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Lightning has new viewpoint at draft

Not only do the Stanley Cup champs have a different seat, they will have a different philosophy with the last pick.

By TOM JONES
Published June 26, 2004

RALEIGH, N.C. - There's an easy way to measure just how far the Lightning has come the past few seasons.

Just look where it sits for the NHL draft. The worse the team, the closer it sits to the stage. Not so long ago the Lightning took up what seemed to be a permanent residence in the low-rent district: the first row in the shadow of the stage. Its neighbors were fellow bottom-feeders. When today's draft gets under way in Raleigh, N.C., the Lightning practically will be a long-distance call from the stage. It will be farther away than it ever has been and farther than any other team, the lone pitfall of winning the Stanley Cup.

"Very last row, very last table," general manager Jay Feaster said. "I think it's great. I hope we're there for 10 years straight. Same spot."

With the change in location comes a change in philosophy. Back in the dog days of the franchise the Lightning came to the draft needing everything. Its draft day was like heading to the grocery store with a list as long as a roll of tape. Today's draft will be like swinging by a convenience store for one or two items.

"Four or five years ago we needed the total package," Feaster said. "We needed the size, the speed, the skill. That's what we were going after because the cupboard was totally bare and we needed skill, skill, skill. And now, because of where we've evolved as a franchise ... it has changed."

Four or five years ago the Lightning had one question to answer when it was its turn to pick: Who is the best player available? Forget position, because the Lightning needed help and depth at every position. Forget attitude, because the Lightning needed scorers more than boy scouts.

Now the Lightning goes into the draft looking to fill holes deep in the organization and will positively, absolutely, under no circumstances take a player it doesn't believe can easily fit into the Lightning mold.

"I don't care if he's 6-10 and skates like the wind. If he has the heart of a pea, he doesn't fit," Feaster said. "There's sort of that template out there of what the model Tampa Bay player is. I'm more confident than ever that those questionable guys, those questionable character guys, are not even on our list."

What is on the Lightning's list is goaltending. The Lightning's top six forwards at the NHL level are young enough not to be a concern for several seasons. The Lightning addressed defensive depth in last year's draft. Goaltending, though, remains a bit of a sore spot.

Even so, with Nikolai Khabibulin and John Grahame, goaltending isn't a concern ... yet.

"It's way too early to say (we have) the heir apparent to Khabibulin and Grahame," Feaster said. "So I do believe we need to be looking for that next generation of goaltending here."

Feaster already has a plan. Brian Eklund is coming off an impressive season at Pensacola of the East Coast Hockey League and is expected to start next season at Springfield of the American Hockey League. Feaster, though, plans to put a veteran goalie with NHL experience in Springfield to tutor Eklund and, more important, serve as the Lightning's No. 3.

But who knows if Eklund is the future No. 1 goalie? With the jury still out, don't be surprised if the Lightning uses its first-round pick today (30th overall) to take a goalie, perhaps Massachusetts high school star Cory Schneider.

Of course, the Lightning could go in another direction and take a flier because the organization appears stocked.

"Can you swing from your heels for the fence now? Sure," Feaster said. "If there's something there where you say, "Man, this could be heaven or this could be hell,' why not?"

The Lightning is tossing around the idea of trading up in the first round, but that is unlikely because of the way the first round is expected to play out. Russian forwards Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin are considered the top two players in the draft. franchise-type players. After them there might not be much difference between the third pick and the 33rd pick.

"But if there is a player we feel very strongly about that is sitting there maybe in the mid round with something that makes some sense ... it's something we would take a look at," Feaster said. "But if that doesn't happen and we walk up there and close out the day's festivities on ESPN2 by making the 30th pick in the draft, we're more than happy to do that."

The only problem will be how far Feaster has to walk.

[Last modified June 26, 2004, 01:23:35]

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