Entry Draft on June 22-23 in Pittsburgh.

Every draft is important, but this one holds special significance for the Lightning and the league. The Bolts currently have four selections in the top 40, including the 10th and either 19th or 20th, and many experts think that the talent level of players throughout the first few rounds is very close.

“We think there are 12 real quality guys,” Lightning Director of Amateur Scouting Al Murray said. “Then there is another group of about 30 guys who are all very comparable and we’re going to get several of those.”

Murray said recently that they are about 90 percent done, but will hone in on the tougher decisions after seeing the players at the combine later this month where they put the athletes through interviews and gain more in-depth information.

TSN scout and NHL Network analyst Craig Button said, while this group of players might not have the potential star quality that the 2013 draft pool possesses 1-15, there are plenty of future NHL performers available.

“Every draft has its own DNA,” said Button, former GM of the Calgary Flames and Director of Player Personnel for the Minnesota North Stars and Dallas Stars. “This year’s pool of players is unique. There are a lot of defensemen in the draft that are going to play in the NHL and have success. They are all different types of players.”

Button said he doesn’t see a big delineation between a large group of players, which makes the decision-making even more difficult.

The fact that there are a lot of players who have dealt with injuries in the last year will make the combine medicals an even more important part of the process. Murray said that team doctors will be allowed to attend the combine in Toronto for the first time to make their own evaluations.

Whether consensus No. 1 pick Nail Yakupov suffered a concussion seems to be a mystery, but it won’t likely change his draft status. Highly-rated defenseman Morgan Rielly and talented Russian center Alex Galchenyuk suffered torn ACLs and many others missed time with injuries. Murray said seven of the top 12 players were not at a CHL top prospects game in February.

“I can’t remember a year when so many of the top players were hurt for such extended periods of time,” Murray said.

Still, Murray said, with such advances in surgery for athletes over the years, the only injuries that worry teams much these days are concussions and structural back issues.

The lack for additional viewings of some players this season might affect draft boards for certain teams, according the Murray. But teams follow players for several years.

Button said he is a believer that scouts have to go into a game thinking this could be the last time they get to see a particular player. He often remembers something former Edmonton scout Barry Fraser, who drafted Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Kevin Lowe, Grant Fuhr and Jari Kurri among others, told him.

“He used to say, ‘When you go see a player and you really think he is NHL quality, don’t go back and see him again,’” Button said. “Once you are comfortable with an assessment, be confident with it.”

Lightning rookie Brett Connolly missed much of the season before the 2010 draft with hip issues, but has had no problems since. Button said Connolly would have been in the discussion for No. 1 with Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin if not for the injuries. He went sixth. Teams who have struggled for years do not want to make mistakes though and may be more conservative, especially with a high pick.

The Lightning drafted Brett Connolly in 2010 despite the forward's battle with hip issues at the time.

Only one defenseman was picked in the first eight last year. There could be as much as five, even six, go by then this time around. But with many skillful European forwards like Yakupov, fellow Russians Galchenyuk and Mikhail Grigorenko, Swede Filip Forsberg, Fin Teuvo Teravainen and Czech Radek Faksa, things could go totally differently.

There is a little bit of everything in top 14-15 rated players. It is one of those years when team’s boards are likely to be quite varied, perhaps after Yakupov. A pair of interesting goaltenders could creep up the list as well.

“You can get what you want,” Murray said. “You may end up with the top 14-15 teams in the draft all saying they got the guy they really had high and they wouldn’t be lying."

“[GM Steve Yzerman] has been really clear. He wants the best players. Some people automatically assume that we’re heavy looking at defensemen. That might be a misconception. We’re going to take the guy that we think is going to be the best NHL player. If you try to fit a square peg into a bit of a round hole, the guy isn’t good enough to play for you and not good enough that you can’t get anything for him, you’ve lost an asset.”

Murray thinks this is a good year to have “a lot of kicks at the can.” They also have flexibility with two first-round picks and as many as four second-round selections to move up or down.

“It was a painful season to go through to get to this place,” Murray said. “But now we’re going to make sure we take full advantage of what we have.”

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