By this time, Roman Hamrlik was a starter.
By this time, Vinny Lecavalier was a star.
By this time, Steven Stamkos was about to make Barry Melrose look more foolish than anyone in the history of hockey.
Yep, that's the history of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Pretty much, you established what you had in a prospect early. Think of it as the Jiffy-Pop method of stardom. You draft them. You turn them loose. You let them grow-as-they-go.
Oh, and somewhere along the way, you wish them good luck.
For a long time, that was called the Lightning's minor-league system.
So what's the deal with Anthony DeAngelo? Heck, he has been a Lightning player for days now, and he hasn't even been named captain yet. No one has compared him to Michael Jordan, or even to LeBron. No one has tried to rush him to the playoffs.
Nothing against DeAngelo, but the truth of it is, it might be years before we know whether he works out or not. In a league of hardened scars such as the NHL, that's a good thing. These days, an NHL pick is a lot more like a baseball pick than an NFL pick. It takes time for him to mature.
You know, like the Lightning spent with Brett Connolly in recent years after it drafted him in 2010.
And like it spent with Vladislav Namestnikov after it drafted him in 2011.
And like it spent with Slater Koekkoek after it drafted him in 2012.
And like it spent Jonathan Drouin after it drafted him in 2013,
If there is an admirable quality to the Lightning these days, it is that no one seems in a hurry. No one is rushing anyone. The franchise can afford to wait.
The good organizations are that way. The good organizations never seem to ask an 18-year-old kid to forgive them of their shortcomings. No one asks him to play, and while he's at it, to be the best player on the ice. No one calls him the next Cam Neely or Mark Messier or Ray Bourque.
Time was, the Lightning did all of that. It could not wait for greatness to arrive. So it pushed things along, and it cut corners, and it hoped for the best.
The two go hand-in-hand, you know, the over-reliance on youth and the desperation of cheap ownership. For years, the Lightning kept its top prospects to sell hope … and to avoid paying for a legitimate minor league system.
There was Roman Hamrlik, a stranger to this country, who played in 67 games as an 18-year-old. There was Chris Gratton, a good player who the franchise wanted to be great right up to the time the fax blurred. There was Vinny Lecavalier, who was going to be one of the defining players in the league. There was Steven Stamkos, a rare player who was born with a mature soul. There was Victor Hedman, who grew up on the ice.
We saw them arrive so quickly that we came to believe that's the way it always happened, We saw hope sold as substance. We saw the bulk of draft classes die in the minor leagues for lack of care.
Granted, the Lightning has had a lot of keepers. Drafting at the top of the round will do that. But what about the others? What about Jason Wiemer and Daymond Langkow? What about Paul Mara and Alexander Svitov? What about almost every draft pick (except Brad Richards) after the first round?
Might the work ethic have been better with an improved minor league system? Might the entitlement have been lessened? Might there have been more prospects available?
Granted, the players the Lightning has drafted over the last few years still have some proving to do. Connolly played 68 games as a rookie, but he has been an afterthought the past two years. This year, he has to prove himself.
Then there is Drouin, who is still highly regarded as a prospect. As much as anyone, Drouin represents the difference in this franchise. Does anyone think that Drouin would have spent most of last year with the Lightning after being drafted third in the franchise's past? Of course he would have.
For most of its existence, the only place that a young player could survive with the Lightning was, well, with the Lightning. No one ever developed elsewhere. No one ever blossomed. The farm system grew only weeds.
Remember when Lecavalier arrived? Owner Art Williams couldn't talk highly enough of him. "He's going to be a Hall of Famer," Williams said. "He's going to lead us to Stanley Cups. There's no doubt that in three or four years, he's going to be the world's greatest hockey player. He's going to be the Michael Jordan of hockey."
The thing is, Lecavalier did have great years. But what about Langkow? It was back in 1996, during the Lightning's first-ever playoffs against Philadelphia. Even then, coach Terry Crisp could not shake the notion that the team should bring up No. 1 draft pick Langkow from the minors. In the middle of the playoffs. That's how much youth can charm a team.
Somewhere along the line, the Lightning forgot this: Most players need the minor leagues. Most players need some time to grow up, and for their games to grow up.
The good teams understand that. Excellence cannot be found only in a rare burst at the top of a round. It has to come in waves, and it has to be maintained.
You know. Like success.