Monday, January 19, 2015

The Lightning Card of the Week Returns! Draft Day Edition

There are certain cards out there that you have to have because they are awesome cards (1971 Topps ThurmanMunson). There are some cards that you have to have because they are iconic (1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr). And there are some that you have to have because they represent a specific moment in history.

For me, the 2011-12 Panini Rookie Anthology Draft Year Vincent Lecavalier/ David Legwand because it represents the draft that the Lightning got right and started building into a Stanley Cup winner. The fact that it has Vinny on it and two jersey swatches makes it a little bit awesome as well.

Let's talk about the 1998 draft. Heading into it, it was clear that there were two players at the top of the class and then a bunch of decent players after that (sounds familiar). Both of those players were centers (sounds familiar). There was a consensus number one pick, a franchise savior, a “Next One” if you will, but the other player was quietly gaining in popularity to the point that some think they might go first overall depending what team ended up with the overall pick (sounds familiar). One was Canadian and one was American (again, sound familiar).

So yes, there are a lot of parallels between the 1998 NHL draft and the upcoming 2015 draft. Instead of McDavid vs. Eichel we had Lecavalier vs. Legwand. Lecavalier played the part of McDavid, dominating Major Junior hockey for years leading up to the draft, while Legwand was the hard-working American kid that may be having a better year (mostly because of McDavid's injury, but hey I'm trying to build a narrative here!)

It's odd looking back now that fifteen years have passed, but there was talk that the Lightning might go with Legwand instead of Lecavalier. At the time, Legwand was actually considered the more offensively gifted of the two players by some. Now, it was quite apparent that the Lightning were all aboard the Lecavalier train, but that doesn't prevent experts from speculating.

Would things have developed differently if Art Williams had declared Legwand the “Michael Jordan” of hockey instead of Lecavalier? Would he have blossomed into the scorer under the defensively lax guidence of Jaques Demers and Steve Ludzik? Would Lecavalier developed into a solid two-way center instead of the 50-goal scorer under Barry Trotz's offense-stifling style of play?

One thing is certain – Lightning fans wouldn't have had to sit through a decade of “Lecavalier to Montreal” rumors. Talk which actually started before the Lightning had drafted him. In an April 1998 St. Pete Times article, Tim Buckley mentions that Montreal was rumored to be dangling Saku Koivu inexchange for the pick.  Joe Sakic's name was also floated around as potential trade bait.

While Sakic and Koivu never ended up in Tampa, without a couple of trades this card would look a lot different. The picks used by Tampa and Nashville were not their original first round picks. The number one pick used by the Lightning was originally held by the Florida Panthers who traded it to San Jose for Victor Kozlov. At the time the deal was made (November of 1997) the Panthers were 5-9-4 (the last column was for ties. Yes Little Jimmy in the '90s games could end in a tie). They were struggling, but not necessarily out of the playoff hunt. General Manager Bryan Murray thought Kozlov, 23-years-old at the time, would be more beneficial to the team in the short run then what he thought would be a mid-round draft pick. “Certainly we thought we'd be a playoff team and never expected the top pick, but we'll have a top player in Kozlov for many years to come” he told the Sun Sentinel after the draft order was announced.

While Kozlov never reached the upper echelons of stardom he did have some solid seasons for the Panthers topping out with 22 goals in 2002-03 before getting dealt to New Jersey in 2004. Oddly enough Kozlov has the distinction of being traded for a #1 overall pick (Lecavalier) AND a #2 overall pick as his rights were traded from Hartford to San Jose for a package that included Chris Pronger in June of 1993.

Speaking of the Sharks, they kept that first round draft pick all of four months when Lightning General Manager “Trader” Phil Esposito came a' calling. For Bryan Marchment, David Shaw and the Lightning's first round pick Espo received the Sharks first round pick and Andrei Nazarov. Marchment himself had barely unpacked in Tampa before getting shuttled off to San Jose. He had been part of a trade with Edmonton that had sent former first overall pick Roman Hamrlik to the Oilers. It was a busy year for Mr. Esposito as he managed to pull off 10 trades over the season. 

So the Lightning had the number one pick and drafted Lecavalier. So why isn't David Legwand a San Jose legend? On the day of the draft the two teams swapped positions with San Jose moving down to draft third (where they would pick up defenseman Brad Stuart and a second round pick that they used to draft Jonathon Cheechoo who would score 56 goals in 2005-06 for the Sharks, a year before Lecavalier would score 52 for the Lightning) and Nashville moving up to get their franchise center in Legwand.

All-in-all I think it ended up alright for everyone involved (maybe not Florida). Despite never developing into a scoring juggernaut Legwand had a long tenure in Nashville and still holds just about every offensive record for the team. And despite some rough going early on (and suffering the shame of having the captaincy stripped from him) Lecavalier put together a pretty decent career in Tampa before economics and nagging injuries made him a contract buyout casualty.

All three of the top picks from that year have logged more than 1,000 games in the NHL which is kind of special in itself (Kozlov ended up playing in 897 NHL games and is still kicking around in the KHL). In the last 30 years only three other drafts can boast that – the 1987, 1988 and 1997 drafts. We have a few years left to see if the 2007 and 2008 drafts can be added to the list, but the top three players in both drafts are still in the NHL so there is a chance!

One thing that began to bother me after staring at this card for the last couple of hours. Panini surely could have used better pictures/cropping. Vinny is missing part of his hand. Meanwhile they went with the LinkedIn profile practice of cropping Legwand out of a group photo – most likely this one:

They get credit for using draft year photos (and for both of them sporting the dress shirt/tie/jersey combo. However, a little more time in the Google Image search probably could have led to some better results. Despite that, still a pretty neat card to add to the Lightning collection.

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