During the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 24-year history in the National Hockey League, the franchise has made some memorable (and not so memorable) selections in the NHL Entry Draft. Of the 217 players chosen by the franchise over the course of 24 entry drafts — not counting three players chosen in the now defunct Supplemental Draft — just 79 of those, or 36%, have seen NHL action.
While there is often the “can’t miss” prospects of each draft class, it is typically years later that NHL general managers and their scouting staffs get a true sense of what they have received through the draft. History has shown that there are times when the most highly touted prospects in a draft class fall far short of expectations, and those players taken in the later rounds rise to the top of the heap.
The 2016 NHL Entry Draft will be hosted by the Buffalo Sabres on June 24-25, 2016, when the future of this year’s prospects will be determined at the First Niagra Center in Buffalo. After being eliminated in this year’s Eastern Conference Final, the Lightning’s first pick is currently the 27th overall selection in the first round.
As the Lightning enters its 25th draft in team history, we take a look back at the five best picks in franchise history. While lists will always be open to debate, this list is based upon a player’s contribution to the franchise and not based upon a perception about what a pick will become in the future.
#1 – Vincent Lecavalier – 1st Round, 1st Overall (1998)
When the Lightning selected Vincent Lecavalier with the first pick in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft, it did so at a turbulent time for the franchise. The Lightning had just come off a 55-loss season, in 82 games, and finished 7th in the Atlantic Division. The team was in the second of what would be six straight seasons out of the playoffs. More importantly, the franchise was often the subject of relocation discussion and had been purchased by Arthur L. “Art” Williams, Jr., just before the draft.
For the Lightning, who had won the opportunity to pick first overall, the 1998 draft would be a defining moment in the franchise’s history and one where the “right pick” had to be made. Lecavalier, dubbed a future franchise NHL player, had just completed his second of two seasons with the Rimouski Oceanic of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) and had finished with 115 points in just 55 games. David Legwand, a smaller center from the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), was often the other part of the pre-draft discussion over who should be taken with the first pick that year. However, the Lightning would ultimately decide on Lecavalier before the draft began.
Just after the team selected Lecavalier, Williams called him the “Michael Jordan of hockey.” While Lecavalier never was quite “Jordan-esque” during his NHL career, he was one of the league’s top players for a time and developed into a franchise player over the course of 14 seasons with the team. The franchise developed as Lecavalier grew up and culminated in a Stanley Cup victory on June 7, 2004.
Lecavalier would go on to win a Rocket Richard trophy and play in four All-Star games before injuries began to slow his career. During that time period, Lecavalier also established himself as one of the most meaningful athletes in the Tampa Bay community, participating in numerous charitable organizations. On June 27, 2013, Lecavalier’s contract was bought out in a business move brought about by increasing salary cap space pressure and declining production after numerous injuries.
Lecavalier played a franchise-record 1,037 games in a Lightning uniform. He also holds the franchise record for goals (383) and is currently second in assists (491) and points (874). Lecavalier’s impact on and off the ice for the franchise make him the team’s best draft pick of all-time.
#2 – Steven Stamkos – 1st round, 1st overall (2008)
Steven Stamkos, much akin to Lecavalier, was chosen at another pivotal moment in the franchise’s history. The Lightning had just finished the first of what would be three straight years without playoff hockey and had fired then-coach John Tortorella shortly after finishing last in the NHL. Just four years removed from sitting atop the NHL as Stanley Cup champions, the Lightning were now at the bottom of the league looking up.
Just days before the draft, the Lightning were sold to an ownership group, OK Hockey, led by Hollywood movie producer Oren Koules. Despite the ownership change, the focus of the 2008 NHL Draft was clear: Stamkos would be chosen first overall. Stamkos had just completed his second season with the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario Hockey League, and like Lecavalier, was also dubbed as a future NHL franchise center.
Stamkos would step right into the league as an 18-year-old, but his start in the NHL was far from memorable. Stamkos had six goals and 20 points in the first 50 games of his rookie season. Initially playing sparingly to start the season under head coach Barry Melrose (who coached just 16 games before being relieved of his duties), Stamkos’ play began to turn around after Rick Tocchet took over coaching duties and made Stamkos a healthy scratch during a January 9 game against the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. Stamkos would return to the Lightning line-up and the rest is history.
Fast forward to the present and Stamkos is currently the face of the franchise and its captain. He has had two Rocket Richard seasons, been named an all-star four times, and led the Lightning to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final. Further, he is often praised by his teammates for his leadership qualities and character.
Stamkos, 26, has 312 goals and 562 points in 569 games. If unsigned before July 1st, Stamkos will enter unrestricted free agency and could be the most sought after free agent in the modern era.
#3- Victor Hedman, 1st Round, 2nd Overall (2009)
With the 2nd pick in the 2009 NHL Draft, landing Victor Hedman added another piece to the puzzle that was slowly coming together for the franchise. During the summer before, the Lightning traded its #1 defenseman, Dan Boyle, to the San Jose Sharks in a deal that immediately resulted in the return of defenseman, Matt Carle. Despite Carle’s success at the time, Boyle was a smooth-skating, puck-moving defenseman that played a tremendous two-way game. Boyle had been a key to the team’s 2004 Stanley Cup run and was irreplaceable.
