Following last Sunday's 2013 NHL Entry Draft in Newark, New Jersey, the Lightning ended the evening without making any trades, instead holding on to the 6 selections they entered the day with.
This tweet found its way into my feed via the always insightful folks at Bolt Prospects:
Did I read that Yzerman drafted not 1 defenseman in the draft ? Wow the future looks so good. SMH this guy needs to go. #fireyzmerman
— Gator Bait (@CKurtzman) July 1, 2013
We need to remember to shift out of an NBA and NFL mentality when approaching the draft — there is only a small handful of players each year in the NHL draft that are ready to make the leap and play professionally in the toughest league in the world. And that's the way we want it — while almost every first round pick in the NBA and NFL will suit up and play a large role in their rookie seasons, the quality of play in the NHL is so high, players must be developed slowly and eased into the league rather than thrust into roles and responsibilities their 18 and 19-year old minds and bodies can't handle.
In this way, the NHL is much closer to MLB in that draft picks are both lottery tickets and long-term investments. You do your homework, you select the best players available to you when your name is called, and then you give each kid you pick every opportunity possible to grow and succeed for your organization.
On top of that, defensemen in particular typically take the longest of any position to develop — which is why Brian Lee was acquired in February of 2012 and tabbed as "still developing" despite 167 games of NHL experience and 290 games of North American pro hockey experience. In spite of all those games played, he was still something of an unknown, much like any of the defenseman Tampa Bay could have selected with any of their six draft picks this year.
While his time with the Lightning has signaled that Lee will likely never live up to his draft position, the point is that defensemen take years to become fully developed players, and picking them in the summer of 2013 to play in the fall of 2013 is, outside of a very few truly elite prospects, asinine.
Furthermore, the entry draft isn't the only place that talented, valuable prospects enter your organization. Part of the benefit of the Jeff Vinik/Steve Yzerman era in Tampa Bay has been the organizational and reputation makeover. Before the current ownership and management group took control, Tampa Bay was in many ways a laughingstock in the NHL. Now, Tampa Bay is an attractive free agent destination (as evidenced by the signings of Sami Salo, Matt Carle, and most recently, Valtteri Filppula).
In today's game, many talented prospects go undrafted for one reason or another — and the Lightning have excelled at finding overlooked players (Cory Conacher, Tyler Johnson) or high-profile, undrafted UFAs who get to pick their destination after strong college careers (Andrej Sustr, JT Brown).
Over the past year and a half, the Lightning have added quality defense prospects Sustr, Dmitry Korobov, and Artem Sergeev — two of whom have already experienced success at the AHL level, signaling their nearness to NHL readiness. Sergeev will likely bolster the blue line in Syracuse in 2013-2014.
So before you call for Yzerman's head, or bemoan the lack of defensive depth the Lightning possess — remember that just because a position wasn't drafted this year, doesn't mean there isn't help coming at that position soon.
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