Best in Round is a ten part series. For each installment, I’ll be going through a specific round of the draft for the Tampa Bay Lightning and selecting the best player the team selected in that round. The player didn’t need to play for the Lightning or play significant time with the Lightning to qualify. Only that they were drafted by the Lightning. The rest of the selection criteria is purely subjective based on my own opinions. Some opinions may also be based on future speculation for players that have not finished their career or are just starting.
We’ve finally made it to the first round. Before I dive into it, I’d just like to say how much fun I’ve had with all of these write ups. It’s allowed me to dig deeper into just what the Lightning have done in the draft over the years. They’ve had some hits and they’ve had some really big misses. And that’s true of every team. They’ve also had some players they gave up on that became really good players elsewhere. It’s simply the nature of scouting and player development. But now we get to the hardest round of all to pick from, the 1st round.
Since the 1992 NHL Entry Draft, the Lightning have used 22 first round selections. They have had 3 first overall selections and have selected in the top 5 eight times. 19 of their 22 first round picks have played in at least 1 NHL game with 2 of those three picks being 2014 pick Anthony DeAngelo, who is no longer in the organization, and 2016 pick Brett Howden. Four picks have reached 1,000 games played in the NHL with at least 2 more on the way to that in Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman. You can also add in Jonathan Drouin and possibly Vladislav Namestnikov as players with the skills and ability to eventually make it to that milestone as well.
There’s too many picks here for me to go through every one of them in depth. So I suppose what I will do is break them down into categories and give at least a little bit of information on each player.
Brett Howden (2016), Anthony DeAngelo (2014), Slater Koekkoek (2012).
Slater Koekkoek is the only one of this group to have made it to the NHL and has the potential to have a solid career. DeAngelo was traded to Arizona this past summer at the draft for a 2nd round pick that was used to take Libor Hajek. DeAngelo failed to develop defensively and had some attitude issues which led to Yzerman making the move. Howden also has a lot of potential as a center with size that plays a two-way game, but is at least a few years from the NHL.
Jonathan Drouin (2013), Andrei Vasilevskiy (2012), Vladislav Namestnikov (2011).
Of the group, Drouin has the most potential to turn into a perennial All-Star and potentially a Hall of Famer. Vasilevskiy is also up in that conversation as he has all the tools to become an elite goaltender for years to come. Namestnikov could stick around long enough to hit 1,000 games played, but even getting into the 500-700 games played area would be a very solid career for the Russian center.
Bye, Bye, Bye
Carter Ashton (2009), Riku Helenius (2006), Vladimir Mihalik (2005), Andy Rogers (2004), Mario Larocque (1996).
All of these players have something in common. They didn’t make much of an impact in the NHL and are either out of hockey or have gone to Europe. Andy Rogers is the one player that isn’t still a prospect to never make it to the NHL. He retired after the 2009-10 season after four professional seasons of limited play in the AHL and ECHL. Carter Ashton was the most successful of the group with 54 NHL games. He was sent to Toronto and then sent back to the Lightning before bouncing to the KHL to play with Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod.
Mihalik spent 6 years in North America after being drafted with two years in the WHL. He played 15 games over two years with the Lightning and then returned to Europe after spending all of the 2010-11 season in Norfolk with the Admirals. Larocque played 5 games for the Lightning in his rookie pro season in 1998-99, but never made it back to the NHL. He bounced around the IHL, AHL, ECHL, and UHL and mixed in some stints in Europe in Austria, Italy, and England.
Helenius initially came to North America a season after being drafted to play in the WHL. In 2008-09 he appeared in 1 game for the Lightning but also played for the Norfolk Admirals in the AHL, and the Augusta Lynx, Mississippi Sea Wolves, and Elmira Jackals of the ECHL. He followed that with half a year with the Norfolk Admirals before being loaned back to the SHL. He spent two years rebuilding his value in the SHL and Liiga before returning to the United States. He had a solid year in Syracuse in 2012-13 before being pushed out of his AHL spot by Kristers Gudlevskis in 2013-14. Some drama ensued and he ended up being released to return home. He has spent the past three seasons with Jokerit in the KHL.
Brett Connolly (2010), Alexander Svitov (2001), Nikita Alexeyev (2000)
Connolly was a pick in the first draft after Steve Yzerman took over. However, the pick was made by the previous regime’s scouting staff as Yzerman didn’t have time to get his staff in place before the draft and to properly prepare. Connolly struggled in the NHL and with consistency in the AHL. He was moved at the trade deadline in 2014-15 to the Boston Bruins for a pair of 2nd round picks. He has 210 career games and 59 points and signed with the Washington Capitals for the 2016-17 season.
From 2000 to 2002, the Lightning selected 11 Russian players out of 37 selections. Svitov and Alexeyev were the two highest picks of the group going #3 and #8 overall in the first round.
Alexeyev had already made the move to North America playing for the Erie Otters of the OHL prior to being drafted. He had good size and scored well for Erie. He spent another year with Erie before turning pro with the Lightning. He split his first two professional seasons between the NHL and AHL before spending two full seasons in the AHL. He returned to Russia for the 2005-06 season, but came back to the Lightning the following year. He played in 63 games for the Lightning in 2006-07 before being traded to the Chicago Blackhawks where he played 15 games. Following the season he returned to Russia and retired after the 2012-13 season. In total he had 156 NHL games.
