As the 2009 NHL draft gets under way in Montreal later this week, some GMs will be faced with tough choices as they contemplate how best to improve their teams. While it is universally true the league’s best franchises continue to build through the draft, given the economic climate and the very real possibility that the salary cap will actually decrease after the upcoming season, there may be some tempting shorter-term fixes available this weekend.
When I took over the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2002 and participated in my first draft as GM, I knew going in that we both wanted and needed to take a shorter-term approach. Six consecutive losing seasons, six seasons without a playoff appearance and one trip to the post-season in franchise history all conspired to make our mandate one of addressing immediate as opposed to long-term needs.
For this reason, as has been well-documented, I traded our first round pick, fourth overall (Joni Pitkanen), to Philadelphia for Ruslan Fedotenko and two second round picks. One of the second-rounders, Tobias Stephan (34th overall), was then traded to Dallas for Brad Lukowich. Both Fedotenko and Lukowich helped us win the Southeast Division in 2003 and 2004 and the Stanley Cup in ’04. Our second round pick in ‘02, Adam Henrich (60th overall), never panned out.
When we went to the draft in 2003, we were in a very unique position. We had won the division in 2002-03 and, for the first time since the Lightning’s inception, had advanced past the first round of the playoffs. While we lost to eventual Cup champions New Jersey in five games, we all felt we were at least close to being able to push through to the conference final. In addition, for the first time ever, our draft position was well into the bottom third of the draft (25th overall), meaning it would be even more difficult to find an immediate impact player.
At the same time, Vinny Prospal, one of our top offensive weapons and the one player who, to that point, seemed to bring out the best in burgeoning superstar Vincent Lecavalier, jumped ship as an unrestricted free agent to play for Anaheim. Prospal’s departure left a huge hole offensively and we had extensive internal discussions prior to the draft about how best to fill that void.
As fortune would have it, we were able to trade the No. 25 pick to Florida in exchange for two second round picks, giving us a total of three picks in that round. We had targeted hulking defensemen Mike Egener and Matt Smaby as two players we wanted to land and felt we would have to get before the end of the second round. By having three picks, we were able to draft both Egener and Smaby, then trade our other pick to St. Louis in exchange for Cory Stillman.
Stillman went on to have a career-year offensively (25 goals, 80 points) and ultimately helped us win the Stanley Cup. While a series of injuries prevented Egener from becoming an NHL player, Smaby is knocking on the door, playing in 43 games this season. The draft of ’03 proved beneficial for us both short and long-term.
Jay Feaster is a former GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning, where he took over in 2002 and helped build the team into a Stanley Cup champion in 2004. As he did last season, he will blog on THN.com throughout the 2008-09 campaign. Read his other entries HERE.