By GeoFitz (@)
At the beginning of 2010, the Tampa Bay Lightning were a struggling franchise. The OK Hockey ownership group was a mess with two partners who didn’t like each other and who were too busy feuding between themselves to run the team. The general manager was… well, not the greatest in the world, but he was doing his best after Jay Feaster left the team with an OK roster and a bad farm system. And the NHL was covering the team’s payroll because ownership had run out of money.
The on ice product was just OK Hockey despite having some current and future stars in Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis to go with recently drafted youngsters Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman.
Then along came Jeff Vinik, Tampa’s hockey savior. The story goes he was first introduced to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman by a mutual friend and expressed an interest in getting into the NHL ownership arena. Vinik was already involved in a sports franchise as a minority owner of the Boston Red Sox. He had been a highly successful hedge fund manager in the 90s. He was not a billionaire, but he was well off and ownership of an NHL team was within his means.
And so, he eventually bought the Lightning in March of 2010. Reports of the purchase price have varied between $94 million and $110 million and included taking on debts that the previous owners still owed as well as assuming the lease on the then St. Pete Times Forum. Still a nice bargain compared to the $500 million asking price for an expansion team. Almost a year later, he also purchased the Tampa Bay Storm of the Arena Football League.
There was some doubt about Vinik’s motives when he first took over from some national pundits, doubts that have now been shown to be completely unwarranted. Namely, as a businessman and former hedge fund manager, there was an assumption that Vinik would attempt to pump and dump the team. That he would cut payroll by moving Vincent Lecavalier by any means necessary, slash the budgets, and bring in as much money as he could to recoup his costs before flipping the team.
Instead, Vinik went in the complete opposite direction. He listened to trusted people in the hockey world and sought out Steve Yzerman to be his General Manager, Vice President, and Alternate Governor. He brought in Tod Leiweke, an accomplished sports executive who has had success in all four major US sports plus the PGA Tour, to be the CEO. Leiweke is now the COO of the NFL.
Vinik invested his own money into the arena for improvements, not once, but twice, with a little help coming from the county government. He started the Community Heroes program alongside the Lightning Foundation with a five year pledge to give away $50,000 every home game to local charities. He recently renewed that five year pledge with another $5 million commitment. He has donated millions of dollars to give away street hockey sticks and balls, and put on clinics at local area schools. The Lightning Foundation sponsors a high school ice hockey league helping to provide ice time and equipment.
Vinik has also invested in real estate around the arena in an attempt to revitalize downtown Tampa, which is now being dubbed “Vinikville” by outsiders. His real estate investments include development of luxury apartments, high rise condos, the Channelside entertainment complex, a Marriott hotel and donating an acre of land to the University of South Florida for a new medical school campus. Construction is booming around the arena, and businesses are moving into the area to support the growth.
This backstory is important to understand how Tampa has gotten to where it is now. Prior to Yzerman’s arrival, the farm was a mess. It was bereft of talent. The previous regimes had not done a good job of drafting, scouting or developing. The scouting budget was limited, particularly for European and Russian scouting.
With Yzerman’s regime, the entire culture of the scouting department changed, and became modeled after Detroit’s sustained success. Yzerman came in too late to be prepared for the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, and so that draft was left to the previous regime before they were fired. 2011 is the first draft attributed to Yzerman and his Scouting Director, Al Murray.
From 2002 to 2008 under general manager Jay Feaster, the Lightning had a spotty draft and development track record. Only four players in those seven drafts have played more than 250 games in the NHL: Paul Ranger, Mike Lundin, Alex Killorn, and Steven Stamkos. Brian Lawton only presided over one draft, the 2009 draft that saw Victor Hedman selected 2nd overall. Richard Panik appears to be the only other player from that draft that will break the 250 games mark in the NHL. The 2010 draft saw Brett Connolly and Radko Gudas as the most prominent selections. Then, the magic really began in 2011.
