BRANDON — It would not have been surprising if general manager Steve Yzerman tried to put a happy face on the Lightning's poor showing at last week's prospects tournament.
No use running down youngsters who he said "competed hard" and whose futures, and probably best days, are ahead.
But after going 0-3 in Coral Springs while being outscored 15-6, Yzerman figured honesty was the best policy.
"Yeah," he said Sunday at the Ice Sports Forum, "I'd say we were disappointed."
The result is a symptom of a larger problem for the Lightning: lack of organizational depth.
Since drafting Vinny Lecavalier and Brad Richards in 1998, the team has struggled evaluating young talent, notwithstanding the no-brainer picks of center Steven Stamkos, No. 1 overall in 2008, and defenseman Victor Hedman, No. 2 in 2009.
In fact, from 1999-2007, Tampa Bay did not draft an impact player despite 14 first- or second-round selections.
Drafting improved in 2008 and '09 under then-GM Brian Lawton, but the cupboard was so bare, the team still is restocking.
Yzerman, who took over in May 2010, even acknowledged a conversation with coach Guy Boucher in which Boucher said Yzerman told him, "The first thing is we have to rebuild the whole depth."
"It's been deficient," Boucher added. "We don't have the guys who were drafted three, four, five years ago. Where are they besides Stamkos and Hedman? That's what hurts; all the guys picked first round who didn't pan out, especially the defensemen.
"That's huge. That changes your team. Now we have to build it up again, and it takes time."
It is an important issue. Minor-leaguers are hedges against injuries to NHL players. With players developing in juniors, they are an organization's lifeblood.
"Teams with a long history of playoff appearances get that depth from building from within, letting guys mature and learn," goaltender Dwayne Roloson said. "Eventually, they keep improving and you bring them up."
Boucher called it "a wheel."
"We don't have the wheel turning yet," he said, "but we will."
It takes about five years to evaluate drafts, Yzerman said. But with players such as defenseman Mark Barberio, goalie Dustin Tokarski and forwards such as Brett Connolly, Carter Ashton, James Wright, Richard Panik, Alex Hutchings, Vladimir Namestnikov and Ondrej Palat, all drafted since 2008, things seem to be improving.
Yzerman also is being creative.
He signed free agents such as forwards Michel Ouellet and Alex Picard and defenseman Richard Petiot to two-way deals. Each could be with AHL Norfolk, but their NHL experience will be invaluable if injuries mount.
He also signed undrafted free agents such as left wing Cory Conacher and center Tyler Johnson, both of whom have impressed in camp.
There is even talk Conacher, 21, a speedy puck hound with good skills who signed a minor-league deal, might get an NHL contract before camp ends.
"We've got to be diligent," Yzerman added. "Our scouts, pro and amateur, are out there. We're going to sign college free agents and juniors. Not all will turn out to be NHLers, but it's the only way we're going to get ahead."
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]