As the 2022 Trade Deadline approached, the Tampa Bay Lightning fan base waited with eager anticipation. Would General Manager, Julien BriseBois, stand pat with the team he had? A team already known to be pushing the limits of the salary cap. Would he make a move to bolster the team for an upcoming playoff run? A team would need a Scout Master. A Director of Scouting that knows all the best hockey players in the world.
On March 18th, the answer came. Forward Brandon Hagel would be coming from the Chicago Blackhawks to join the Lightning. In exchange for Hagel, the Lightning gave up some young talent. But more notably, they gave up not one, but two first round draft picks. One in 2023 and one in 2024. There was skepticism around the league. Had the Lightning overpaid? Hagel was the player they’d wanted but doesn’t a team need its first-round picks in order to maintain its competitive status in the years to come?
Past is Prologue
It’s not the first time BriseBois has shown the Lightning faithful that he isn’t too worried about dealing away his first-round picks. Lightning fans will recall that the Bolts gave up first-round picks for both Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow in 2020. Fans will also recall that those trades were critical for the back-to-back Stanley Cups.
So why is BriseBois not afraid to deal these early round picks? Perhaps, one key is the well-earned trust he has in director of amateur scouting, Al Murray. During his 12 years with the Lightning, Murray has shown an amazing ability to recognize talent in later rounds of the draft.
If one looks through the list of Hart Trophy Memorial winners (the Most Valuable Player for the NHL season) over the last 11 seasons, every winner is someone who was drafted in the top 5 picks of their draft. There is one glaring exception. The 2019 winner. Nikita Kucherov was drafted near the end of the second round- 58th overall- in the 2011 draft. Virtually every other team in the league had a chance to take Kucherov but none recognized what Murray and his team did.
Preparation Meeting Opportunity
Perhaps Kucherov was just a lucky find? Many believe that a definition of luck is that it is preparation meeting opportunity. One would need to look deeper into the team to know for certain. Captain Steven Stamkos was a first overall pick. Norris Trophy winner, Victor Hedman, was second overall. Andrei Vasilevskiy was also a first-round pick (19th overall). However, the Lightning have more star power than that. The leading goal scorer in the 2020 and 2021 playoffs was a third-round pick from the 2014 draft. The Lightning made a key trade in that third round to get the 79th overall pick, rather than the 80th and they used pick number 79 to select center, Brayden Point.
The third-round pick success does not end there. The Lightning advanced to the 2020 Stanley Cup Final with an overtime win against the New York Islanders in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final. The game-winning goal was scored by someone who is one of the Lightning’s best all-around players- one many believe will one day win a Selke Trophy as the forward who best excels in the defensive aspects of the game. Anthony Cirelli was the 72nd pick of the 2015 draft.
Continuing down the lineup, the Lightning needed just one goal to win the Stanley Cup Final Series over the Montreal Canadiens in Game 5 in 2021. That one goal was scored by a 4th round pick- 118th overall- Ross Colton. These examples are the preparation of Murray and his scouts meeting the opportunities these draft picks took on the ice.
The Ultimate Proof of the Scout Master
In the 2022 playoffs, the Lightning had a player that was given the nickname “Mr. Clutch” because of his ability to score key goals, especially towards the end of a third period. That player was drafted in the seventh round of the 2011 draft- 208th overall. Ondrej Palat has since been described by his teammates and coaches as one who will go down in history as one of the best ever to don a Lightning uniform. Palat may be the best 7th round pick in recent NHL history.
It is true that most of the league’s superstars are first-round picks. However, it is important to note that the vast majority are very early first round picks, generally top 5. When you have a team flirting with that “dynasty” word as they face off in a Conference Final 6 times in the span of 8 years and a Stanley Cup Final in 4 of those 8 years, it’s clear that such a team is highly unlikely to have a pick in the top 5 overall. A first-round pick for a team like this is most likely going to be 25th or higher overall. The last player to win a Hart Trophy after being drafted that late in the first round was a player drafted 28th overall by the Anaheim Ducks in the 2003 draft. Corey Perry went on to win the Hart Trophy in 2011.
Lightning Future in Good Hands
For added security, when the Lightning made the trade for Hagel, the 2023 and 2024 first round picks were “top 10 protected”. This means there is a fail-safe. If the unthinkable happens for Lightning fans and the team falters and ends up getting a pick in the top 10, the Lightning retain that pick. They would give the first round selection to the Blackhawks the following year.
Sadly for the Lightning and their faithful fan base, the Bolts fell just short in their attempt to “3peat”. But as Captain Steven Stamkos poignantly asked after the loss, “Who says we’re done?” It takes more than just a few elite players to create a championship team. It takes an entire organization. With BriseBois at the helm, and guys like Al Murray and crew able to spot talent most other scouts miss throughout the draft, there is no reason to doubt the captain. The Tampa Bay Lightning are not done yet.
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