2011 NHL Entry Draft
With the farm so depleted of talent, the focus was obviously on skilled players, with Vladislav Namestnikov and Nikita Kucherov leading the way in the first and second rounds. Ondrej Palat was selected in the seventh round near the end of the draft as an overage prospect. All three have had solid starts to their NHL careers while fifth round pick Nikita Nesterov has also had some NHL playing time.
Kucherov and Palat are already names to watch in the NHL. Meanwhile, Namestnikov has spotted in the top six, but has mostly played limited minutes, and projects as a second line playmaking center that can play a solid two-way game. However, that projection is dependent on finding more consistency in his offensive game. Nesterov is a fringey offensive defenseman that hasn’t translated that skill into points in the NHL. At this point, he’s a 7th defenseman that could be on his way out in the next year or two as other prospects graduate.
The other two picks in this draft, goaltender Adam Wilcox and center Matt Peca, went the NCAA route and have just finished their first pro seasons in the AHL. Wilcox projects as a backup goaltender in the NHL and has a strong work ethic that lets him get the most out of his physical abilities. Peca turned into a reliable two-way center and projects as a third liner in the NHL, though he could use a little more muscle mass on his smaller frame.
All six picks are signed and still in the organization.
2012 NHL Entry Draft
The trend toward skill players continued in 2012, with Slater Koekkoek and Andrei Vasilevskiy selected in the first round. Koekkoek was coming off a shoulder injury and would have three straight years cut short by shoulder issues. Those problems seem to be behind him and he projects to be a puck moving top four defenseman.
Koekkoek moved ahead of Matt Carle and Nesterov late in the playoffs, and he looks like he’s ready for a full time spot this coming season. Some have even nicknamed him “Hedman Lite” because of terrific skating ability that allows him to be aggressive in the offensive zone and recover defensively.
Vasilevskiy is the best goaltending prospect to come along since Carey Price, with all the tools to develop into an elite goaltender. He’s already at least a league average starter and he’s just turning 22.
Then the draft went in a little different direction with a little less skill and a little more grit. Defensemen Dylan Blujus and Jake Dotchin, power forward Brian Hart, pesty and gritty forwards Cedric Paquette and Tanner Richard, and Russian offensive dynamo Nikita Gusev rounded out the draft. Blujus and Dotchin didn’t develop as well as expected in juniors after being drafted, but have put up two decent years in the AHL. Both project as third pair, stay at home defensemen with Blujus looking more likely to hit his ceiling while Dotchin fell off a little last year.
Paquette has already had over 100 games in the NHL as a pesky bottom six forward that plays wing and center. Tanner Richard is another pest that works hard, is good in the faceoff dot, and vomits assists. He’s on the verge of making the NHL roster as soon as training camp next year.
Brian Hart went to Harvard for three years, but did not develop quite as well as hoped. However, he still earned an entry level contract and just finished his first pro season splitting time between the AHL and ECHL.
Gusev remains in the KHL where he has turned into an offensive star that may eventually come to the NHL as a scoring line winger. Gusev is the only prospect from this draft not signed and in the system, but his rights have been retained.
2013 NHL Entry Draft
After a rough 2012-13 season, the Lightning found themselves in the lottery mix and ended up picking third overall where they selected offensive dynamo Jonathan Drouin. They followed that up with wrecking ball power forward Adam Erne in the second round with their only other pick in the top 120. They added overaged Latvian goaltender Kristers Gudlevskis in the fifth round, pesky forward Henri Ikonen in the the sixth, and forwards Saku Salminen and Joel Vermin in the seventh.
Drouin’s story is pretty well documented, so I won’t go much into that here. Suffice to say, he has turned into the player that he was expected to be when he was drafted, and he won’t be going anywhere at this point.
Erne is a wide-framed left winger that has scoring line potential as a power forward, but needs to work on his consistency, and just finished his first pro season.
Gudlevskis made history by being the only player to appear in the ECHL, AHL, NHL, Olympic Games, and World Cup all in one season. He’s a streaky, inconsistent goalie who is quite perplexing in how good and how bad he can be for prolonged stretches. He is good enough that he could be an NHL back up now, but is currently stuck behind Ben Bishop and Vasilevskiy. His signature moment was nearly leading Latvia to a win over Canada at the Sochi Olympics where he stopped wave after wave of top flight talent out possessing his team for a full 60 minutes.
