Lightning believe they got their man in defenseman Slater Koekkoek
It probably wasn't deliberate, but what Al Murray said at a media scrum on Thursday afternoon, one day prior to the start of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft in Pittsburgh, perhaps foreshadowed the manner in which the Lightning utilized the team's 10th overall pick during Friday's first round.
"This is probably going to be one of the most unpredictable drafts that I've been involved with," Murray stated to a group of reporters at the scrum.
And wouldn't you know it, at the forefront adding to the intrigue of the unknown was the Lightning themselves.
In a move that at least at first appeared to be a bit off the map to a certain extent, the Bolts selected 6-foot-2, 183-pound blueliner Slater Koekkoek from the Peterborough Petes out of the Ontario Hockey League.
Koekkoek, 18, did not surface in any pre-Draft speculation about who the Lightning might choose, so while the pick came for the most part as a surprise, the selection was perhaps more revealing of just how highly the Lightning regarded Koekkoek for what he brings to the table.
Still available at the time of the Lightning's 10th selection was both Filip Forsberg, a skilled winger out of Sweden, as well as Mikhail Grigorenko, a center out of Russia, who came into the draft's first round with high ranks from NHL Central Scouting at one (among European skaters) and three, respectively. To boot, all along Bolts general manager Steve Yzerman said he would select the best available player, so it seemed the pick would likely emerge as one of the two.
That player, at least in both Yzerman and Murray's mind, was Koekkoek.
And highly scouted for that matter.
Koekkoek attended the prestigious Notre Dame Academy – the same school that produced Lightning captain Vincent Lecavalier – located in Wilcox, Saskatchewan, just south of where Murray lives. Needless to say, Murray spent a lot of time watching Koekkoek, and even witnessed him lead Notre Dame to a Canadian midget league title.
Murray then continued to chart Koekkoek's progress as he made the jump to the Canadian junior leagues, where he refined an impressive skills set that is so detailed, it makes Murray sound as if he is reading from a prepared list.
"He's a terrific skater, he's a very good puck mover and he's a puck rusher, he can play on the power play, he gets his shot through to the net or gets it into the passing lanes, and he's a terrific one-on-one player defensively who keeps a real tight gap, keeps his stick on pucks, and finishes his checks very well," Murray said.
But he was also limited to just 26 games this past season due to a torn left labrum, an injury that had it not occurred, according to Murray, would have resulted in Koekkoek earning a much higher final draft ranking from NHL Central Scouting.
"The only reason he might have fallen on some lists is because of his injury," Murray added. "We're pretty sure of that."
It's also certain that despite having his season shorted, Koekkoek emerged as one of Peterborough's best defenseman, logging a lot of minutes and still managing to produce offensively for an under-achieving team that finished the 2011-12 season ranked ninth in the OHL's 10-team Eastern Conference.
Still in need of organizational depth for quality defensive prospects, Yzerman expressed a sense of optimism with regard to how much upside Koekkoek has.
"He's only 18 years old, but two years ago he had an outstanding year, he tested very well at the combine and he's in excellent shape," Yzerman said. "We expect him to go back [to the OHL] and have another good year in Peterborough and continue his development."