NHL draft could include first Lightning first-round pick since 2019

NHL draft could include first Lightning first-round pick since 2019
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TAMPA — The Lightning will have a first-round pick for the first time since 2019 when the draft gets underway tonight in Montreal. If they don’t trade it, that is.

It’s a luxury for a franchise that has had to hit successfully on lower-round picks in recent seasons. Fortunately for the Lightning, their scouting department has an eye for finding diamonds in the rough.

Forward Ross Colton was a fourth-round pick in 2016, center Anthony Cirelli a third-rounder in 2015. Center Brayden Point was taken in the third round in 2014, forward Ondrej Palat in the seventh in 2011. Forward Alex Killorn was plucked in the third round in 2007.

“One of the things that (general manager) Julien (BriseBois) and (former GM) Steve (Yzerman) were able to do is, even when we traded picks, we still had pretty good volumes (in the draft),” said Al Murray, the Lightning’s director of amateur scouting. “So it wasn’t like we went in with just three picks and we were cleaned out.”

As the Lightning seek more hidden gems, here’s how some of their recent picks outside of the first round are developing, with input from draft and prospects analyst Chris Peters of FloSports and Stacy Roest, general manager of the Lightning’s AHL affiliate in Syracuse.

“I think we have a lot of nice, good, hard-working, honest, competitive prospects that are going to be pushing for spots in Tampa real soon,” Roest said.

Roman Schmidt

Defenseman, third round (No. 96 overall), 2021

2021-22: Junior Ontario League Kitchener, 33 points (11 goals) in 68 games

Needing to find the spot where he could play the most, Schmidt, 19, had a choice between Boston University and Kitchener. Peters expects him to play at the junior level for the next year or two before moving to Syracuse. Schmidt carries “NHL upside,” Peters said, and needs his tools and hockey sense to come together more fluidly.

“He kind of remains a bit of a project because there are so many tools there,” Peters said. “It’s going to take some time to get it all out of him. … He’s an intriguing prospect, no question about it.”

Comparable: Brandon Carlo, Bruins

“Just in terms of size,” Peters said. Schmidt is listed at 6 feet 5, 210 pounds, Carlo 6-5, 212.

“I think Roman has to be better defensively to really make that comparison float a little bit more, but I think just stylistically, very similar. You’re not going to get a ton of points out of him, but he’s certainly going to give you a good first pass. He has good-enough hands to be confident with the puck.”

Roest says: “I thought it was a really good season for him. In Kitchener, he played a ton, played in all situations, and at times they were ... banged up with some injuries. It’s so much fun to work with a player like Roman, because he wants to get better and he’s very appreciative, very respectful, another mature player that’s a good prospect for us.”

Jack Finley

Center, second round (No. 57 overall), 2020

22021-22: Junior Western League Spokane/Winnipeg, 50 points in 60 games

“So much more than a big body,” Finley, listed at 6-6 and 220, has been on an “upward trajectory” since his draft year, Peters said. A trade from Spokane to Winnipeg spurred his development, allowing him to “really produce at a higher level,” Peters said.

“He’s another guy where I think you have to get him into Syracuse in the near future,” Peters said of the 19-year-old. “You have to give him opportunities; you have to kind of see what role he’s going to be able to play. I think he can be a middle-six forward if everything goes right.”

Comparable: Brian Boyle, Penguins

“Size wise (it makes sense),” Peters said of the former Lightning forward listed at 6-6, 245. “Boyle has really good skill for a big guy. I think Jack Finley does, too. He just has to get there.”

Said Roest: “For (Finley’s) size, his skating is getting better and better with every month that goes on. … We’re very happy with where he’s at.”

Gage Goncalves

Center, second round (No. 62 overall), 2020

2021-22: Syracuse, 32 points (17 goals) in 70 games

A prototypical Lightning pick because “everybody else undervalued him,” Peters said, Goncalves’ production last season wasn’t eye-catching but was consistent with his transition to pro hockey after spending most of 2020-21 with junior Western League Everett. He’ll likely spend more time at Syracuse but could “surprise people” in camp, Peters said.

“I think the fact that he was able to play in the (AHL) and just continue to take advantage of that year ... that turned out to be really good for his development,” Peters said, “because I think he played enough of a role this year to produce, to get a feel for the pro game, (to show that) he could handle it at his size.”

Comparable: Colton

“He’s your run-of-the-mill middle-six (forward), but I feel like there’s some Ross Colton-y elements to him,” Peters said. “But I don’t think he has the edge. Size profile is similar (Goncalves is 6 feet, 181, Colton 6 feet 191), developmental track is similar a little bit, but it’s hard (to find a comp).”