In Hedman, the Lightning received a player that was touted as a “future Nicklas Lidstrom.” While there will only be one Nicklas Lidstrom, seven years removed from the draft, Hedman has largely lived up to high expectations. Each year Hedman has gotten increasingly better, and during the 2015 Stanley Cup Final run, Hedman received particularly high praise for his play. After another impressive performance in this year’s playoffs, Hedman has cemented himself as one of the top defenseman in the league.
Hedman stands 6’6”, 223 lbs. and has grown into his frame while utilizing his tremendous skating ability to his advantage. Hedman has played 470 games in the league (all for the Lightning), tallying 49 goals and 229 points. At age 25, Hedman is entering the prime of his career and his best days are ahead of him.
#4- Brad Richards – 3rd Round, 64th Overall (1998)
When Brad Richards entered the Lightning organization, he was often known most for being Lecavalier’s childhood best friend. The two met at Athol Murray College of Notre Dame at the age of 14 and would play junior hockey for the Rimouski Oceanic before both being drafted by the Lightning in the same year.
While Lecavalier jumped straight into the NHL after his draft year, Richards played two more years for the Oceanic before joining him. After leading the Oceanic to the 2000 Memorial Cup (and tallying 186 points in his last junior regular season), Richards entered the league as a more NHL-ready player than Lecavalier did.
In nearly seven seasons with the franchise, Richards played in 552 games, scoring 150 goals and totaling 489 points. Richards would become best known for his performance in the 2004 Stanley Cup season when he scored 26 points in 23 games and received the Conn Smythe Trophy.
#5- Pavel Kubina – 7th Round, 179th Overall (1996)
It is not every draft that a team is able to acquire what will later be a key piece of a Stanley Cup team in the 7th round of his draft year. In 1996, however, the Lightning would do just that. Pavel Kubina was chosen by the Lightning with the 179th overall pick after playing just one year of junior hockey with the Moose Jaw Warriors of the Western Hockey League. Before arriving in North America, Kubina played for HC Vitkovice of the Czech Extralige.
Kubina would go on to play parts of ten seasons with the Lightning and was a major contributor to the Lightning’s Stanley Cup championship in 2004. Kubina played 970 games in a Lightning uniform and finished with 386 points.
Honorable Mention: Draft Picks Worth Revisiting
While this list has been limited to the top five picks in franchise history, there have been other important picks that have had an important impact on the franchise.
With the first pick in franchise history, the Lightning selected Roman Hamrlik first overall in the 1992 NHL Entry Draft. Hamrlik, a then 18-year old playing for ZPS Zlin in the Czech Extralige, was a promising young defenseman with a world of talent. Hamrlik made the team as a rookie and would play nearly five seasons with the Lightning before being traded. He would come to be known as “Hammer” for his blistering slap shot and aggressive game and would play in over 1,000 NHL games before retiring after the 2012-13 season. Hamrlik still holds the Lightning single-season records for a defenseman in assists (49) and points (65).
The Lightning was just a year old when Chris Gratton was chosen with the third overall pick in the 1993 NHL Entry Draft. Gratton was a talented young center that had the size (6’4”), scoring touch, and physical style suitable for the NHL of that era. Given the timing of this pick, Gratton was the team’s first young star and was a fan favorite. Gratton would play parts of eight seasons with the Lightning during three separate stints with the team, and served as the team captain for the majority of the 1999-00 season.
In the third round of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, the Lightning would wisely choose Alex Killorn, a Canadian-born center then playing for Deerfield Academy. Killorn would go on to play four year of college hockey with the Harvard Crimson before making the leap to the show. Since entering the league in the 2012-13 season, Killorn has been a consistent power forward for the team and has raised his game to new levels during two deep playoff runs for the team in 2014-15 and 2015-16. With restricted free agency looming for Killorn this off-season, he will be sought after.
Up and Coming Picks: Their Best is Yet to Come
In the past four years, the Lightning has made a some picks that have helped build the nucleus of what should ultimately be a competitive team for the long-term. The most notable players include Nikita Kucherov (2nd round, 58th overall, 2011), Ondrej Palat (7th round, 208th overall, 2011), Andrei Vasilevskiy (1st round, 19th overall, 2012), and Jonathan Drouin (1st round, 3rd overall, 2013), among others. Each of these players has the potential to become an impact player in this league and any one of them could find their way into the top 5 list for this franchise in the future.
The NHL Entry Draft: Hindsight is 20/20
The NHL Entry Draft is far from an exact science and a look at the draft history for all 30 NHL teams will reflect that. A crop of promising young players is, in all reality, simply a large group of talented 18-year-old kids that often have a lot to learn about growing up both on and off the ice. NHL general managers and scouting staffs are making decisions without the benefit of a crystal ball and countless articles five to ten years removed from a draft are proof of this.
When the Lightning make its first selection in the 2016 draft, Steve Yzerman and his scouting staff will be making their decision based on many months of research and travel across the globe. However, as the NHL draft has demonstrated, despite these efforts that pick’s NHL success is hardly a guarantee.