FIRST IN A SERIES
They are the future.
Roman Hamrlik, Chris Gratton, Jason Wiemer.
Three kids around whom the Lightning is banking its fortunes.
"Nothing unleashes energy on the ice like raw youth," reads a line in the Lightning's season-ticket brochure. "The young and the restless," it calls them.
All first-round draft choices, thrown into the fray as teens, jumping into the NHL when nearly everyone else their age still is playing junior hockey.
As Tampa Bay prepares to take part in its fourth NHL Entry Draft, set for Saturday in Edmonton, it remains to be seen whether or not the fourth first-rounder taken in franchise history will follow the footsteps of his predecessors and wear a Lightning uniform so soon after hearing his name called.
At what stage should the Lightning not have to concern itself with depending on a fuzzy-chinned, barely old-enough-to-drive youngster to hold down a spot on its roster?
"This year," Lightning general manager Phil Esposito says.
So after three seasons of trying to shed its expansion image, but not earning a place in the playoffs, has Tampa Bay matured to the point of not needing its top draft pick right away?
Will he play, or will the Lightning's No. 1 choice Saturday go back to juniors for another year of seasoning?
"Don't know yet," Esposito says.
So much depends on whom the Lightning selects: Will he be ready? One thing, though, is certain.
"We're not going to change our philosophy, that's for sure," Esposito said. "We're not going to rush guys and put pressure on them."
Hamrlik, Gratton and Wiemer played because the team thought a year of NHL education would do them more good than a season elsewhere, and because it seemed they were ready.
Wiemer (taken eighth overall last year) struggled in this year's lockout-shortened season, but showed signs that with regular ice time he could fit in.
And though their inexperience was evident, Gratton (the third overall pick in 1993) and Hamrlik (first overall pick in '92) showed they belonged as rookies.
Hamrlik may have been most prepared: It's not as easy for a defenseman to step in and play right away, but he proved it can be done.
"We didn't plan on Roman being here," Esposito said, "but Roman just came into training camp and blew our socks off."
The draft's top prospects on defense, Bryan Berard and Wade Redden, are expected to be gone when the Lightning picks at No. 5, leaving Finland's Aki-Petteri Berg as a likely choice should Tampa Bay opt for a defenseman. He will not be 18 years old until later this month.
"Berg is pretty close (to being ready for the NHL) because of his size (6-foot-3, 200 pounds)," said Tony Esposito, the Lightning's director of hockey operations.
The forwards who most interest Tampa Bay _ Shane Doan, Steve Kelly, Chad Kilger and Daymond Langkow _ are all 18.
Only after seeing its pick in training camp will the Lightning decide where he will spend next season.
"We'll have 10 (preseason) games to look at him," Tony Esposito said. "It depends where he's at."
More often than not in the NHL, even first-round picks need time to mature. To have three first-rounders in a row play right away, like the Lightning, is rare indeed.
This year a lot depends, too, on how things sort out with others in camp. The Lightning played six rookies last season _ Wiemer, Alexander Selivanov, Cory Cross, Eric Charron, Brantt Myhres and Brent Gretzky _ and is expected to make room for Aaron Gavey in the coming season.
If Tampa Bay doesn't have to rely on its top pick right away, Tony Esposito said, "it would be easier on us, because we're going to use so many (other) young guys."
They, after all, are the future.
"We're committed to building a young hockey team," Tony Esposito said. "That was our plan all along."
Around the league
Flyers: Player Glen Seabrooke won a $5.5-million malpractice award Friday against former team physician John Gregg, his lawyer said. Seabrooke's 1991 lawsuit said Gregg misdiagnosed a shoulder injury in a minor-league game in November 1988 and recommended physical therapy that caused more damage.
Devils: Coach Jacques Lemaire is part of a 10-man committee that will study suggestions to cut down on hooking, holding and other restraining fouls, the Canadian Press reported. The committee, formed Friday, is partly in response to the neutral-zone trap the Devils used in sweeping the Stanley Cup finals. Lemaire will be joined by Toronto coach Pat Burns, general managers Bryan Murray of Florida, David Poile of Washington, Glen Sather of Edmonton, Harry Sinden of Boston, Neil Smith of the New York Rangers and Pat Quinn of Vancouver and referees Terry Gregson and Bill McCreary.
A look at the Lightning's three previous first-round draft picks:
Year Player, pos Overall
1992 Roman Hamrlik, D No. 1
Comment: Played 67 games, most for an overall No. 1 in the season drafted since Pierre Turgeon in '87-88; overcame off-season knee surgery for solid third season and wasrewarded with big, new contract.
1993 Chris Gratton, C No. 3
Comment: Played all 84 games in rookie season, scoring 13 goals and 29 assists; struggled at times in second season and was moved from center to wing as an experiment.
1994 Jason Wiemer, LW No. 8
Comment: Broke ankle in junior game in November, then played sporadically after the labor dispute was settled; first NHL goal was his only goal of the season.
_ TIM BUCKLEY
What: 1995 NHL Entry Draft.
Where: Edmonton Coliseum, Edmonton.
Rounds: The draft has been reduced from 11 rounds to 9 this year, plus one compensatory round.
Eligibility: Players eligible are North Americans born between Jan. 1, 1975, and Sept. 15, 1977, and non-North Americans 18 and older as of Sept. 15, 1995.
2. N.Y. Islanders
3. Los Angeles
5. Tampa Bay
12. San Jose
18. New Jersey