4 Lightning NHL Draft Targets

The Tampa Bay Lightning are a perfect example of how the current NHL promotes high-speed and high-scoring teams. The team features three legitimate scoring lines that it stocks with short but compact, speedy but balanced players who have powerful shots. If the 2019-20 regular season restarts, then the Lightning have a good chance of having four 30-goal scorers, a feat that has happened once in the NHL since 2008-09 (San Jose Sharks, 2018-19). 

Related: Lightning’s All-Decade Team – Defense

Given how deep the scoring lines are, I think it makes a lot of sense for the Lightning to draft a defenseman with its first pick in the 2020 Entry Draft (estimated No. 57-62). However, given the club’s propensity to give major roles to short offensive dynamos, I suspect it may still draft a top winger prospect if one should fall to Tampa Bay due to his height.  

Young NHL Firepower

There are several moves to which the Lightning need to attend this offseason. The top of its farm system has three skaters expected to challenge for full-time NHL roster spots in 2020-21: wings Alex Volkov and Alex Barre-Boulet, and top prospect Cal Foote on defense. Volkov projects as a middle-six forward and Barre-Boulet in the top six. Getting these players NHL experience — even if it’s on lines below their ceilings — is critical to their overall development.

Cal Foote Syracuse Crunch
Cal Foote, Syracuse Crunch (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

I think the club will tender offers to all four of its restricted free agents (forwards Anthony Cirelli and Carter Verhaeghe, and defenders Erik Cernak and Mikhail Sergachev). 

Of the five unrestricted free agents, the Lightning will most likely re-sign defenders Kevin Shattenkirk and Jan Rutta, then let winger Pat Maroon and blueliners Zach Bogosian and Luke Schenn walk. Here’s how I envision Tampa’s depth chart to look at the start of 2020-21: 

Table 1. Projected 2020-21 Lightning Forwards Depth Chart 

LW C RW 
Stamkos, Steven Point, Brayden Kucherov, Nikita 
Palat, Ondrej Cirelli, Anthony Killorn, Alex 
Coleman, Blake Johnson, Tyler Gourde, Yanni 
Goodrow, Barclay Verhaeghe, Carter Volkov, Alexander  

Table 2. Projected 2020-21 Lightning Defense Depth Chart 

LD RD 
Hedman, Victor McDonagh, Ryan 
Sergachev, Mikhai Shattenkirk, Kevin 
Foote, Cal   Cernak, Erik 

Barre-Boulet should replace Goodrow at some point during the season. He will most likely make the majors out of training camp, but I expect the Lightning to give him space since it traded away Anthony Greco and a third-round 2020 draft pick for Goodrow and a 2020 first-round pick just this past February.  

Shallow Pool of Defensive Prospects

After Foote, there is a real lack of blue line prospects who are expected to develop into NHL talent. There are only five defenders on the SB Nation list of top-25 Lightning prospects heading into 2019-20. Three of the five are either already in the NHL (Cernak, Sergachev) or expected to break into the big leagues from camp (Foote). 

Related: Lightning’s All-Decade Team – Offense

Dominik Masin is 24 years old and has underwhelmed in the two seasons after he posted 24 points in 72 games in the AHL. His ceiling is capped at a bottom-two defender. Radim Salda is the fifth defenseman on the list, but he returned to his native Czech Republic this season and scored 8 points in 37 games. He’s 21 and will lose his prospect status unless he shows major improvement in 2020-21. 

Not featured on the list was 2018 third-rounder Dmitri Semykin who recently signed an entry-level contract with the Lightning. He scored 42 points in 80 games across two seasons in the MHL (Moscow juniors) and played 13 games in the second-highest Russian major hockey league (the VHL, one level below the KHL).  

Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson, Victor Hedman
Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) celebrates with teammates, including defenseman Victor Hedman (77) and center Tyler Johnson (9) (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

The club’s defenders this season averaged a build of 6’3″ and 220 pounds. They are tasked with playing a great defensive game, scoring a lot of points, or both. The Lightning was one of 10 clubs in 2019-20 who had five defenders accumulate a point shares of at least 2.3. Point shares is a metric that measures the amount of team standing points contributed by a player’s offensive and defensive game. 

The list below contains 2020 Draft prospects who fit the mold of a Lightning skater and will most likely be available at the end of the second round when the club makes its first pick (height and weight are per NHL Central Scouting).  

Yan Kuznetsov, Defense, 6’4”, 209 Pounds, University of Connecticut (NCAA) 

NHL Final European Central Scouting Rank: 36 
The Hockey Writers’ Top 400 (May 2020): 75 
Future Considerations: 95 

Despite the low scoring numbers, Kuznetsov gets a pass because he was the youngest player in the NCAA this season. Also, he was in his first season of transitioning from the more wide-open European game to the much more physical North American style of play. He’s a decent skater but a very solid defensive defenseman already and has a good chance of making the NHL.

He disrupts transitions and has the one-on-one game to prevent rushes into his defensive zone. To me, playing good defense is more than just being physical with the man; the point of the game is to re-possess the puck. Therefore, I value defenders who can stop rushes at the blue line much more than I do those who allow opponents into the zone, regardless of physicality. Here’s how Kuznetsov describes his style

I have a big size, so I can play physically. I fill all the zones where I play and the tight gaps. The best part of my game is the defensive part I guess, but I’m working a lot on the offensive part too right now because I want to be a two-way defensive player.

As a bonus, Kuznetsov trails rush plays well that he instigates, and features a big-time slap shot from the point. I’m looking forward to watching his sophomore season at UConn. 