Roest says: “I love that he got better and better as the season went on. First season in the American Hockey League coming straight out of junior, as basically a 20- 21-year-old player, it’s not easy. And you get there, and it’s a hard league, the second-best league in the world, and it’s a hard league to produce in, a hard league to play against bigger, stronger, older players.”

Hugo Alnefelt

Goaltender, third round (No. 71 overall), 2019

2021-22: Lightning, Syracuse, ECHL Orlando, combined save percentage of .823 in 26 games

Having watched Alnefelt, 21, at the 2019 under-18 world junior championship, where he helped Sweden win the gold medal and was voted one of the top three players on his team, Peters said he believes it’s important to take Alnefelt’s numbers in his first pro season — while bouncing among the three levels — “with a grain of salt.”

“He’s the type of guy where it’s probably going to take years in the AHL,” Peters said. “There’s no rush for Hugo.”

Comparable: Linus Ullmark, Bruins

“They’re similar in terms of size,” Peters said. Alnefelt is listed at 6-2, 177, Ullmark 6-4, 215. “The fact that Ullmark is more of a tweener, not a true No. 1, he’s kind of a backup and just very similar in style, I think.”

Said Roest: “Coming to the American League (last season) from a different pro league (in Sweden), it’s not easy. A different ice size for the goalies, different angles … but I loved (Alnefelt’s) preparation, his work ethic, and you could just see him gaining confidence as the season went on.”

Gabriel Fortier

Forward, second round (No. 59 overall), 2018

2021-22: Lightning (10 games), Syracuse (72 games), combined 36 points (15 goals)

Fortier, 22, got his first taste of the NHL when he was called up in late November after three of the Lightning’s top six forwards were sidelined. While it’s likely he will be a “tweener” for the next year or so, Peters said, Fortier’s versatility could help the salary-cap-strapped Lightning. His cap hit next season is $791,667.

“He’s always been one of those guys where he plays the style, has the work ethic and has that motor that gives him a chance to play,” Peters said. “He can fit into a lot of different roles, probably going to play down your lineup.”

Comparable: Tyler Motte, Rangers

“I think Motte’s a guy that is on the smaller side (5-10, 192) but has that motor that allows him to be competitive all over the ice. Same thing with Fortier (5-10, 173),” Peters said. “On top of that, I think Motte has some sneaky skill that allows him to provide marginal scoring depth. Versatility is probably the trait I’d most closely associate with both.”

Roest says: “He had the 10 games in Tampa, scored a goal, that was huge for him and for his confidence. … He works hard, he’s in great shape, he’s strong, he knows the process, he bought into the process and just working on his game, He’s another good student of the game and is very diligent with the way he prepares. Third year coming up, and looking forward to camp and fighting for a spot on the team.”

Cole Koepke

Forward, sixth round (No. 183 overall), 2018

2021-22: Syracuse, 39 points (20 goals) in 69 games

Koepke, 24, was injured in training camp but finished the season as one of the callups from Syracuse during the last postseason. Given the Lightning’s tight salary-cap situation, he could be in the mix for a roster spot next season, Peters said, as Boris Katchouk and Taylor Raddysh were last year. Koepke’s cap hit next season is $842,500.

“He always struck me as a Lightning type of player where he’s good, he has decent size (6-1, 196), he’s not huge, he’s not going to bowl anybody over, but he has the winning pedigree, and every team that he’s been on, he’s been a key guy,” Peters said. “He’s been one of the guys that can kind of propel (the group) forward.”

Comparable: Alex Iafallo, Kings

“He doesn’t have the speed, but he kind of seamlessly took the place for Alex Iafallo for Minnesota-Duluth when he was there,” Peters said. “I don’t think he’s quite at the Iafallo level, because Iafallo turned into a quality NHL player and a really good defensive guy, but I think (Koepke’s) in that mold.”

Roest says: “Cole had a good year … Kept getting better and better as the season went on and having a bigger role, a little more penalty-kill, a little more power play, and scored 20 goals as a first-year player down there, and that’s not easy to do in that league. Very happy with his progression and the way his season finished off. It’s going to be a big year for him next year.”

How to watch

Where/when: Thursday at 7 p.m. on ESPN and Friday at 11 a.m. on ESPN+

Lightning picks: No. 31 (first round), No. 103 (fourth), No. 160 (fifth), Nos. 169 and 192 (sixth), Nos. 223 and 224 (seventh)

Contact Mari Faiello at mfaiello@tampabay.com. Follow @faiello_mari.

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