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Tampa Bay Lightning

Bolts have elite options in draft

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Published:   |   Updated: June 29, 2013 at 02:47 PM

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WEEHAWKEN, N.J. - With the skyline of New York City resting in the background, on the other side of the Hudson River, a handful of the best 18-year-old hockey players in the world gathered along the waterfront ahead of Sunday's NHL Entry Draft.

One of them figures to have his name called by Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman with the third pick in the draft when he steps to the draft stage at the Prudential Center sometime around 3:30 p.m.

"Regardless of who goes 1 and 2, we are sitting at 3 and have the choice of a very good prospect," Yzerman said.

Holding that third pick - and Yzerman said it's unlikely the team will move out of that spot - means Tampa Bay has its choice from an elite group that includes defenseman Seth Jones, centers Nathan MacKinnon and Aleksander Barkov and wingers Jonathan Drouin and Valeri Nichuskin.

"I would not be surprised if any of the top three or four players go first overall," said NHL Director of Central Scouting Don Marr. "That order is completely up in the air. Anybody trying to guess the order of this year's draft, good luck with that."

Colorado, which has the first overall pick, has stated on several occasions during the past week its intention is to select a forward, with MacKinnon, the MVP of the Memorial Cup for Halifax, the likely choice. That leaves Florida with the second pick, with Jones expected to be the selection with his rare combination of size and speed for a blue-liner. Should that scenario play out, Tampa Bay would be left to choose from either 17-year-old Barkov - who played this past season in the Finnish Elite League and set the scoring record for a 17-year-old - or Drouin, the MVP of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and named the top player in Canadian junior hockey. Nichuskin, a strong power forward out of Russia, is also a possibility.

Lightning scouting director Al Murray said the top part of this draft is so strong, whichever player Tampa Bay picks will be an elite prospect.

"We have our list in who we believe is the best player then the next-best player, and whichever one we get - which we have no control over - we will be very happy," Murray said. "There are five elite prospects right at top, and another strong group right behind them, and we are picking at 3, so we know we are getting one of those guys."

Murray said the team's philosophy of choosing the best player available remains intact, so Tampa Bay parting ways with center Vinny Lecavalier on Thursday does not alter the team's approach heading into Sunday. It doesn't mean the Lightning will avoid drafting a center if they believe that player is at the top of their list.

While the Lightning will not reveal the order of their list - for obvious reasons - Drouin is the only player of the top group who had a face-to-face meeting with Tampa Bay this weekend, and the play-making winger brings a strong skill set. In a survey of scouts done by Bob McKenzie of TSN television, Drouin was voted the runaway leader in three categories - best puck handler, best playmaker and best hockey sense - "and it wasn't even close," according to McKenzie.

The playmaker Drouin could be a perfect fit to play alongside center Steven Stamkos, the top goal scorer in the game.

"Tampa is a team that I really like, they have a lot of young prospects and a really good team," Drouin said. "I would like to go to Tampa."

Drouin has drawn comparisons to Conn Smythe winner Patrick Kane, Hall of Famers Denis Savard and Joe Sakic, as well as Lightning winger Marty St. Louis.

"There is some similarty between me and Marty, we are not the biggest guys," Drouin said. "But I think we play the same way, we skate hard and have good vision. It would be nice at the end of his career to be able to show up there, see what he has and learn from him."

Barkov, coming off shoulder surgery that will limit his summer training, was voted the most complete player in the draft, according to McKenzie's survey. A strong two-way presence that brings playmaking ability with a mature defensive game, Barkov could be ready to step in to an NHL lineup next season, and perhaps fill the role left vacant by Lecavalier.

"I spoke with (Tampa) at the combine, not here, but the talks went pretty good and it was nice to meet Steve Yzerman," Barkov said. "We'll see what happens on Sunday."

eerlendsson@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7835

Twitter: @erlendssontbo

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