Throughout his tenure with the Tampa Bay Lightning, general manager Steve Yzerman found great success at the draft. Even if he struggled at times with first-round picks, his team of scouts consistently pulled top talent out of all levels of the draft.
Since he has departed Tampa Bay for the Detroit Red Wings, let’s look back at some of the best picks made by Yzerman during his near-decade at the helm of the Lightning.
#5: Anthony Cirelli
As the 72nd pick in the 2015 draft, it would have been easy to write off Anthony Cirelli as a longshot to reach the NHL, let alone a player who would excel once he made it there. Despite this, Cirelli quickly established himself as one of the Lightning’s top prospects in his first season playing for their AHL affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch.
In fact, before the end of his AHL rookie season, Cirelli received a call-up, scoring two goals in his very first game. After that debut, he locked down a third-line role with the franchise.
To put it simply, Cirelli was the exact player that the Lightning needed to develop. He is not only a skilled scorer, but he has become one of the best defensive forwards in the NHL. As the years rolled on, he continued to impress, scoring key playoff goals while earning a three-year extension that will keep him with the franchise as they make deep runs in the postseason.
Not bad for a third-round pick.
#4: Ondrej Palat
As a seventh-round draft pick by the Lightning back in 2011, Ondrej Palat has done nothing but exceed expectations with the franchise. First, he helped lead Tampa Bay’s then-AHL affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals, to the 2012 Calder Cup Championship.
Then he put together one of the best rookie seasons in Lightning history in 2013-14. Palat would go on to post 23 goals and 59 points en route to a second-place finish for the Calder Memorial Trophy.
After that, he put together a 63-point campaign in 2014-15 as a member of Tampa Bay’s famed Triplets line, one of the single most dominant lines in the NHL that season.
While Palat’s scoring totals have dipped in recent years, he still is an important part of the team’s identity and is one of the Lightning’s best draft picks in team history. In fact, one can argue that he is the best value pick made in the league over the last decade.
#3: Brayden Point
Of all the players that the Lightning drafted during Yzerman’s tenure, no one better fit his mold than Brayden Point. As a speedy and skilled forward, Point was overlooked at the draft due to his size. Many thought he had the talent to be a first-round pick, but he fell all the way to the third-round before Tampa Bay selected him.
Point wasted no time rewarding the Lightning for their selection. He made his NHL debut as a 19-year-old in 2016, instantly becoming a focal point of the team’s identity. Over his first three seasons, Point was named an All-Star, posted a 40-goal season, and was one of the Lightning’s most dominant defensive players.
Since that breakout 40-goal campaign, Point has continued to be a dominant force for Tampa Bay. He was second in postseason scoring in both 2020 and 2021 so far and has been a fixture on the Lightning’s top offensive line. He is a truly special player who excels when the lights are brightest, which is a trait every franchise dreams of in a draft pick.
#2: Andrei Vasilevskiy
After coming up one game short of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, the Lightning experienced a disastrous 2011-12 season that saw them back in the basement of the league. The only positive came from Yzerman liquidating his veteran players at the trade deadline to grow a stockpile of picks in the upcoming draft.
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Using a first-rounder acquired in one of those trades, the Lightning took the best goaltender available, Andrei Vasilevskiy. For a team in dire need of a franchise goaltender, Vasilevskiy represented a beacon of hope. If all went well, he could be their answer to a decades-long struggle in net.
As his playing career progressed, Vasilevskiy established himself as, arguably, the best goaltender in the world. Over the last four seasons, he has been nominated for the Vezina Trophy each year, while winning the award in 2019. He has also been a clutch producer in the playoffs, leading the Lightning to the 2020 Stanley Cup while setting team records for wins and games played along the way.
Simply put, Yzerman hit a home run with this pick, giving the Lightning their goaltender of the future.
#1: Nikita Kucherov
There are few hockey players in the world as dominant as Nikita Kucherov. When he is playing at his best, he can seemingly score at will, either setting up a perfect pass for his teammates or using his world-class shot to baffle opposing goaltenders.
At the 2011 draft though, there were many questions regarding Kucherov. Some saw him as a first-round pick while others saw him as a risk due to the infamous ‘Russian Factor’ and his small stature. Yes, he had potential game-breaking skill, but no one was positive if that skill would make it to the NHL.
All of these questions caused him to drop all the way down to the 58th pick, where the Lightning happily took a chance on him.
Since he joined the league, Kucherov has been rewarding the Lightning for taking a chance on him. As a second-round pick, there were some expectations about what he could develop into. What he became is, inarguably, a top-five player in the NHL and the best draft pick during the Yzerman-Era.
Lightning’s Success in ‘Yzerman-Era’
Before Yzerman took over the Lightning in 2010, the franchise was known for having weak drafts. While they found success with their first and second overall picks, they pulled in little talent outside of those selections.
From first-round winners to seventh-rounder miracles, the Lightning found incredible talent from all levels of the draft under Yzerman. It may not be an exact science, but they looked like geniuses with these five picks.
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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.