It is my belief that the Tampa Bay Lightning officially entered “Suck For Seth” mode the moment they sent Tyler Johnson, among others, to the AHL to help the Syracuse Crunch’s run for a Calder Cup. You’ll note that Matthieu Garon started the next two games for the Bolts on back-to-back nights. The season, for all intents and purposes, ended several nights before, in Washington, when the Bolts fell to the red-hot Capitals despite a spirited effort.
There have been few consolations to this season’s near-catastrophic disappointments. For the most part, Lightning fans are left somewhat awestruck, wondering how it’s possible to have the league’s second and third leading scorers (who might well be the top two scorers when all is said and done) and yet sputter through the majority of the season.
Yet there have been consolations. The most obvious is that several of Tampa Bay’s prospects got their first NHL test run, and most passed with flying colors. Alex Killorn and Tyler Johnson appear to be impact players at the NHL-level, and Radkos Gudas, from his very first game, looked like he’d been playing in the NHL for a decade. I can’t recall a more seamless transition than his.
And while it’s never a good thing to finish third-worst in the NHL (the current pace), if ever there was a year to do it, this is the one. The 2013 NHL Entry Draft appears particularly strong. There are at least three “can’t-miss” prospects available, and a plethora of wild card prospects teams will gamble on further down the line.
What makes this particular draft interesting is the shuffling we’ve seen at the top, and the dissenting opinions from top scouts. What makes it even more interesting is that the dissent is relatively new – in a preseason poll of ten NHL scouts conducted by TSN this past September, all ten selected Nathan MacKinnon as 2013′s top prospect. Now? Seth Jones is atop every major scouting board, and MacKinnon, on most, has slipped all the way to third. And making this draft still more interesting are the dissenting views on just what player has leapfrogged MacKinnon into second – some believe it’s MacKinnon’s own Halifax teammate, Jonathan Drouin, while others believe the lanky Russian Valeri Nichushkin is the second-best player available.
The ranking-chaos can be traced back to this year’s CHL Top Prospect game. Coming into the game, MacKinnon was the near-consensus top ranked player, while Jones was nipping at his heels. Jones’s team won the game 3-0, Jones was praised for his dominant presence, and MacKinnon’s performance was deemed lackluster. Most analysts believed the game wouldn’t result in any major shift in prospect rankings – and it didn’t. But since then, Jones has continued to dominate, while MacKinnon has been thoroughly outscored by his teammate, Jonathan Drouin.
According to the rules of the NHL Draft Lottery, should the Bolts finish in their current spot, they will have a 14.2% chance of landing the number one overall pick in the 2013 draft. That might sound slim, but keep in mind no team will have better than a 25% chance of winning the lottery.
Should the Bolts wind up with the number one pick, there’s little doubt they’d use it on Jones. By all appearances, Jones addresses the Lightning’s most pressing long-term need. He’s a lot like Victor Hedman with better offensive instincts. But unlike Hedman, and unlike nearly all large defensemen, Jones looks like he won’t need much time to develop into a premiere NHL defenseman. Scouts and analysts, in fact, have a hard time comparing Jones to a current or past NHL defenseman. They simply say he’s unique, and they also say he’s can’t-miss.
Jones would be such a great fit in Tampa, in fact, that I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Lightning try to pull off a move and move up on draft day. This scenario becomes more and less likely depending on which team ultimately winds up with the first overall selection, and how much that team needs a defenseman (forwards, remember, are in abundant stock this year).
Barring such a move, the 85.8% of the time the Lightning don’t wind up with the first pick, they’ll find themselves picking third, and picking a forward. According to the International Scouting Service, the next best defenseman is Darnell Nurse, currently ranked sixth. While it’s always possible that the Bolts could move down in the draft, picking up a player in the process, the more likely scenario is they’ll wait for their third pick (if it is indeed still a third pick) and choose from a talent-rich pool of forwards (minus the second overall pick).
MacKinnon might be available third. MacKinnon has drawn many comparisons to our own Steven Stamkos for his tenacity around the puck and his will to make key plays in key moments. While MacKinnon has slipped in the rankings, it’s important to note that the slip has only come in recent months, while for the majority of his junior career he was believed to be headed for a first overall selection. Have these last few months been simply an ill-timed hiccup? If so, at least one team might wind up kicking themselves, particularly if MacKinnon gets anything close to as good as Steven Stamkos.
My own choice for a Lightning selection, outside of Jones, would be Jonathan Drouin. Drouin has long been overshadowed by MacKinnon, but has exploded down the stretch of what might be his final junior season. Drouin wound up scoring 105 points in 49 games, while MacKinnon managed 75 in 44. But the reason why I think Drouin would be a better fit with the Lightning isn’t because he would bring more offense, but rather because of the type of offense he would bring. Where MacKinnon is a shoot-first forward, Drouin brings a little bit more creativity to the table, and has a reputation as a dazzling playmaker. Where MacKinnon has drawn comparisons to Stamkos, Drouin has drawn comparisons to Claude Giroux. The Tampa Bay Lightning already have Steven Stamkos, and within a few years, they’ll be losing Martin St. Louis – it would be nice to have a Claude Giroux-type waiting in the wings when that happens.
Of course, even if the Lightning, or any team for that matter, use a top three pick to select outside of these three, it can hardly be considered off the board. It’s hard to go wrong with Valeri Nichushkin, for instance, whose size (6’4), speed, and skill make him a very lucrative commodity for teams, like Tampa Bay, who are a little undersized up front. Interestingly, Nichushkin is ranked second on the International Scouting Service’s list, but can be found all over the top ten on other lists.
It seems there is nothing close to a consensus on either the order of this year’s top ten (or top five for that matter), or even the players on it. Many scouts are raving about undersized Max Domi, though ISS’s most current list has him ranked 26th. Aleksander/Sasha Barkov, a Finnish center noted for his vision and hands, is likely to be selected somewhere inside the top five, and depending on where the Lightning finish, he might well be the next Bolt.
The only certainty coming into 2013′s NHL Entry Draft is: it’s deep. A lot of team’s will wind up adding excellent pieces to their roster, and Tampa Bay looks to be among them.
The Lightning have a good draft history, even in the deeper rounds. Alex Killorn, who’s already established himself as an impact two-way player in his rookie season, was selected 77th overall back in 2007. Radkos Gudas, who you could argue has been Tampa Bay’s best shutdown defenseman in the twenty games he’s played, was the 66th pick in 2010.
This season, with such a deep talent pool, there’s no doubt the Lightning will select a very good player. The question is this: will they select the best player available? The player that goes on to have the best career? That, folks, is the competitive side of the NHL Entry Draft. If the Bolts’ 14.2% chance comes up lucky, the mystery is over – Seth Jones will be a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning. But if the laws of probability hold true, the Lightning will be selecting anywhere from third through fifth. And in that case, it’s time to speculate.