The writing was on the wall for Andrew Ference in 2015-16 when he was able to suit up for just six games while attempting to battle through injury. Then, this past season, when Ference was sidelined for the entire campaign with a hip injury, it seemed only a matter of time. So, when the 38-year-old defenseman announced his retirement Tuesday, it didn’t catch many by surprise.
But what Ference’s retirement does allow for is a look back on his career. Over 16 seasons, Ference suited up in 907 games, scoring 43 goals and 225 points. He worked his way from bottom of the lineup to the top and was part of the defense corps of two different teams that earned their way to the Stanley Cup final. The first was in Calgary in 2003-04, but that ended in a heartbreaking seven-game defeat for the Flames. The second, with Boston, saw Ference on the other side of a seven-game Stanley Cup final, as he hoisted the Stanley Cup as a Bruin in 2010-11.
The most remarkable thing about Ference’s career, however, is that judging by his draft position, he was never really expected to make it. In fact, in today’s NHL, he may not have even been drafted. That’s not because of skill or changes in the game over the years, either, but rather because Ference’s draft was during the NHL’s nine-round era, which makes his draft year two rounds longer than the league’s current amateur selection process. Ference benefited from those two additional rounds, too.
In the 1997 draft, Ference was selected in the eighth round, 208th overall, by the Pittsburgh Penguins, and nabbing Ference that late makes him the biggest bonafide steal from that draft. No player drafted later than Ference played more games or score more points, and up against his counterparts from the same draft — a year headlined by Joe Thornton, Marian Hossa and Patrick Marleau — only 12 players suited up in more games and 18 produced more points.
Ference wasn’t just one of the best steals of the 1997 draft, though. He was one of the best steals of the entire nine-round era. So, who else fits the bill? Here are five eighth- and ninth-round steals from 1994 to 2004:
5. Michael Ryder — 1998 draft, 8th round, 216th overall
If ever there was an example of a late bloomer catching fire as soon as he made it into the NHL, it’s Ryder. Drafted near the tail end of the eighth-round in 1998, Ryder coming off of a stellar rookie season in the QMJHL, but no one took was willing to take a chance on him until the Montreal Canadiens came calling. And, boy, would the Canadiens benefit from that down the road. But first, Ryder had to spend two more years in the QMJHL, two years splitting time between the AHL and ECHL and one full season as a Hamilton Bulldog before he finally hit in the NHL.
When he hit, though, he hit big. In his rookie campaign, Ryder scored 25 goals, and he scored an impressive 85 goals in 244 games from 2003-04 to 2006-07. Only 27 players in the entire league scored more goals over that span. Ryder would eventually leave for Boston by 2008-09 and proceed to bounce around the NHL until 2014-15. He retired following that season in New Jersey, completing his career with 237 goals and 484 points in 806 games. Only eight players from the entire 1998 draft had more goals and 13 more points than Ryder.
4. Mark Streit — 2004 draft, 9th round, 262nd overall
Draft rules have changed, but during the nine-round era, it was possible to pick an older player and take their rights if they had gone unclaimed. Thus, the Montreal Canadiens went off the board when they used their penultimate selection in the 2004 draft to nab Streit, a 26-year-old rearguard plying his trade with Zurich in the Swiss League. It would turn out to be quite the choice, however.
Streit made his debut in 2005-06, earning a spot on the Canadiens roster and skating in more than half the campaign. The following year, he was an every-game player in Montreal, but he really broke out in 2007-08. Skating the biggest minutes of his NHL career, Streit blasted home 13 goals and 62 points, earning himself Norris Trophy votes in the process, and over the next two campaigns, both of which were spent with the New York Islanders, Streit would finish top-10 in Norris voting.
Streit has bounced from Montreal to New York and on to Philadelphia and then Pittsburgh, and his career is winding down. He’s still drawing some interest, but even if he hung it up now, he’d be the biggest steal from his draft. His 784 games are the third-most of 2004 draftees and only six players have put up more points than Streit’s 434.
3. Dustin Byfuglien — 2003 draft, 8th round, 245th overall
The 2003 draft was stacked, and the first-round is widely regarded as one of the best in league history. Every single player has suited up in the NHL and many — including Marc-Andre Fleury, Jeff Carter, Patrice Bergeron, Eric Staal, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry — turned into impact players. But way, way, way down the draft board was Byfuglien, taken by the Chicago Blackhawks, and he’s turned into one of the best picks of the entire class.
It took Byfuglien a few years to really find his way into the NHL and even when he reached Chicago he was used more as a utility player than a pure defenseman. Often he was bouncing into the top-six as a winger alongside Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane. But once he moved over to the Atlanta Thrashers, Byfuglien became a full-time defenseman, and he has since been one of the best in the league.
Save the 2013-14 campaign, Byfuglien has finished in the top 15 of Norris Trophy voting every year since landing with Atlanta, now the Winnipeg Jets, and here is a complete list of higher scoring defensemen over the past seven seasons: Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson. That’s it. Byfuglien could have been up for grabs post-draft in the seven-round era, and whoever took a chance on the rearguard would have benefitted big time.
2. Pekka Rinne — 2004 draft, 8th round, 258th overall
The nine-round era produced 13 goaltenders who played at least one game in the NHL, but there’s a chasm in talent between Rinne and the next-best netminder to come out of the draft’s eighth- or ninth-round during the decade-long period. There are some talented goaltenders among the select group, such as Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott, but Rinne is on a different level. He’s the only netminder to come into the league, establish his spot as a No. 1 and hold it down for nearly a decade.
It may seem as though Rinne has been around forever, but he really only took the Predators’ crease on a full-time basis back in 2008-09. That season, he started 49 games, pieced together a 29-15-4 record, .917 save percentage and 2.38 goals-against average, which were good enough numbers to finish fourth in Calder Trophy voting. And though Rinne has had his ups and downs, his highs have been quite high.
Over the past seven seasons, Rinne has been a finalist for the Vezina Trophy three times, finished top 10 in Hart Trophy voting three times and, just this past season, dominated in the Predators’ crease to lead Nashville to the Western Conference championship and the franchise’s first berth in the Stanley Cup final. No team expects a franchise-altering goaltender to come along so late in the draft, but the 258th selection was exactly that for the Predators.
1. Tomas Kaberle — 1996 draft, 8th round, 204th overall
To this point, there is no player drafted in the final two rounds during the nine-round era that has played more games than Kaberle, but it’s not as if he was simply around for his 984 games.
The 1996 draft produced some quality players — Zdeno Chara, Matt Cullen and Chris Phillips among them — but few were as dynamite as Kaberle during his best years. Only five players skated in more games than Kaberle, only four put up more points and not a single one of those players was drafted later.
And for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Kaberle was everything on the blueline. He was a power play quarterback, a top-pairing defenseman, shutdown guy and minute-muncher. During his time with the Maple Leafs, he averaged nearly 24 minutes per game, scored 83 goals and 520 points and skated in 878 games, the eighth-most in franchise history and third-most of any rearguard. It may not have been the most successful era in Toronto’s storied history, but Kaberle was certainly a cornerstone of the franchise during his decade-plus with the team. And for all of those reasons, it’s astounding the Maple Leafs were able to draft him so late.
(All draft statistics via Hockey-Reference.com)
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