OTTAWA (AP) -Steven Stamkos has never been to Tampa Bay. That's very likely to change soon and, boy, will hockey fans know who the 18-year-old from Toronto is.
Barring a knock-your-socks off trade, which is unlikely, Stamkos will be selected by the Lightning with the No. 1 pick in the NHL draft on Friday night. It's a decision general manager Jay Feaster refers to as "idiot proof," while noting he already has the player penciled as the team's second-line center next season.
So sure have the Lightning been they'll select the NHL Central Scouting's top-ranked prospect that the team has already unveiled a marketing campaign, titled, "Seen Stamkos," which has included billboards, posters and even a Web site devoted to the player.
"That was pretty funny, one of my buddies showed me that site," Stamkos said Thursday. "It's a great honor that they think so highly of me. And hopefully everything works out and I end up in Tampa."
That's the plan, which Feaster refers to as "the worst-kept secret," while adding: "I think he's special. I don't think they come around all that often."
Listed at just under 6 feet and 176 pounds, Stamkos is a skilled two-way player with exceptional speed, who produced 197 points (100 goals, 97 assists) in 124 games with Sarnia of the Ontario Hockey League over the past two seasons.
Central Scouting director E.J. McGuire compares the 18-year-old to a young Joe Sakic.
"He's far and away the guy who will play next year in the league," McGuire said. "He'll be exciting. And he'll fulfill the prophecy that he'll bring people out of the seats."
What happens after the Lightning pick, though, is anyone's guess, as trade rumors have dominated the days leading up to the two-day draft in Ottawa, that concludes with Rounds 2-7 on Saturday.
Los Angeles Kings general manager Dean Lombardi said it's 50-50 as to whether he'll keep or trade the No. 2 pick.
Atlanta has the No. 3 selection, which GM Don Waddell intends to keep to land one of several highly touted prospect defensemen. St. Louis picks fourth, followed by the New York Islanders.
Columbus, with two first-round picks (Nos. 6 and 19), is looking to make a trade to land a quality center. The Buffalo Sabres are interested in dealing forward Maxim Afinogenov. And the Boston Bruins are interested in dealing forward Glen Murray. Then there's uncertainty in Pittsburgh, which stands to lose Marian Hossa and Ryan Malone to free agency.
One reason for all the speculation is in part due to numerous teams eager to move into the top 10 to get a chance at a draft class considered by NHL Central Scouting officials to be among the deepest in recent memory.
It's a group that includes two U.S.-born players: Zach Bogosian, who's from Massena, N.Y., and rated second among North American skaters; and defenseman Tyler Myers, who was born in Houston but moved with his family to Alberta when he was 10.
Another is the lack of elite veteran players projected to hit the free-agent market on July 1. That's different from last year, when Scott Gomez, Daniel Briere, Chris Drury, Ryan Smyth and Paul Kariya all made big splashes in free agency.
"There's lots of free agents, but not like last year's class," St. Louis Blues president John Davidson said, noting he's not sure what he'll do with the No. 4 selection. "People are trying to go over that a little bit to improve their teams."
What's clear is that this draft features what's considered one of the best crop of defensemen.
Bogosian and fellow defenseman Drew Doughty are expected to go with picks Nos. 2 and 3, players regarded by Waddell as "the cream of the crop."
The run on defensemen might not end there as it's possible five defensemen are selected with the first 10 picks, including Myers, who's listed at 6 feet 7 and 204 pounds.
The top-ranked international prospect is Russian Nikita Filatov, who had 66 points (32 goals, 34 assists) in 34 games with CSKA2 of the Russian 3 League.
NHL teams recently have avoided selecting Russian-born players because of the lack of a transfer agreement with the Russian Ice Hockey Federation. Aware of the concern, Filatov is so eager to play in the NHL that he's prepared to play for a Canadian Junior Hockey League team next season, rather than return to Russia, should he fail to make the roster of the team that drafts him.