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Lightning tales from the cryptic

Drafts have been weepy (Esposito's mercy pick), wacky (Avs in a hurry to party) and wonderful (Lecavalier).

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 17, 2001


TAMPA -- There is no crying in baseball but there may be room for it in hockey, especially when it comes to the annual entry draft.

Former Lightning general manager Phil Esposito remembers looking into the stands at the Montreal Forum as the 1992 draft -- Tampa Bay's first -- wound down and seeing Marc Tardif in tears.

As Espo tells it, the junior player, sitting by himself in a near-empty section of the arena, was despondent because he had not been chosen. Espo, feeling Tardif's pain, chose the left wing in the 10th round with the 218th pick.

"I said, "Come on, does it really matter at this point?' " Esposito said recently.

"He played in the minor leagues for us. He never made it to the big time, but he was a tough kid."

Since then, the draft has turned into a different animal. There are 30 teams, four more than 1992. And whereas the Lightning's first media guide listed nine scouts, last season's listed 16, though the team now has 23 full- and part-time scouts.

It is a worldwide industry with teams scouting throughout Europe and parts of Asia.

Mercy picks? Forget it. Lightning general manager Rick Dudley said every pick counts.

"Unless you're going to spend $60-million on your team, which we're not, then you can only have longevity as an organization in one way, and that's by acquiring good, young talent, and that's what we've tried to do," he said.

"We've tried to keep guys who are going to play at least seven years for this team."

The Lightning's draft record is mixed. The team has had 32 selections play at least one game somewhere in the NHL. The Hockey News calculated that since 1990-91, the average is 37.

There have been excellent first-round picks; no surprise because the team has drafted out of the top eight only once. But only three of eight -- Mario Larocque (1996), Vinny Lecavalier (1998) and Nikita Alexeev (2000) -- are still with the organization, and Larocque appears close to being released.

Four others -- Roman Hamrlik (1992), Jason Wiemer (1994), Daymond Langkow (1995) and Paul Mara (1997) -- were traded. Chris Gratton (1993) was lost to free agency, reacquired and traded.

Tampa Bay's record with lower draft choices is similarly bell-curved. Nine of its 47 selections in rounds six or lower played at least one game somewhere in the NHL.

That is 17 percent, well below the Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, which has hit on 12 of 58 picks (21 percent). But it is better than the New Jersey Devils, who have hit on seven of 42 (16.7 percent).

It is all part of the Lightning's colorful draft history. Among the notable moments, none of which tops Esposito's crying game:

Citing a draft with no clear-cut No. 1, Dudley became the first NHL general manager to trade the first overall pick as he worked a complicated deal in 1999 that brought goalie Dan Cloutier from the Rangers.

"We decided it was better to take the assets than the crap shoot at the time," Dudley said. "We felt we could make ourselves a little better sooner."

The Lightning picked up three picks from the Avalanche during the 1998 draft when it became apparent the event would not end until about 10 p.m., and Colorado had scheduled an 8 p.m. party for a retiring scout.

The Avs offered a seventh-, eighth- and ninth-round pick for Tampa Bay's sixth-round choice the next season. The Lightning made the deal and drafted Oak Hewer, Dan Hulak and Martin Cibak.

Esposito, general manager from 1992-98 and now a Lightning radio analyst, joked he was allowed one pick in every draft, as he consulted with the player personnel staff on the others. In 1996's seventh round, he demanded the team pick defenseman Pavel Kubina.

Tampa Bay scored big with the 179th selection, and it is worth noting Esposito's recollection of his conversation with then-head scout Don Murdoch.

"I said, "I like that big kid,' " Espo said. "So when it got to the seventh round, I said, "Murdoch, if we lose this guy, I'm going to brain you. I want that big stiff,' which was a term of affection."

The difference between drafting for the Lightning then and now: patience.

Dudley said the Lightning has acquired enough depth so this year's first-round pick (No. 3 overall) doesn't have to play in the NHL right away.

Esposito said that was not an option in the beginning, and it may have hurt the development of some players.

"We rushed the kids," he said. "We rushed the players and sometimes you get sick and tired of them, and the fans get sick and tired of them. It's easy to be a Martin Tanguay on a team like the Avalanche. But you draft a guy here, who the hell are you going to play him with?"

Esposito said that added to the pressure of trying to trade for more established players. It also is why Esposito said he almost sent the 18-year-old Lecavalier back to juniors for the 1998-99 season.

"Our team was so bad, I didn't want to get him into the losing mode," Esposito said.

"In all likelihood, I wouldn't have sent him back, but we wouldn't have put the pressure on him that was put on him."

"Now we have enough players," Dudley said. "This year we'd probably like to see Alexeev somewhere in our lineup and our first pick somewhere in the lineup, but it isn't the be-all and end-all. We could actually give them some time. That's the difference."

NHL draft

Saturday and Sunday, National Car Rental Center, Sunrise.

TV: ESPN2.

LIGHTNING PICKS: Rounds -- 1 (3rd overall), 2 (46), 4 (97), 5 (149), 7 (216, 220), 8 (257), 9 (259, 279).

Want more?

For information about the NHL draft, check out these Web sites:

www.slam.ca

www.hockeysfuture.com

www.nhl.com

www.tampabaylightning.com

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