Since their surprise run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, the Tampa Bay Lightning have become a fixture in the later rounds of the postseason. Tampa Bay have reached at least the Eastern Conference Final/ Conference Semifinals mark five times in seven years, and have been to the Stanley Cup Final three times in that same time frame.
This success has many facets, but one area that can never be overlooked is the draft. As the Lightning built a core that was capable of winning a Stanley Cup, they pulled talent out of all levels of the draft, from Round 1 all the way to Round 7. By selecting and developing a few future starters each year, they have been able to rotate in new faces on cost-controlled contracts, giving the cap-strapped franchise variety in their line-up and some flexibility on the ice.
As the Lightning look forward to the 2021 NHL Draft, however, things get complicated. Due to an unprecedented year in which travel was restricted and players of all ages were held off the ice, the typical scouting process became almost impossible. Due to this, this draft will likely look completely different than any before it, with opinions ranging wildly about every pick.
With this in mind, let’s take a look towards the draft for the Lightning as they are just a few weeks away from the event.
Lightning Prioritized Winning Over Futures
The first thing you will notice for the Lightning is their lack of picks in 2021. As of now, the franchise only has six picks, with their first selection not occurring until Round 3 and three of these picks taking place in Round 7.
While this is far from an ideal situation to be in, it seems to be a purposeful choice made by general manager Julien BriseBois. For Tampa Bay, the 2021 season only had one acceptable outcome: repeating as Stanley Cup champions. To put his team in the best place to succeed, BriseBois went all in at the trade deadline again by acquiring David Savard from the Columbus Blue Jackets. In order to make this trade and to fit it under the cap, however, the Lightning gave up their 2021 first and fourth-round picks, along with a 2022 third-rounder.
By trading so much for Savard, BriseBois showed that he saw the Lightning as one piece away from winning another Stanley Cup and that he wasn’t concerned about hoarding picks for the future. So far, Savard has been a valuable depth piece on the roster, playing in 16 games while taking on roughly 15 minutes of ice time each night. However, this move greatly reduced Tampa Bay’s ability to make moves at the draft, which will affect how they approach it.
Lightning Viewing 2021 Draft as a Lottery
When Tampa Bay traded a 2021 second and a 2020 fourth-round pick with the Montreal Canadians for their 2021 second rounder during the 2020 Draft, this move said two things. One: the Lightning liked Jack Finely and believed in what he could bring to the franchise as a second-round pick. And two: the 2021 Draft wasn’t going to be a priority.
This isn’t to deride this class in any way. However, due to the 2020 class having at least half a season of regular scouting and so much uncertainty in the near future, BriseBois likely saw Finely as a safer option as a second-round pick than the uncertainty of 2021.
Read Also: 2021 NHL Draft Guide
When you take this into account along with the Lightning’s spread of picks, it becomes clear that this draft is being treated as a bit of a lottery by the franchise. BriseBois is holding onto normally low-value late-round picks, which are always uncertain even under a normal cycle, that could be used to take a talented but under scouted player who slipped down the board simply due to a lack of visibility.
Now this is a fairly risky strategy, but it is one that can pay off. If the Lightning can hit on even one of these picks, then their draft would be a massive success.
What to Expect From Tampa Bay at the 2021 Draft
To attempt a prediction about something as uncertain as a draft is a fools’ errand. Instead of throwing out possible picks now, let’s look at recent trends made by the Lightning to get a feeling about who they could be targeting with their selections.
One thing that really stood out about the Lightning’s 2020 forward class was their size. For a franchise that typically covets skill and speed, this class was more about adding power and strength to their forward corps. If this trend continues, BriseBois could target bigger players who have more projectable NHL upside over their smaller counterparts, especially with scouting being limited.
As far as the other positions, Tampa Bay select between two to three defensemen each draft. Given how consistently they have been doing this over the years, it would make sense for the trend to continue, especially with their position at the draft. Late-round picks can be a great time to take a risk on a long-term project that could one day produce a starting defender.
The Lightning also often take one goalie each draft, despite the fact that they have Andrei Vasilevskiy as their future in net for the coming years. Even with this and two young goalies making the jump from Europe to play in North America for the 2021-22 season, I would still expect BriseBois to take a flyer on a late-round goalie on draft day.
Despite Limited Picks, Lightning’s 2021 Draft Has Potential
Even without a top pick and limited scouting throwing off the process, the Lightning should still be excited about the 2021 NHL Draft. They don’t need a player who can contribute on the ice right now, after all, so if they can add a few talented prospect with solid upside, it would be a big win for the franchise, especially as they compete for the 2021 Stanley Cup.