For the Tampa Bay Lightning, the 2021 NHL Draft was expected to be a bit of an afterthought. General manager Julien BriseBois was, rightfully, all in on winning back-to-back Stanley Cups, and he traded out high-value picks before the trade deadline to bring back what he saw as the final piece to get the team over the top once again.
Since they went on to win the 2021 Stanley Cup, this investment of futures was well worth it by BriseBois, but it did make the draft conversation far less exciting. With only one pick in the first four rounds, but six total picks in the draft, I often described the Lightning’s process as a lottery. They knew that they weren’t likely to get a superstar with those late-round selections, but with enough chances on the board, they might be able to find one or two players who could develop into starting-caliber players down the road.
With the 2021 Draft wrapping up, I can say that BriseBois has, once again, worked his magic. Somehow, even without a first or second-rounder, the Lightning still pulled some top-end talent out of this class and made a number of smart value picks to build out their prospect pool.
Lightning Stay True to Their Winning Formula
Arguably, the Lightning’s best pick was made in Round 4, when BriseBois traded a 2022 fourth to the Montreal Canadiens in order to jump into the round and select Dylan Duke. As an undersized but highly talented forward, Duke was projected by many to be off the board by the second round, with some having him as a late first-round talent. However, between his small size and mediocre skating ability, he slipped down the draft board, all the way to pick 126.
Now, while I may be a bit biased towards Duke as I wrote his draft profile for THW, I think this pick alone made the draft a success for the Lightning. The fundamentals of his game are well above a fourth-round selection, and when you consider that he is committed to playing for the University of Michigan starting in the 2022-23 season, he has a clear channel to develop his skillset with one of the top organizations in the NCAA.
The Lightning also have a knack for developing undersized players and helping to improve skating ability, so the things that may have scared off other general managers may not have been a concern to BriseBois. Either way, this is a fantastic low-risk, high reward selection that is a prime example of how you build a long-term winning roster.
Tampa Bay Playing the Long Game With Their Picks
While Duke was their prototypical undersized forward pick, BriseBois went large with his first selection, taking 6-foot-5, 210-pound defenseman Roman Schmidt in Round 3. As a classic big-bodied defensive-first defenseman, there’s a lot to like about his toolkit. Schmidt showed off solid fundamentals while playing a lot of hockey over the last year with the USNDTP and even got into five games with Team USA in the 2021 WJC-18. He’s going to be a bit of a project, but as a right-shot defenseman with top-four upside, he is a perfect selection to make in the third round.
With their remaining picks, the Lightning seemed to focus on players who were going to be developing in the NCAA. Three of their last five selections are committed to playing in the NCAA, with forwards Robert Flinton and Cameron MacDonald set for Dartmouth College and Alex Gagne for the University of New Hampshire. Considering how well this strategy has worked for Tampa Bay in recent years, these were smart, late-round picks by BriseBois.
The final picks of the draft were two European players on different career trajectories. First is overage Russian defenseman Daniil Pylenkov, who has been taking on playing time against men in the KHL for the last two seasons. While his statistics are solid, the fact that the juggernaut SKA St. Petersburgh added him to their stacked roster for the 2021-22 season shows that he may be even more talented than initially expected. At 20-year-old, he could be brought over to play in the AHL, but if he is able to work his way into consistent starting time with SKA, this might be the best spot for him to develop for the next two to three years.
With the last pick of the draft, Tampa Bay took Finnish forward Niko Huuhtanen, who is expected to play for the Everett Silvertips of the WHL for the 2021-22 season. Considering that he is already planning to make the transition to North America, he could be a seventh-round pick who makes an impact in the AHL in just a few short years, which would be a big win at this point in the draft.
Lightning Must Be Pleased With 2021 Draft
If you had written off the 2021 Draft as a lost cause for the Lightning, no one would have blamed you. With the majority of their picks coming after Round 5 and scouting greatly impacted by travel restrictions, this looked like a class that may not be very exciting for Tampa Bay.
However, despite all of this, I think this draft was a big win for the franchise. They selected players who have clear systems in place to develop over the next three to five years before making their mark on the Lightning. None of these selections will impact the franchise now, but they aren’t supposed to. Given the situation, that’s a big win by BriseBois.
The only thing I wished they had done is drafted Ryan St. Louis, son of Lightning legend Martin St. Louis. While I can understand why they went for bigger players with better projectables, it still would have been an amazing moment for the fans and franchise to select a St. Louis. However, this isn’t a knock against what BriseBois did in any way, as this was another stellar draft by this general manager.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.