With two picks in the first round of Friday's NHL draft, the Lightning addressed two organizational needs – goaltending and defense.
Tampa Bay went off the board to a certain extent in selecting defenseman Slater Koekkoek with the 10th overall pick and then used the 19th pick to choose Russian goaltender Andrei Vasilevski.
Heading into the draft, the Lightning said all along they would go with the best player available. However, there is an organizational need for quality defense prospects, and that's the route the team ultimately took using the 10th overall pick to select an offensive-style defenseman in Koekkoek (pronounced "cuckoo''). The 18-year-old from Winchester, Ontario was limited to just 26 games this season – registering five goals and 18 points for Peterborough – after undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder.
But Koekkoek said dealing with the injury proved to be a valuable lesson.
"I learned how to deal with a pretty substantial injury, how to work hard to get what I want and it was obviously a big adversity thing so to get back to where I was was huge,'' Koekkoek said. "It's 100 percent and I used the combine to show that it was good and from there I just want to put it in the back of my mind and in my memory.''
Even with potential quality forwards still available, such as Filip Forsberg, Teuvo Teravainen and Radek Faksa, the Lightning opted to go with Koekkek to continue a run in which seven consecutive defensemen were selected. With such a high ceiling in the mind of head scout Al Murray and his staff, the shoulder injury was not enough to scare them away from the 6-foot-2, 184-pound blue liner.
"He was absolutely the best player available on our list,'' Murray said. "We think Slater Koekkoek, the only reason he might have fallen on some lists or some may not have been as aware of him as possible was because the injury this year. But he has a real track record.''
Koekkoek played at heralded Notre Dame Prep Academy in Wilcox, Saskatchewan -- the same program that produced Lightning captain Vinny Lecavalier – which has been a stalwart in Canada's junior national programs.
"We have seen a lot of this player, we feel very comfortable about him,'' Murray said. "He's a terrific skater, he's both an offensive and defensive player so I think he'll be a point producer as well as a real solid defensive player. And my understanding there were several teams trying to trade up in the early teens to select him. I can't say that I was a surprise that he was there, but we were very happy he was there.''
Murray said they were also happy that Vasilevski was still on the board by the time the Lightning were on the clock for the second time. The 6-foot-3, 204-pounder was touted as the top goaltender available in the draft after helping lead Russia to the gold medal game at the World Junior Championships.
"He was clearly the top goaltender on our list and we were actually a little worried some teams were going to select him ahead of us,'' Murray said. "We had him very highly rated. We are deep in goalies right now ... we are in pretty good shape, and this guy is 18 years old and will take some time just like most goaltenders. So this pick is not for immediacy but it certainly gives us great depth at the goaltending position and it was a player we felt was great value at 19. And if he was North American, I think he goes a lot higher than that.''
While Vasilenski said he still has two years remaining on his contract with Ufa back in Russia, Murray said Vasilenski is exploring the possibility of coming over to North America next season to play major junior hockey. Vasilenski attended the Memorial Cup last month and has been working out in Ottawa since, according to Murray.
When asked about the situation, Vasilenski, through an interpreter, said, "I have two years left on my contract, but I can't say for sure right now if I will be there the next two years. I'm not sure of all the nuances of the deal, and we'll have to figure it out later. The only thing I can tell you for sure is that I want to play in the NHL.''