It takes years to fully evaluate any NHL Draft class, as even players with the highest expectations take time to develop into full-time starters. Also, a team will take a chance on somewhat unknown prospects, causing fans to judge the pick against the potential around it without knowing how the player will fit into a franchise’s long-term plans.
For the Tampa Bay Lightning, the 2015 NHL Draft has become the perfect example of why you need patience when evaluating a draft class. Despite having two first-round picks heading into the season, then general manager Steve Yzerman traded both, one in a deal for Brayden Coburn and the other to the New York Islanders in order to move back and accumulate more picks on the second day of the draft.
Overall, the Lightning made nine selections in 2015, with Yzerman often going off the board to try and find his next big draft-day hit. At the time, this class was seen as one lacking in star talent that still had the potential to add a niche player or two to the franchise. As the years have gone by, however, the 2015 Draft has become one of the most important for Tampa Bay’s success, supplementing an already strong roster with an injection of young, top-end talent.
Lightning Struck Gold With Cirelli
Heading into the draft, Anthony Cirelli was seen as a hard-working prospect that may be overvalued after having an outstanding Memorial Cup, where he played hero for the Oshawa Generals as they won it all. Seeing many aspects he liked, Yzerman took a little bit of a gamble on him, selected Cirelli 72nd overall with one of the picks he acquired in the trade with the Islanders.
Since being drafted, Cirelli has seen some of the most dramatic development out of any prospect in Lightning history. By 2018, he had locked down a starting role with the franchise despite only being 20-years-old. Shortly after that, he entered the conversation as one of the leagues best two-way forwards by finishing fourth in Selke voting.
By establishing himself as a top-end two-way forward, Cirelli filled a crucial role for the franchise without the Lightning having to give up a significant amount of resources. See, this sort of player is difficult to add to a roster, often requiring a major trade if you are unable to get a hit at the draft.
For example, when Mark Stone (the 2019 Selke winner) was traded to the Vegas Golden Knights by the Ottawa Senators, it cost the Golden Knights a starting forward, a top defensive prospect, and a 2nd-round draft pick. Then, Stone was signed to an eight-year, $9.5 million contract, making him a very expensive forward in terms of both cap-hit and trade value.
Since Cirelli developed through the draft, the Lightning not only got the perfect player they needed for a Stanley Cup push, but they also got that player at a cap-hit that they could manage by using his entry-level contract and then re-signing him as a restricted-free-agent to a reasonable new deal. In all, even if Cirelli was the only player to make it to the NHL out of the 2015 Draft, it would have still been considered a huge success for the franchise.
Lightning Found More Value in 2015
Cirelli, of course, isn’t the only player to reach the NHL out of this draft for the Lightning. Alongside him, second-round pick Mitchell Stephens and fourth-rounder Mathieu Joseph also broke through for Tampa Bay.
First is Stephens, who took a little bit longer to develop than Cirelli, but still reached the NHL in a full-time capacity by the 2020-21 season after acting as a leader for the Syracuse Crunch, the Lightning’s AHL affiliate. If not for suffering a bad injury early in the season, he would likely be taking on meaningful ice-time each night as Tampa Bay prepares for another run at the Stanley Cup.
Joseph, on the other hand, blast onto the scene in 2018-19 after leading the Crunch in scoring the year prior. He earned a spot on the roster out of training camp and posted 26 points throughout his rookie season. Despite a setback in his sophomore campaign, he worked his way back into the Bolts’ starting line-up and is on pace to score 10 goals in the shortened season, making him a great depth piece for the franchise.
The final 2015 Draft pick to make the NHL for the Lightning wasn’t made by the franchise, but was L.A. Kings second-round pick Erik Cernak, whom the Bolts acquired via trade. As a second-round pick, there was some belief that Cernak could become an NHL’er for Tampa Bay, but he quickly outpaced even the most optimistic projections when he made the jump to the NHL in 2018-19 as a top-four defenseman.
While Cernak may not be an offensive dynamo, his defensive ability and physical presence have been exactly what the Lightning needed from a young starter. You can argue that his play has been every bit as impactful as Cirelli and he will continue to factor into the team’s future for years to come.
2015 Draft Led Lightning to a Championship
Coming off of a trip to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, the Lightning needed a strong draft to continue their success as a franchise. By pulling four starters out of a single draft class, Tampa Bay set themselves up not only for their 2020 Stanley Cup victory but for a new wave of core players to take over the franchise.
With young players pushing their way into the line-up, the Lightning were able to keep their roster fresh without the need to make a big trade or expensive free-agent signing every offseason. These players also gave the team more cap flexibility at a time when veteran players were getting new, costly contracts. which allowed the franchise to make those big splashes at the trade deadline.
After all of these players received extensions in the 2020 offseason, they remain some of the most important aspects for the future of the franchise. Most teams would be ecstatic to get just Cirelli or Cernak out of a single draft class, so to get both plus two great depth pieces in Joseph and Stephens makes this draft an all-around hit for the Lightning.