After the Tampa Bay Lightning finish salvaging a disastrous season of Howard The Duck proportions this coming spring, one of the main off-season talking points will center on the development and future of rookie Steven Stamkos.
Despite Stamkos’ slower-than-expected adjustment to the professional game, few hockey observers doubt the 2008 No. 1 draft pick eventually will round into a top-level NHLer.
But the real question should be, was he the ideal choice for the Lightning?
If you asked me that last summer, I’d have answered, “oh-hell-yes-and-shame-on-you-for-even-considering-I-would-say-otherwise,” without a moment’s hesitation. However, after watching young blueliner Drew Doughty star for the Los Angeles Kings through the first half of this year – and watching the turnstiles masquerading as Lightning defensemen – I’ve completely changed my mind.
The Bolts ought to have drafted Doughty. Had they done so, they might even be challenging for a playoff berth right now.
Of course, it could be equally likely Doughty would be in the same predicament as Stamkos, laboring like the dickens along with the rest of his Lightning teammates. But take a gander at Doughty’s stats with the Kings and tell me he wouldn’t have greatly aided settle Tampa’s home-zone coverage.
As of mid-December, Doughty led all of Los Angeles’ skaters in ice time, averaging a rookie-best 23:40 per game. If he’d eaten-up that many minutes a night while wearing a Lightning jersey, odds are Tampa GM Brian Lawton might not have had to use up precious cap room and roster space on journeymen defensemen such as Marek Malik and Steve Eminger.
With Doughty in the fold, maybe Lawton asks Sharks GM Doug Wilson for something other than the since-traded Matt Carle in the deal that shipped out talented veteran Dan Boyle. Maybe the presence of a green D-man with supreme puck-moving abilities makes Tampa’s management and ownership reconsider trading Boyle at all.
And maybe the Lightning don’t apply as much pressure on Doughty, by avoiding the kind of pre-season marketing campaign some say heaped an unhealthy amount of pressure on Stamkos before he played his first NHL game.
It’s a moot point, of course, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a valid point. Indeed, with another entry draft approaching that will likely force the team choosing first to pick between a highly talented forward (Oshawa Generals center John Tavares) and an elite-level defenseman (Swedish native Victor Hedman), it’s a decision that could come to haunt another franchise.
Actually, if the Bolts continue to sag in the season’s second half, it’s a decision they may have to face again. And while the notion of pairing Stamkos with a point-producing machine like Tavares has more than a few merits, something tells me Lawton, Oren Koules and Len Barrie would be much better served by the skills of the towering (6-foot-7), sublimely-skilled Hedman.
You can bet there won’t be anywhere close to as much debate about the choice this time around. Many NHL GMs have noted, through both their words and their actions, that it is a much smarter idea to draft and develop talented defensemen than it is to take a chance on a scorer who could be the next Wayne Gretzky, Alex Ovechkin, or even Adam Oates.
Many hockey scouts said, prior to the 2008 draft, players like Doughty don’t come along very often. Stamkos may yet prove to be as rare a bird, but the Bolts already had a franchise-cornerstone forward in Vincent Lecavalier. And former Tampa GM Jay Feaster learned the hard way that the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement doesn’t leave much room to build depth in the superstar scorer department.
The next occasion you hear a GM at the draft talking rubbish like “we draft according to talent, not position,” feel free to scream “B.S.!” at the TV.
As the Lightning are learning, sometimes it’s best to grease your squeaky wheels, rather than purchase a fifth wheel that one day could be the prettiest of any already in your possession.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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