Tyler Kleven, Defense, 6’4″, 200 Pounds, USA U-18 NTDP (USHL) 

NHL Final North American Central Scouting Rank: 42 
The Hockey Writers’ Top 400 (May 2020): 67 
Future Considerations: 57 

A North Dakota native, Kleven’s committed to attending the University of North Dakota in 2020-21 — where he will play with fellow US National Team Development Program alum and likely 2020 first-round draft pick Jake Sanderson. Kleven’s refining his skills as a big defender. He’s committed to learning the nuances of defense and incorporating transitional play into his game, which is very important in today’s NHL: 

I know in North Dakota, I was more running at guys. Now, it’s more angling. It’s more getting pucks to forwards and transitioning rather than them coming down and getting a good opportunity.

Tyler Kleven (from ‘With unique blend of physicality and skill, Tyler Kleven could be highest-drafted North Dakotan ever,’ Grand Forks Herald, 05/10/2020)

He’s always been playing against older competition; he was playing against fifth graders when he was in second. Now he has the chance to apply what he’s learned on the U-18 US National Team in an arena where he’s again the youngest. 

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He’ll most likely need at least two years at UND and possibly another in the minors before he joins Tampa Bay, but Kleven is brimming with talent. He will have a long, productive NHL career if he continues to refine his game.  

William Villeneuve, Defense, 6’1”, 175 Pounds, Saint John (QMJHL) 

NHL Final North American Central Scouting Rank: 99 
The Hockey Writers’ Top 400 (May 2020): 64 
Future Considerations: 46 

The top defenseman pairing on the QMJHL’s Saint John club is Villeneuve and Jeremie Poirier. Both players should be drafted in the top three rounds in the 2020 Draft, with Poirier challenging for a first-round selection. Draft Geek Canada has an excellent video breakdown of Villeneueve that gives credence to the idea that it’s actually he who offers the some of the most potential not only on his defensive pairing, but out of all the 2020 draft-eligible defensemen.  

The best element of Villeneuve’s game, in my opinion, is the ability he’s shown at moving the puck from his defensive zone to the offensive portion of the ice. His talents extend beyond transition though– you don’t lead the CHL in defencemen scoring without being very comfortable with the puck on your stick within the opposing team’s blue line. He isn’t a consistently flashy offensive player, but Villeneuve has shown glimpses of high-end puck skills and vision.

Last Word on Hockey suggests that Kris Letang is a comparable for him and that Villeneuve is a top-4 defensive prospect with upside for manning the point on a power play unit in the NHL, given the lack of top defender talent in this draft. Certainly, he is no slouch offensively, having averaged 0.91 points per game this season. 

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That mark was second only to top prospect Jamie Drysdale out of all first-time NHL draft-eligible CHL defensemen. In THW’s 2020 Rankings, he has risen from 87 in January to 64 in May, putting him on the cusp of a second-round grade.  

Wildcard: Alexander Pashin, 5’8”, 154 Pounds, Tolpar Ufa (MHL) 

NHL Final European Central Scouting Rank: 22 
The Hockey Writers’ Top 400 (May 2020): 30 
Future Considerations: 77

The fourth player on this list is a winger that’s such a prototypical Lightning winger that this article feels incomplete without including him: Alexander Pashin. According to the site Dobber Prospects, it’s Pashin’s height that’s keeping him out of the first round. I’ve seen sources list him between 5’6” and 5’8”, but he has top-notch stick handling, puck pursuit, and skating skills. From Pashin’s 2020 THW Prospect Profile

Pashin also helps defensively by creating turnovers along the boards and cutting off passes from opponents and is an effective penalty killer. He’s an extremely intelligent forward who is always moving, unafraid to play physically, who can score from anywhere thanks to his lethal shot.

In all reality, Pashin is who I expect the Lightning to draft in the late second. The previously mentioned draft targets are good players who are worthy of late second to mid-third-round selections, but Pashin is a first-round talent and plays a style with which the Lightning are very familiar (see: Martin St. Louis, Tyler Johnson, and Yanni Gourde). 

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THW’s Lightning contributor, Eugene Helfrick, agrees that Pashin would be a terrific target at 57 for the club. 

Fierce Future Lightning Storms 

Tampa doesn’t have any holes in its NHL roster and can afford the time to develop a prospect. This will allow the Lightning to draft a player with upside over a “safe” skater, a lower-quality player who sacrifices upside for an earlier NHL arrival. 

Next season, the team will still possess the depth needed to weather injury issues, just as it did in 2019-20. When Stamkos missed 13 games, Palat stepped into the top left-wing role. Ryan McDonagh missed 20 games this season and there were several combinations of Cernak, Hedman, Shattenkirk, and Sergachev that filled in for him. 

Related: Ben Bishop Trade Revisited

Look for the Lightning to draft Pashin if he is available when it picks in the second round. He would fit very well on the Lightning as a middle-six forward, gritty enough for work on the penalty kill but showcasing scoring promise to run on the second scoring line.

If not, Kleven, Kuznetsov, and Villeneuve represent three of the best defensemen that should be available for the club. Just because the Lightning has used trade and free agency to acquire seven of the top-eight blueliners currently on its roster, that doesn’t mean that the club cannot develop blue line talent. Cal Foote would certainly disagree.

Regardless of who the Lightning ultimately select, there’s a good chance that he will contribute on both ends of the ice. He and the other Lightning young guns may turn this club into a future scoring machine that the NHL has not seen in decades.