Svitov remained in Russia for another year after his draft year before coming to North America. He had 63 games in Tampa his rookie season and 11 games in the AHL. The following season though, he only had 11 games in Tampa and 30 games in the AHL before being traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets with the Lightning picking up Darryl Sydor and a 4th rounder used to pick Mike Lundin at the deadline with Sydor being a catalyst for the Lightning on their way to the Stanley Cup. Svitov spent the 2004-05 lockout in the AHL and returned to the Russian Super League for the 2005-06 season. He came back to the Blue Jackets for the 2006-07 season and then went back to Russia for good. Svitov is currently the Captain of Ak Bars Kazan of the KHL and won the Gagarin Cup in 2010-11 with Salavat Yulaev Ufa.
Pretty Good NHLers
Paul Mara (1997), Daymond Langkow (1995), Jason Wiemer (1994), Chris Gratton (1993), Roman Hamrlik (1992)
The Lightning really hit on their first rounders early in the franchise’s history. Six of their first seven first rounders played over 700 games in the NHL. Four of them made it past the 1,000 game mark. The only problem is that they didn’t exactly get the most value out of those players.
Paul Mara would only spend parts of three years with the Lightning professionally. He made his NHL debut in 1998-99 playing in one game, but spent the rest of the year in the OHL. He had 100 games in Tampa over two seasons from 1999-2001 with some time mixed in in the IHL with the Detroit Vipers. He was traded to the Phoenix Coyotes in March 2001 as a part of a package that returned Stanislav Neckar and the rights to Nikolai Khabibulin. Over his career, he score 253 points and would play 734 NHL games with Tampa, Phoenix, Boston, New York Rangers, Montreal, and Anaheim. He never won a Stanley Cup and retired after the 2012-13 season.
Like Mara, Daymond Langkow did not last in Tampa Bay very long. He played in 4 NHL games in 1995-96 with the rest of his season in the WHL. He spent the majority of the next three seasons in the NHL with Tampa with a handful on minor league games. In December of 1998, he was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers with Mikael Renberg for Chris Gratton and Mike Sillinger. He had 61 points over 173 games with the Lightning, but flourished later with 8 straight seasons over 50 points with a high of 77 points in 2006-07. He’d finished his career with 672 points over 1090 games. He played with Tampa Bay, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and Calgary and retired after the 2011-12 season.
For Jason Wiemer, the Lightning immediately put him to work after being drafted. He played in 36 games during the 1994-95 season, but only had 5 points. Eventually the Lightning sent him back to the WHL for the remainder of the season. He would come back in 1995-96 and play with the Lightning until he was traded in March of 1998 for Sandy McCarthy, a 3rd rounder and a 5th rounder. Oh and that 3rd rounder was used to pick Brad Richards. Not a bad return really. He only had 54 points in 232 games with the Lightning. He’d eventually finish with 202 points in 726 games with Tampa, Calgary, Florida, New York Islanders, Minnesota, and New Jersey. So maybe he wasn’t a “Pretty Good” NHLer, but he did have longevity.
Victor Hedman (2009), Steven Stamkos (2008), Vincent Lecavalier (1998)
Victor Hedman came in to the league as a big defenseman from Sweden having played a combined 82 games over 2 seasons for MODO Hockey of the SHL. Hedman took some time to come in to his own and was a bit of a project. But the skating and the skill was there to work with. He had 69 points in 214 games over his first three seasons with the Lightning for 0.32 points per game. Since then he has 160 points is 256 games for 0.625 points per game. Hedman logs big minutes every night and has turned into one of the top 10 defensemen in the league. At 25 years old and having just re-signed for 8 more years after this season, Hedman has a lot of good hockey and potentially a Norris Trophy ahead of him.
Steven Stamkos came into the league regarded as something of a generational talent. While that reputation may have been lessened to some degree, he’s still one of the two best goal scorers in the league behind only Alexander Ovechkin. Stamkos has made a name for himself with his extremely accurate one-timer from the left wing circle on the power play. He has won the Rocket Richard trophy for most goals scored twice and been a 4-time All-Star. He has 562 points in 569 NHL games with 312 goals. He set the franchise record for goals scored in a season with 60 goals in 2011-12. Stamkos has also signed a new 8-year contract and will be with Tampa through the rest of his prime years.
Vincent Lecavalier was once seen as the savior of the Lightning. He was big. He had skill. He could score goals. But he was often plagued by not having the best chemistry with his linemates. He was also the youngest Captain ever in the NHL (since surpassed) when he was given the C in 2000-01. He was subsequently stripped of his Captaincy before regaining it in 2008-09. He is a Stanley Cup champion and Rocket Richard winner. He’s been an All-Star four times and was an All-Star Captain once. Lecavalier was also known for his philanthropic endeavors and has a building at All Children’s Hospital named after him.
Unfortunately for Lecavalier, he had signed a monster of a long term deal and then saw his performance decline partly due to aging, partly due to injuries. After the 2012-13 NHL lockout gave Yzerman the opportunity to buyout two contracts with no salary cap penalty, he made the difficult choice of buying out Lecavalier. Lecavalier signed with the Philadelphia Flyers but began to struggle after his first season in Philly. He eventually waived his No Move Clause at the 2015-16 trade to allow a trade to the Los Angeles Kings. He flourished in Los Angeles and got one more opportunity at the playoffs. However, Los Angeles fell in the first round. Following the season, Lecavalier retired from hockey and has been seen in the Tampa Bay area.
Lecavalier finished his career with 949 points and 421 goals in 1,212 NHL games, plus another 56 points in 75 playoff games.
Well we’ve made it to the end. And with so many great players from the first round, and particularly looking at those last three, it’s pretty hard to choose. While Lecavlier was a great player, he faded rather quickly from his highs and dealt with injuries that slowed him down. Stamkos is one of the greatest goal scorers of his generation and if he continues on this way, he’ll have a solid chance at making his way in to the Hall of Fame.
Ultimately, I have to go with Steven Stamkos as the Lightning’s best ever first round selection.