Ikonen benefited from being on a line in juniors with some top talent, but has struggled to find his game in the AHL. At this point, he is unlikely to make his way to the NHL and serves as AHL depth.
Joel Vermin broke into the NHL this year and showed that he has what it takes to contribute on a fourth line as a feisty energy winger that plays a strong north-south game. And who doesn’t like a pest named Vermin? (Oh but it’s pronounced more like Ver-mean.)
Salminen was an overage pick as a forward with size, but injuries and ineffective play have made him no longer a prospect. Salminen is the only pick from this draft that has not been signed.
2014 NHL Entry Draft
The 2014 draft saw a good mixture of skill, size, and character. The first round led off with offensive defenseman Anthony DeAngelo. He was followed up by Czech born defenseman Dominik Masin (pronounced Machine) and big defenseman Jonathan MacLeod in the second round. The pipeline was lacking in defensemen and with the first three selections, Yzerman addressed that issue.
DeAngelo is a right hander that was NHL-ready on the offensive side immediately, but had, and still has, a ton of work to do on the defensive side to get himself into the NHL.
Masin came to North America to play for Peterborough in the OHL. He’s steadily improved and shown some offensive upside with his ceiling being borderline for a top 4 spot. MacLeod is a big defenseman, but projected as a third pair stay at homer. He went to Boston University and had a terrific freshman year before falling off hard for his Sophomore year. He’s still a project and work in progress.
With defense being shored up, Yzerman and Murray identified a potential diamond in the rough selecting undersized but highly skilled center Brayden Point. Point has proven to be a point machine in the WHL with Moose Jaw, and with Team Canada the past two years in the World Junior Championship. Overall, he has scored at a 1.29 point per game pace in the WHL, but bumped that up this year with 88 points in 48 games this season.
Point struggled with injuries several times through the year. Otherwise, he would have easily hit the 100 point mark. He was named Captain for Team Canada in the WJC this year and between the two tournaments, he had 9 points in 12 games. His defensive game will need work and he will look to prove himself in the AHL next season. He does have a great blueprint to follow in a fellow undersized, skilled center from the WHL, Tyler Johnson.
Defenseman Ben Thomas and forwards Cristiano DiGiacinto and Cameron Darcy rounded out this draft. Ben Thomas is an offensive forward that struggled after being drafted. However, the team’s scouts saw some potential in him still, and he earned an entry level contract and will start in the AHL full-time next season.
DiGiacinto struggled to find offensive consistency and was not signed and will return to the draft this summer. Cameron Darcy was an overager that spent another year in juniors before turning pro with Syracuse. He has filled in as a bottom six forward in the AHL and has a long way to go to get to the NHL if he ever does.
MacLeod, still in college, and Cristiano DiGiacinto are the only prospects unsigned from this draft, with DiGiacinto being the only one no longer under team control.
2015 NHL Entry Draft
The 2015 draft saw a distinct shift in philosophy as the team targeted more two-way players that would present nice complementary pieces to the skill that was already in the system and that will form the core of the Lightning for years to come. Yzerman also traded out of the first round, picking up a second round pick five spots later and a third round pick.
Center Mitchell Stephens was the guy they were after. Immediately after being drafted, Murray described Stephens as being a near clone of Ryan Callahan. He’s a hard working, honest character player that will play in all situations. He dealt with injuries, including a broken foot, early in the season and still made it onto Canada’s World Junior Championship team as their 13th forward. In limited time, he contributed a goal and an assist in five games. For his juniors team, a rather bad Saginaw Spirit, he scored 10 fewer points than last season, but did so in 13 fewer games.
