Believe it or not I was cheering against the Tampa Bay Lightning last night when they took on the Florida Panthers. When the Bolts took a 2-0 lead in the first period, I threw my hands up in despair. It would take a miracle for the lowly Panthers, the league’s worst team by a solid margin, to come back. I was distraught. The Bolts can’t even lose right, I was thought – oh, but I was wrong. The Bolts lost just fine.
I know what some of you are thinking. You’re wondering why I, who watched 48 Lightning games this season, who could tell you at any given point during those 48 games the point total of any given player with a miniscule margin of error, who was ecstatic when the Bolts won and devastated when the Bolts lost, had this sudden change of heart. Others among you know exactly what I was thinking – there was a lot on the line last night.
Had they beaten the Florida Panthers last night, the Tampa Bay Lightning could have wound up picking as low as 6th in the NHL Entry Draft. While 6th overall is a fine pick in any year, this year’s draft is a little different. Why? Because the players projected to be selected in the top four all have the potential to be franchise players. Because the Lightning lost to the Florida Panthers last night, they will pick no lower than 4th in the draft.
The top player available in this year’s draft is almost inarguably Seth Jones. The next three are Nathan MacKinnon, Jonathan Drouin, and Aleksander Barkov, but your guess is as good as mine concerning what order those three will be selected. Many NHL scouts are on record saying that all of the four would be a first overall selection in most years. In short, if ever there was a year to underachieve in catastrophic proportions, this was the one.
It could have been even better. Had the Colorado Avalanche been successful in their late effort to tie the game and ultimately defeat the Minnesota Wild, not only would the Columbus Blue Jackets be making a miraculous playoff appearance this year, but our own Tampa Bay Lightning would have slid up a spot (or down a spot, depending on how you look at it) and been in position to pick 2nd with a greater chance at winning the Draft Lottery.
As it stands, the Bolts maintained their position in 3rd, and their 14.2% chance of winning the right to select Seth Jones. The Florida Panthers have a 25% chance of winning the 1st pick, and the Colorado Avalanche have an 18.8% chance. Those three numbers are significant, because so long as one of those three teams wins the 1st overall selection, the Tampa Bay Lightning will not see their pick slide down to 4th overall, which will happen if a team below the Lightning win the lottery (thus taking over 1st, and pushing all other teams one spot back).
Let’s break down those numbers. Barring a trade, the Lightning are guaranteed to select either 1st (14.2% of the time), 3rd (43.8% of the time), or 4th (42% of the time). Which means there is a 58% chance they will not slide to 4th.
That’s not a bad worst case scenario, especially considering how there is no consensus on where MacKinnon, Drouin, and Barkov rank. I stated in my previous article that my own preferred choice of these three would be Drouin. He’s quick, his vision is exceptional, and he can has great hands. What that should translate to is a player that makes his teammates better, and will someday be a key figure on the power play. There is a good chance Drouin will be available 4th, and a very good chance he’ll be available 3rd.
If Drouin is not available, however, regardless of where the Bolts pick, neither MacKinnon nor Barkov would be a bad consolation prize. MacKinnon, in fact, has long overshadowed Drouin in the eyes of most scouts, and on most lists still ranks ahead of him (despite Drouin’s incredible year in Halifax, which saw him score 105 points in just 49 games and named league MVP). Where Drouin has often been compared to Claude Giroux, Joe Sakic, and even Tampa GM Steve Yzerman, MacKinnon has most often been compared to our own Steven Stamkos. He’s an excellent skater with a great release and a will to win.
Barkov is lesser known in North America. Central Scouting recently ranked him the best European skater available in the draft, and some scouts feel he will be drafted ahead of both MacKinnon and Drouin. He’s a 17 year old playing against men in Finland, and with great success. In 53 games with Tappara, Barkov recorded 21 goals and 48 points. Barkov is known for his puck-handling and his two-way game, which might make you think of Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk, but Barkov also brings good size to the table.
Valeri Nichushkin is something of an X-factor in this year’s draft, ranking as high as 2nd on the ISS list, while being outside of the top 5 on other lists. While he’s large and dominating, he’s still signed for two more years in the KHL. The Lightning have shown a lot of patience in letting their prospects develop, but in a year with so many NHL-ready talents available, they will likely take a player they can insert into their lineup immediately, or next year at worst.
And although it’s impossible to know what Steve Yzerman will do come draft day, it’s interesting to note that he got a first-hand look at both Drouin and MacKinnon at this year’s CHL Top Prospects game. And was thoroughly impressed.
“Nathan and Jonathan are exceptional skaters,” Yzerman said of the fabulous Halifax Moosehead duo. “Nathan’s stride and power are remarkable. They’re both just special players that will go high in the draft.”
At the time, mid-March, Yzerman probably had no idea (and would likely have been devastated by the news) that he would be in position to select one of the two. Perhaps he’ll still look to Europe. Barkov might well be the most NHL-ready player available, and we know that both Yzerman and Coach Jon Cooper are fans of players that play well in both ends of the rink. Meanwhile, Nichushkin appears to be the biggest and meanest (valuable qualities in NHL hockey) player available. But I would be willing to bet that, if given the opportunity, Yzerman will stay inside North America and draft either MacKinnon or Drouin.
Of course, all of this logic goes out the window should the Bolts luck out and win the Draft Lottery, and thus, the right to choose 1st. Tampa Bay has addressed concerns in goal, both near and possibly long-term, with the acquisitions of Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilevski (drafted 19th overall last year, and might even be exceeding expectations in Russia to this point). As of now, the major and most pressing concern is defense. Like Steven Stamkos is this team’s cornerstone up front, Seth Jones would make an excellent cornerstone on the blueline.
However, for all of you crossing your fingers and pulling out your ancient rabbits’ feet in hopes that the Bolts’ 14.2% chance will prove good and we’ll land Jones, a little caution is in order. As I’ll cover in a future article, scouts do not have a great history of assessing young defensemen.
So perhaps we should hope that the most likely scenario plays out Monday night, when the NHL Draft Lottery takes place, and either the Florida Panthers or the Colorado Avalanche will win the 1st overall selection (43.8% chance that will happen), and the Tampa Bay Lightning retain their 3rd pick and turn it into any of the seemingly can’t-miss prospects that will be available to them. Whoever they choose, be it MacKinnon or Drouin or Barkov, will have an opportunity to play for the majority of their career with Steven Stamkos, for the next few years with Martin St. Louis, and might even, if the scouts are right, wind up being as good as either of them. Selecting a future superstar forward will also make many of the more offensively-minded forwards being groomed in Syracuse expendable, opening up the door for trades that would bring in a solid, NHL-ready defense.
Come draft day, the Tampa Bay Lightning will have an opportunity to finally turn a corner and turn the franchise around. The key to making that happen was a loss to the Florida Panthers last night, and in my opinion, it was a small price to pay.