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Lightning May Benefit from Deep Draft

by Mark Pukalo / Tampa Bay Lightning

The 2003 NHL Draft is often used as the gold standard for top-level talent.

Future all-stars could be picked throughout the first two rounds. For example, Nashville selected their current top two defensemen Ryan Suter at seventh overall and Shea Weber at 49th, as well as arguably their third best in Kevin Klein at 37. Others filled their roster with two important players.

The 2011 group that will be selected at the NHL Entry Draft in St. Paul June 24-25 may not live up to the overall star power of 2003, but many think that there are very productive players waiting to be picked through the first two rounds.

The Lightning don’t have a third or fourth round pick, due to trades for Eric Brewer and Simon Gagne, but the opportunity is still there at picks No. 27 and 58.

“You always want more picks, but we’re pretty comfortable that we’re going to get two good prospects,” Lightning Director of Amateur Scouting Al Murray said. “We think the strength of this draft is in the top two rounds. After that, you hope for a late-bloomer or a guy you like who falls into your hands in the fifth, sixth and seventh rounds.”

NHL Network analyst Craig Button, a former Director of Scouting for the Dallas Stars and GM for Calgary Flames, said this draft has a lot of quality and variety. If you want a big defenseman, an offensive defenseman, a solid two-way center, a skilled, fast wing, you likely won’t run out of options in the first 60 picks.

Darryl Plandowski, the Lightning’s head amateur scout, said it is difficult to project how strong a draft is going to be now. Still, this group has some promising characteristics.

“Coming from the scouting combine, it looked like a smaller, less developed group, which can be a really good thing going forward,” Plandowski said. “There were a lot of guys 175 pounds, instead of 195. There is potential for them to get stronger. Now it comes down to which kids want to get stronger.”

Murray and Plandowski said size is not a factor, but the smaller players they are consider will have desire, explosiveness and power.

Plandowski said Corey Perry, a Hart Trophy finalist, was a little weak when he was drafted 28th in 2003. He made the effort to get better. The key for the teams with multiple picks in the first two rounds is to unlock the secrets to their hearts.

First off the board

Button said one of the other characteristics that the 2003 and 2011 drafts share is the balance among the top picks.

Marc-Andre Fleury (1st), Eric Staal (2nd), Nathan Horton (3rd) and Thomas Vanek (5th) were close in 2003 and you could make a case for as many as a half dozen to go first next Friday.

The likely No. 1 pick next Friday might be the first to not play in the NHL the next season since Erik Johnson (2006). Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has emerged on many lists as the top-rated player, but at 6-foot11, 170 pounds, he may need a year of physical development.

“A lot of people say, why don’t you get the guy that’s NHL ready?” Button said. “But I’ve always been a believer that you pick the player that’s going to help your team for the longest period of time. We drafted Mike Modano first overall when I was in Minnesota. Could he have played in the NHL right away? Yeah. But we sent him back to juniors. We all know what kind of player Mike became.”

Nugent-Hopkins had 31 goals and 106 points for Red Deer of the Western Hockey League after failing to make Team Canada for the World Junior Championships.

“I just see a kid that is so prolific at what he does,” Button said. “He excels at playmaking, creativity and he is so elusive. Some people talk about him not being that big. But he plays big in big games. I’ve seen him play many times and nobody gets a piece of him, deters him.”

Perhaps the most NHL-ready players are 6-3, 200-pound defenseman Adam Larsson from Sweden and Swedish-born winger Gabriel Landeskog, at 6-1, 207 pounds, who was captain of Kitchener in the Ontario Hockey League this season.

Button said Larsson will benefit playing on the smaller, North American rinks with his physicality and Landeskog is a thoughtful, intelligent leader. Larsson made it to the Swedish Elite League as a 16-year-old.

Center Jonathan Huberdeau from Memorial Cup Champion Saint John Sea Dogs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League may have made the biggest leap in the last year and could go as high as first or second after a 105-point season.

“He’s a complete player,” Button said of the Memorial Cup MVP. “Whatever a game throws at him, he’s able to do well.”

Button is also high on Niagara (OHL) center Ryan Strome, comparing to Denis Savard.

“Whenever he gets the puck, you think something special could happen,” Button said.

Four other players who are likely to end up in the top 10 include Dan Boyle-like offensive defenseman Ryan Murphy from Kitchener, skilled Drummondville (QJHL) center Sean Couturier and two-way defenseman Dougie Hamilton from Niagara. Then there’s the Persian Prince. Center Mika Zibanejad, who has an Iranian father and Finnish mother, played his two-way game in the Swedish Elite League. Button compares him to Bobby Holik.

“[Zibanejad] is not going to be a prolific scorer,” Button said. “But his goals are all going to be important.”

Defensemen Duncan Siemens from Saskatoon and Nathan Beaulieu of Saint John, and Finnish forward Joel Armia, among others, could also slip into the bottom of the top 10.

Finding the gems

Plandowski said after the first 10 picks or so, the draft often “goes bananas.”

“It will happen again this year,” he said.

One team’s treasure is projected much lower on another team’s board. Murray said that is why only a few mock drafts and ratings have a real pulse on what the order might be, but even the more thorough ratings “are all over the map this year.”

That could end up making a lot of teams happy.

“It’s certainly more difficult to try and identify guys who are going to be NHL players later in the draft,” Murray said. “But after a top 10 that are very strong this year, I think every team in the first round might get the 11th best player on their list, because there’s a large group of players behind the top group that all have various strengths and weaknesses.”

In 2003, Jeff Carter went 11th, Dustin Brown 13th, Brent Seabrook 14th, Zach Parise 17th and Ryan Getzlaf 19th. The star power didn’t stop there. Brent Burns went 20th, Ryan Kesler 23rd, Mike Richards 24th and Perry 28th. Loui Eriksson, Patrice Bergeron, Matt Carle, Weber, Corey Crawford, David Backes and Jimmy Howard all went in the second round. Lee Stempniak also went in the fifth round and Joe Pavelski in the seventh. Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom were both selected in the now-defunct eighth round.

The Lightning would love to get a guy like Boston picked in the sixth round in 2003 – current Bolts forward Nate Thompson.

The key, Plandowski said, is finding players that love the game and want to compete.

“I think we’ll be able to find players that have the attributes [Yzerman] wants for the organization,” Murray said. “We’re optimistic.”

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