By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer
The Lightning, whose Round 1 pick is its lowest ever, said it's just as ready despite fewer bodies.
NASHVILLE - How did the Lightning get the 25th pick in today's draft?
As one of six division champions, it automatically received one of the first round's final six picks. Because it had the fewest points of the titlists, it received the first of those selections.
The lowest first-round pick in Lightning history has transformed the draft at Gaylord Entertainment Center from what historically has been an event full of intrigue and excitement - would Tampa Bay use its high pick or trade? - to one of workmanlike duty.
But as head scout Jake Goertzen said, "We'll gladly take where the team finished for where we pick, absolutely."
Still, Tampa Bay is in an interesting position. This is the second draft since general manager Jay Feaster cut the scouting budget from $2-million to $1-million and reduced the number of scouts from a league-high 24 (nine full time) to 12 (eight full time).
The first draft came four months after the reductions in February 2002, when Feaster took over for Rick Dudley. This is the first draft in which fewer scouts were used in a yearlong talent search that must unearth hidden gems rather than obvious riches.
Goertzen said the effects have been minimal.
Travel budgets were extended this season, he said, and upgrades in the way scouting lists and reports are filed and collated make evaluating prospects easier and more efficient.
And while there are fewer reports on some prospects, especially in Europe, Goertzen said, "We compensated for that fairly. We still had good coverage. We know we haven't missed anybody, so that's not a concern."What concerns Feaster is this is still an issue.
"I'll say it again," he said. "We cut back the scouting staff to get it in line with 29 other National Hockey League teams. There was one exception and 29 rules. That's where I am on that."
As for his staff, he said, "I've got a lot of confidence in them. They go out there and do a good job. I know the guys are ready."
This year's draft is believed to be as deep as 1993, when potential Hall of Famers Chris Pronger and Paul Kariya were taken second and fourth, respectively, Jason Allison was taken 17th, Saku Koivu 21st and Todd Bertuzzi 23rd.
Had 39 Europeans ranked by NHL Central Scouting not opted out of the draft, this year's talent pool would be even deeper.
Tampa Bay hasn't done badly with its late picks.
Center Alexander Polushin, defenseman Andreas Holmqvist and right wing Evgeni Arthukin, three of the organization's top prospects, were taken with the 47th, 61st and 94th selections of 2001.
Center Martin Cibak was the 252nd pick of 1998. Right wing Eero Somervuori, expected to compete for a roster spot next season, was the 170th pick of 1997. Defenseman Pavel Kubina was the 179th pick of 1996.
Goertzen pointed out those three were acquired when only former scout Don Murdoch covered Europe.
"As far as picking 25th, of course the odds increase of a player not turning out," Goertzen said. "If we have our ducks in order, that's not a big deal."
The real pressure is at the top of the board.
"There's a lot more pressure picking at No. 1 than 25," Goertzen said. "It's easier (at 25) because so many of your options have been eliminated."
The Lightning's order of priority is defense, goaltenders, wings, centers.
An educated guess puts Brent Seabrook, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound defenseman from Lethbridge (WHL), on the radar. It also could have interest in Mark Stuart, a 6-1, 209-pound defenseman from Colorado College.
"Our guys feel real good about the players who are going to be on the board when we pick," Feaster said. "We feel it is a deep draft.
"We feel we'll get a player who will play for us at some point and play for a long time. So I don't think we feel it's a crapshoot."
Just one chance in 25.
NHL DRAFT: Gaylord Entertainment Center, Nashville, today-Sunday.
ROUNDS: Rounds 1-3 are today starting at 1 p.m.; Rounds 4-9 are Sunday starting at 10 a.m.TV: ESPN2 today.
LIGHTNING PICKS: (Round-overall) 1-25; 2-62; 3-96; 7-224; 7-227; 8-256; 9-273; 9-287.
ON THE WEB: http://nhl.com http://hockeysfuture.com http://russianprospects.com http://slam.ca