ST. PAUL, Minn. — It was not by chance the Lightning drafted three Russian players, a huge number considering only eight Russians were among the 210 players drafted.
"We talked about it as a strategy," GM Steve Yzerman said Saturday as Rounds 2-7 completed the two-day draft. "These are high-end players."
There has been a hesitation recently throughout the league to draft Russians because of the pressure it is perceived they feel to stay home and play in the KHL. But Al Murray, Tampa Bay's director of amateur scouting, said of the team's draftees, "They've all indicated to us they want to be National Hockey League players."
The Lightning believes it hit future home runs with first-round pick C Vladislav Namestnikov, second-round pick W Nikita Kucherov and fifth-round pick D Nikita Nesterov.
"All three we had very highly ranked on our list," Murray said. "We see three guys who, had they not had last names ending in 'ov,' would have been drafted in the second round at the latest."
Namestnikov is almost more North American than Russian. Though born in Russia, he and his family moved to Detroit when he was 8 months old, and he plays for London of the junior Ontario league.
Kucherov, 18, had a record 21 points in this year's under-18 world championship. He will next season play for Russia's CSKA senior team. Nesterov, 18, a puck-moving blue-liner, played for the Chelyabinsk junior team last season and next might play for Tri-Cities of the junior Western league.
Nesterov was adamant he wants to play in the NHL.
"I would like to play for Tampa Bay in North America," he said through translator and agent Garry Greenstin. "My goal is to play in the NHL."
"There is a lot of hesitation with these players to bring them over, which is understandable," Yzerman said. "But we feel that the three we selected are a good gamble. We believe they will be here, and they will be here sooner rather than later.
"Any player you pick in the second round is three or four years away. In three or four years, if they're good players, they'll be here. All the good ones eventually come over from Russia."
SMALL WONDERS: In a league with players who generally have gotten a lot bigger, the Lightning drafted five skaters averaging 5 feet 11, 168 pounds, including LW Matthew Peca (5-8, 155).
"We wanted the best players," Murray said. "We had some bigger guys that were ahead of some of the guys on our list, but other teams took them.
"You can reach back and take some bigger players who aren't as talented or take guys you feel have a real high talent level. In the case of the guys we took, who are smaller players, we feel they have elite talent level."
NUMBERS: The four-year contract signed Friday by D Eric Brewer breaks down like this: $3.75 million next season, $4 million in 2012-13 and 2013-14 and $3.75 million in 2014-15 for a total of $15.5 million.
ODDS AND ENDS: Qualifying offers to keep negotiating rights of restricted free agents are due Monday. … Tampa Bay's rookie camp is scheduled for July 6-13 at the Ice Sports Forum in Brandon. … Canada led the draft with 79 players selected. The United States was next with 64.