Even though it has not yet resulted in a championship for this current core, the Tampa Bay Lightning have been one of the NHL’s elite teams for more than four years now.
Since the start of the 2014-15 season only the Washington Capitals have won more regular season games, while they have reached the NHL’s final four in three of the past four seasons. The one year they didn’t reach that point (2016-17) injuries to several key players derailed their season and just barely kept them out of the playoffs. Sandwiched around that one tough-luck year was a trip to the Stanley Cup Final and a pair of Eastern Conference Final appearances that resulted in Game 7 losses to the eventual Stanley Cup champions (the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and Washington in 2018).
That success — and it is success — is no accident and is the result of an incredible front office that has consistently stacked the roster with top-tier offensive talent.
After their 5-2 win over the New Jersey Devils on Sunday, they are once again near the top of the NHL standings and looking like they should be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender this spring.
Like most contending teams they had some good fortune when it came to being bad at just the right time to land a couple of franchise-changing talents at the top of the draft.
They selected Steven Stamkos No. 1 overall in 2008 and he has been everything they could have hoped for him to be as a front-line center and franchise player.
The very next year they picked Victor Hedman, one of the most complete and well-rounded defenders in the world, with the No. 2 overall pick.
But other than defender Slater Koekkoek and starting goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy (selected 10th and 19th overall respectively in 2012) there is not another player on the current roster that the Lightning used one of their own first-round picks on. The rest of the roster has been assembled through blockbuster trades (Mikhail Sergachev — who was acquired for former third overall pick Jonathan Drouin — J.T. Miller, Ryan McDonagh, Ryan Callahan), free agent signings (Anton Stralman), or later round draft steals.
When it comes to the latter, they seem to have found another one in 22-year-old forward Brayden Point.
Point has been one of the Lightning’s best players this season and after another three-point effort in Sunday’s win is now up to 31 points in 24 games this season.
Following a breakout performance in 2017-18 that saw him finish with 32 goals and 66 total points he is looking like he is on track to smash both numbers. In his past six games alone he has eight goals and 12 total points. That run includes five multi-point games, including that incredible performance in Pittsburgh when he scored three power play goals in only 91 seconds of game-time.
[Related: Brayden Point scores hat trick in 91 seconds]
The Lightning found him in the third-round of the 2014 draft after 78 other players had been picked. Of all the players taken in that draft class, only seven of them have collected more points than he has, while only one of those players (Nashville Predators forward Viktor Arvidsson) was taken outside of the first-round. If you go as far as the top-18 point producers from that draft class only three of them were selected after the 25th overall pick.
For the Lightning to get a legitimate top-line player in the third-round in that class is a tremendous find.
It is also not the first time they have done it over the past few years in building this current roster.
Let’s just look at the rest of their core.
- Nikita Kucherov was a second-round draft pick, No. 58 overall, in 2011 and is one of only two players from that class to have already topped the 350-point mark for his career. Gabriel Landeskog, the No. 2 overall pick, is the other. He and Kucherov are separated by the slimmest of margins for the top spot from that class when it comes to point production, while Kucherov is one of just four players in the top-15 that year to be taken after the first round. One of those four players is…
- Ondrej Palat, who is the ninth-leading scorer from that class. The Lightning found him in the seventh-round with the 208th overall selection. That is two of the top-10 scorers in one draft class going to one team, and that team did not use a first-round pick on either one of them.
- The Lightning signed Tyler Johnson as an undrafted free agent in March, 2011. Of all the players taken in the 2010 draft class (where he should have been selected), Johnson’s 277 points would place him ninth among that group. All eight players ahead of him were first-round draft picks, while only two of them (Vladimir Tarasenko at 16th overall, and Evgeny Kuznetsov at 26th overall) were taken after the 15th pick.
- Yanni Gourde, after finishing sixth in the Calder Trophy voting a year ago, is nearly a point-per-game player through the first quarter of his second season and has already shown enough to convince the team to give him a long-term contract extension.
Including Point, that is five pretty significant players that have all outperformed their draft positions. That is exactly what should pop in your mind when you hear someone referred to as a “steal.”
This kind of analysis can be difficult because there are always a ton of variables as to why a prospect succeeds (or, as the case may be, does not succeed). Maybe it is getting picked in the right environment, or going to the right team, or just getting the right opportunity with the right linemates. Or maybe it is sometimes just a little bit of dumb luck.
There is also a sort of chicken-or-egg element to all of this where you have to consider how much of it is player scouting, and how much of it is player development.
For example, if a team like Tampa knew how good some of these prospects were going to turn out to be, they probably would have taken them sooner in the draft. In other words, if the Lightning knew Nikita Kucherov was going to be — arguably — the best player from his draft class, they probably would have taken him with the 27th pick instead of Vladislav Namestnikov and not given every other team in the league an opportunity to take him instead. And it’s not that Namestnikov turned out to be a bad player, he just hasn’t been Kucherov. They took three other player in that class before Palat. Like everyone else, they completely passed on Johnson and Gourde in their draft years.
So development and coaching (and luck) is also a factor.
But there is one common trait that all of these players share that point to smart drafting by the Lightning.
They are all smaller forwards (or at least what would be considered “undersized), and they were all wildly productive in their pre-NHL careers compared to the rest of their peers in their respective draft years.
Johnson, Gourde, and Point are all among the smallest players in the league, while Kucherov (listed at 5-11, 178) and Palat (5-11, 180) aren’t exactly mountains out there on the ice.
And what about the production? After being a better than point-per-game player for his first three years in the Western Hockey League, Johnson ended up finishing second in scoring in 2010-11 (one point off the lead) and was the league’s leading goal-scorer the year the Lightning signed him.
Gourde won the QMJHL scoring title (by 23 points!) the year before he signed with the Lightning.
Point was a top-15 scorer in the WHL in his draft year when he slid to the third-round.
The Lightning have made a habit of doing this over the years, and it’s not just with these players that have stuck and become key parts of their team. Jonathan Marchessault, now one of the league’s best forwards, spent some time in the Tampa organization with some modest success before blossoming in Florida and Vegas.
Cory Conacher gave the Lightning some strong play during the 2012-13 season before he was later flipped to the Ottawa Senators in a trade for Ben Bishop, who would go on to be an excellent starting goalie for several years in Tampa.
In the end there are a lot of factors that worked out here for the Lightning to be able to assemble all of this talent. They have probably been a little fortunate to have some of these players fall into their laps when they did. But they also clearly targeted the right traits (production, skill), found players that were overlooked by other teams for what were probably the wrong reasons, and then put them in great situations where they could succeed in the NHL.
The result is one heck of a team that is a Stanley Cup contender every single season.
Now they just have to get a little bit of luck on their side when it comes to the playoffs to actually get this core its championship.
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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.