Just days before Henrik Zetterberg skated with both the Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy, I was talking with a scout about Detroit's uncanny ability to pluck gems like the stylish Swede from the depths of the draft.
"How do their bloodhounds sniff 'em out better than anyone else?," I wondered.
"They don't," he said. "They've just stumbled across a couple while feeling around in the dark. It's all dumb luck."
Sour grapes from a rival? Hardly. He was just pointing out the obvious. When it comes to the draft, there are no guarantees, even if you're holding the No. 1 pick. You think Atlanta would like a do-over on Patrik Stefan, or Ottawa on Alexandre Daigle?
There's no science to determining the full-grown potential of 17-year-old boys. You do your homework, compare notes with the other guys on your staff, point to a name and hope for the best. Every now and then, the hockey gods smile on you and the kid pulls on your jersey for something other than a draft day photo shoot.
No one on the Wings staff will suggest otherwise when it comes to the selection of Zetterberg. They certainly weren't sitting on their hands at that 1999 draft table, giggling, waiting to see how long they could wait to pull the trigger on their super-secret sleeper pick while mocking the weak and puny scouting methods of their opponents. Truth is that they had no idea what they were getting when they nabbed Zetterberg 210th overall.
In fact, if the Wings truly were omniscient, Andrei Maximenko and Kent McDonnell and Jari Tolsa all would have been champagne-drenched Cup celebrants last week alongside Zetterberg. Those three players were all judged to be better prospects on draft day by the Wings themselves, and they ended up contributing 32 NHL games and three points between them...none for Detroit.
Today, it's hard to imagine how every NHL team could have turned up their noses so often on the player who has emerged as the best in his draft class. Check the contemporary scouting notes, though, and there were plenty of reasons why 209 others were deemed more desirable. Too small. Not strong enough on the puck. Inconsistent effort from game to game.
But by the time the seventh round rolls around, every choice is a flyer, an amalgam of flaws with maybe one redeeming quality. Red Wings European scout Hakan Andersson obviously saw something in the kid if he was willing to convince the others to give him a shot, but he clearly wasn't that sold on him if they waited that long. Even Zetterberg's agent was stunned to hear that his client had been drafted. And yet nine years later, his name is on the Cup and the Smythe.
It was the same situation a year earlier when the Wings pegged their hopes on Tomek Valtonen, Jake McCracken, Brett Hobday, Adam DeLeuw, Carl Steen and Ryan Barnes before lucking out with Pavel Datsyuk 171st overall. Barnes played two games in the NHL. None of the others got a sniff.
Those two late-rounders-turned-first-line-superstars, along with mid-round gems like Tomas Holmstrom and Johan Franzen, have imbued the Wings staff with a warm, fuzzy all-knowing glow. But it's not like they have a special pair of specs that help them separate the wheat from the chaff. Take the 2003 draft, for example. Five years down the road, they've picked up just one goal and 21 total games from their eight selections. Meanwhile, San Jose snagged Joe Pavelski with the 205th pick, Anaheim grabbed Shane O'Brien 250th, and Boston and Ottawa may have picked up their goalies of the future in Kevin Regan (277) and Brian Elliott (291).
Just goes to show the draft is a total crapshoot once you get past the first few picks. Even for the Red Wings.
Looking for a couple names that might be worth remembering in case your team grabs them later on? Here are eight players who should get to slip on a sweater sometime later on Saturday and have something to their games that has made a scout or two take notice. Odds are they're more likely to be this year's Maximenko or Tolsa than Andrei Markov (162nd, 1998), Daniel Alfredsson (133rd, 1994) or Luc Robitaille (171st, 1984)...but with the draft, you never know.
Aaron Crandall, a smallish (6-foot-0, 180-pound) netminder who is committed to play next season at Wisconsin.
Igor Revenko, the second-leading scorer (behind likely first-rounder Cody Hodgson) at the World Under-18 championships.
Brady Hjelle, a scrappy goaltender who'll attend Minnesota-Duluth next year. He once stopped 74 shots in a high school game, a Minnesota state record.
Oskars Cibulskis, a twice-passed over 20-year-old Latvian defender who has developed a decent offensive touch and a nice physical game to complement his big body.
Cameron Atkinson, a 5-9 winger who scored 26 goals, and 63 points, in 28 games for the highly regarded Avon Old Farms high school program.
Jerome Flaake, a big German winger who spent the season with Koln of the DEL.
Toni Ritter, a hulking right wing who had 28 goals and 60 points in 32 games of German junior hockey.
Janis Staupe, a 17-year-old forward who notched 27 goals in 45 games in the Latvian senior league, and had seven points in five games at the World Juniors.