After being eliminated from the playoffs, Stephens made his pro debut with the Syracuse Crunch on an Amateur Try Out and played five games, scoring a goal. I was fortunate enough to attend the game in which he scored the goal. He played on a third line with some lesser prospects for Syracuse. He was fast, he created chances, and he worked his tail off every shift. His goal was a nice one where he sent a winger in deep, then went to the slot to receive a pass out of the corner and one-touch it up and over the goalie’s glove. Stephens will go back to juniors for another year, but he’s got all the look of being a third line guy with some ability to spot on a scoring line. He has signed an entry level contract.
Stephens was followed by Matthew Spencer, Dominik Masin’s teammate and often partner with Peterborough. He’s more of a stay at home, third pair guy that will continue to develop in juniors for one more year. He signed an entry level contract this spring.
Dennis Yan is a winger with Shawinigan of the QMJHL of Russian descent, but was born in the US and moved between the two countries growing up. Yan was the next pick in the third round. He’s a sniper that has the offensive ability to score in the NHL. The big question is if he’ll develop the consistency and all around game to make it and stick.
Anthony Cirelli followed Yan. Like Stephens, he impressed with his step up in offensive production this year as he became the main man with the Oshawa Generals as they had a lot of talent move on after winning the Memorial Cup the year before. Stephens became captain and was a solid center for them all year. He also debuted with Syracuse this year and signed an entry level contract. With luck, he should become a solid third line, two-way centerman that excels at faceoffs.
Continuing the trend, the Lightning selected Jonne Tammela in the fourth round. He’s a pesky, annoying Finn that elected to stay in Liiga after being drafted rather than play for Peterborough who owns his import rights in the CHL. If he develops, he looks to be a fourth line, energy pest that works hard on the forecheck with decent speed. He’ll need to show more offense in the AHL this season. He has signed an entry level contract and is likely to play in Syracuse.
Mathieu Joseph in the fourth round is another guy you can lump into the same category as Stephens and Cirelli. A hard working, two way forward that impressed with his offensive contributions this season that jumped from 42 points in 59 games to 73 points in 58 games. Yzerman has shown that the expectation is even fourth line NHL grinders should prove they have offensive capabilities in juniors and in the AHL. It’s just another sign that they have the skills and abilities to stick in the NHL. Joseph should be a good, third line complementary player that might occasionally spot on the second line. He has not signed an entry level contract, but there’s every expectation that he will over the next year.
The next two picks are long term projects as they both spent another year in the USHL and will go into NCAA hockey next season. Defenseman Ryan Zuhlsdorf in the fifth round is an offensive defenseman that puts up points and somehow managed to not score a single goal in 58 regular season and playoff games despite having 32 assists. He is a University of Minnesota commit.
Kris Oldham is a goaltender with some intriguing qualities. He had an up and down year, but will have plenty of time to develop with the University of Nebraska-Omaha. He may only ever be a third goalie for the organization, but that would represent good value for a sixth round goaltender. And you never know how he’ll develop over the next four years in a good NCAA program.
The last pick in this draft for the Lightning is Bokondji Imama. Boko, as he’s known, is a player that is best described as a goon. It’s actually rather surprising that the Lightning took him. He doesn’t seem to fit the usual view of prospects for this management group. He’s not a great skater. He’s gotten himself in trouble and suspended multiple times in his QMJHL career. But, he’s a fighter and a pretty good one at that. There has been speculation that he might go to the AHL next season as he’ll turned 20 in August. The Lightning likely will not retain David Broll, who is a restricted free agent, and Boko would step into his enforcer role.
Undrafted and NCAA Free Agents
You really can’t overlook this part of the process either. Rather than having the ability to pick a player and control their rights for multiple years in the draft without their input, signing undrafted and NCAA Free Agents takes selling the player on your team and their future with your team.
Since taking over, Yzerman has signed Tyler Johnson, Pat Nagle, Cory Conacher, J.T. Brown, Artem Sergeev, Andrej Sustr, and Cody Kunyk. Cory Conacher is the only one that isn’t quite like the others.
