NHL expansion draft: Looking back at how the first Lightning team was built

TAMPA — The original Lightning roster may have been selected in a Montreal ballroom during the 1992 NHL expansion draft.

But the roster was really built months earlier in a room at a downtown Tampa hotel.

Founder Phil Esposito flew in around a dozen scouts and staff members a handful of times for countless rounds of mock drafts. They'd gather around a table and debate, fueled by takeout and guided by lists on blackboards. One time, Esposito's brother, Tony, would pretend he was the Lightning GM, another a scout representing Ottawa, the other expansion franchise. Everyone would take turns.

"We got to the point where guys said, 'Come on Phil, enough!' '' Esposito said. "I'm like, 'Not enough. We've got to be ready.' "

Esposito felt the preparation paid off, the expansion draft going smoothly. A similar scene — albeit on the flashy Las Vegas strip — likely took place in recent months for the Vegas Golden Knights, who will make their selections tonight in a prime-time, nationally televised event (8 p.m., NBSCN).

Esposito, reminiscing over lunch recently, said he would have loved the type of setup Vegas has now. In 1992, teams could protect 14 skaters (and two goalies), as opposed to maximum 10 skaters, one goalie this year, leaving the Lightning and Senators to fight over some scraps.

"There were not many plums left to pick from the tree," then-Lightning coach Terry Crisp quipped.

The Lightning had a budget of $6 million; Vegas will have a salary cap of $75 million to work with. Of course, Tampa Bay paid just $50 million to join the league, Vegas $500 million, but the Lightning was starting from scratch.

"The difference is, Vegas is going to get 30 NHLers," Esposito said. "We didn't even get 10 NHLers."

That's what made the Lightning's predraft meetings so pivotal.

•••

This was before the Internet was big and cell phones were readily available.

There were no capfriendly.com sites with up-to-date salary statistics. Video wasn't as prevalent. And as Crisp said, other teams "weren't exactly lifting up their shirts and pouring their heart out."

The Lightning used some old-fashioned scouting, the fact Phil and Tony Esposito were both experienced GMs helped. They had a pretty good idea a few months before the draft who would be available.

Then came the debated mock drafts, which Crisp compared to a jury trial.

"Somebody is doing (the picks) and someone else is playing devil's advocate," Crisp said. "If you're all in the same boat, something's wrong. You go back and forth until you whittle them down. Like a jury, you hope you all agree on the final product."

The Lightning built a list of the top 10 goalies, defensemen and forwards available. The first focus was finding a good goaltender, which would be tough as teams could protect two. The Lightning drafted Wendell Young but ended up trading for Pat Jablonski later that month.

"Doesn't matter what players you have — if you don't have a good goalie, you don't have a chance," Esposito said.

Esposito also wanted to build from the defense, which is why Tampa Bay took Roman Hamrlík No. 1 overall in that year's NHL draft. The Lightning chose veteran defenseman Rob Ramage from the North Stars in expansion to help mentor him and got lucky at forward with Brian Bradley (Toronto) scoring 42 goals in the inaugural season. Chris Kontos, brought in on a camp invite, scored 27.

Lightning original partner Henry Paul said they also focused on finding "character guys" with personality who could be competitive. The Lightning went 23-54-7 in its first season, making the playoffs in its fourth.

"We thought we'd have to at least be respectable," Crisp said. "We had to make a bit of a splash, we can't be horrendous and get our butts kicked every night."

But the Lightning didn't want to mortgage its future. Esposito said teams tried to make side deals with him before the draft, but he passed. Crisp said everyone wanted high draft picks or young players for veterans. Esposito also turned down offers for Hamrlik at No. 1, including one from Ottawa.

"We knew our list, wanted our picks, and that was that," Esposito said.

•••

That list proved prophetic when it came to the expansion draft in a Montreal hotel ballroom.

There were just two tables, one for the Lightning, one for Ottawa.

"It wasn't a big production, like today," Bradley said.

Each team had a certain amount of time for each choice, like the NHL draft. Esposito recalled the Senators making some mistakes, like picking an ineligible player.

The Lightning?

"We went, 'Bam, Bam, Bam,' " Esposito said. "It's amazing how close we were (in the mock drafts) to the players we ended up with."

Now it's Vegas' turn, only it has to do it under the microscope, with months of Twitter speculation coming to an end.

Crisp is happy the Lightning did its heavy lifting in the dark.

"We were on our own island down there," Crisp said. "Not all the hoopla, the TVs. It was just us in a room hammering it out."


Tonight

expansion draft for the Vegas Golden Knights, 8, NBCSN

Source : http://www.tbo.com/sports/hockey/lightning/nhl-expansion-draft-looking-back-at-how-the-first-lightning-team-was-built/2327932

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