Tyler Johnson’s story is a popular talking point whenever the Lightning end up on national TV. He’s a small center that went undrafted in three straight drafts. He had been to development camps as an undrafted prospect, but no one had signed him. He went back to Spokane to play his last season and started looking at college offers. However his outstanding play brought general managers from across the league knocking.
In the end, Steve Yzerman convinced Johnson to play for the Lightning. He was a part of the historic Norfolk Admirals team that won a pro-hockey record of 28 games in a row, and also won a Calder Cup. He developed into a two-way force and is now a top center in the league. He struggled with injuries this past year, but he should be expected to bounce back. This may be Yzerman’s biggest coup of any move he’s made.
I’ll go ahead and lump the three disappointments here together; Pat Nagle, Artem Sergeev, and Cody Kunyk. Pat Nagle was a goaltender coming off a couple good years at Ferris State University. However, he spent most of his time in the ECHL and only played 1 AHL game for the organization before being released after two seasons. Artem Sergeev was an offensive defenseman from Russia. He had come over to play in the QMJHL, but never produced big numbers. He spent one year full time in the AHL, but only put up 10 points before spending his second year in the ECHL. With his future pretty clear, his contract was mutually terminated so he could return to Russia. Cody Kunyk was a very overage college player. The team signed him to a two-year entry level contract and immediately burned the first year at the end of the season by playing him in one NHL game. In his first full pro year, he played in Syracuse and did ok, but not as well as you would expect a 24 year old to play. After his contract he left to play in Denmark.
J.T. Brown and Andrej Sustr both came out of the NCAA ranks. They had their first year of their entry level contracts burned by playing in NHL games after signing late in the season. Both have turned into NHL contributors. J.T. Brown is one of the better bottom six wingers in the game. He has speed to burn, he’s tenacious, and if he could ever figure out how to aim the puck, he could be a consistent 10-15 goal scorer. As is, he’s still a quarter point per game player that is responsible, can take on top competition, and play on the penalty kill.
Sustr is a 6’8” giraffe that happens to play defense. He’s also a right hander, which is rare on the blue line. He drew a lot of comparisons to Zdeno Chara because of his height, but that’s simply not the kind of player he is, as he is not bulky or physical. He’s limited offensively, but makes a decent first pass most of the time. When he’s confident he’s a solid defenseman that plays positionally sound and can provide a solid 18 minutes a night.
Cory Conacher is last because he is a special case and turned pro before signing. Conacher is another small, scrappy forward with a ton of speed and offensive ability. But his small stature kept him from getting much interest out of college. He bounced around and eventually signed an AHL deal to play for the Norfolk Admirals. Part way through the season, he signed an entry level contract and continued on to having 80 points in 75 games plus 15 more in 18 playoff games on the way to the Calder Cup. He had a blazing start to his NHL career during the 2012-13 season after the lockout, putting up 24 points in 35 games.
Striking while the iron was hot, and so was the commodity, Yzerman made a deal that will go down as his second biggest coup after the signing of Johnson, though I suppose there is a good argument to be made between the two. Yzerman traded Conacher and a draft pick to the Ottawa Senators for… goaltender Ben Bishop. Unfortunately for Conacher, he did not find continued success in the NHL. Over the next 80 games with Ottawa, he only had 28 points. He made his way to the Buffalo Sabres for 19 games with 6 points and then the New York Islanders for 15 games with 3 points. He finished out the year in the AHL and then moved to SC Bern of the Swiss NLA where he has again found success as one of the leading scorers in that league. By the way, for you Leafs fans in the crowd, his little brother Shane is a Marlie.
You Made It To the End!
So, there you have it. Looking through these past drafts as well as the undrafted and NCAA free agent signings, it’s clear to see that Steve Yzerman and Al Murray have had a plan, they’ve stuck to it, they’ve scouted vigorously, and so far they’ve pretty well identified their guys. Out of 36 draft picks since 2011, ten have played at least one game in the NHL, 4 have hit 100 games, 2 have hit 200 games, 27 have signed entry level contracts, 3 are still in college, and only 1 player’s rights are no longer held.
That’s a pretty strong endorsement that their approach so far is working.