In the NHL draft, as with every major sport, the prizes come off the board quickly. There are, after all, only so many players in any year who have the magical combination of size, skill, heart and desire necessary to become a regular in the professional ranks, and those select few are easily identified and quickly snapped up with the earliest picks.
At least, that’s usually the case.
But as Michael Farber’s feature story on Red Wings’ European scout Hakan Andersson reveals in this week’s issue of Sports Illustrated, there are always gems who slide untouched through round after round until some scout convinces his team that this is the kid who might surprise everyone.
Thanks to Andersson, one of the best and most astute bird dogs in the game, Detroit has long enjoyed a reputation as a team that can spin the straw of a late-round pick into gold. They’ve won Stanley Cups and sustained an astounding playoff appearance streak of 23 years and counting (the longest active such run in pro sports) on the backs of long shots like forwards Henrik Zetterberg (7th round, No. 210, 1999), Pavel Datsyuk (6th round, No. 171, ’98) and the now retired Tomas Holmstrom (10th, No. 257, ’94), and more recently defenseman Jonathan Ericsson (9th round, No. 291, 2002) and winger Gustav Nyquist (4th round, No. 121, ’08). The Wings continue to find players in places where other teams might find themselves eyeing beer leaguers.
It takes some real skill to mine for players the way Andersson has been doing—in the SI story he says only 1½ of every seven picks will make it to the NHL—but it really all comes down to spotting something special in a raw kid, playing a hunch and getting lucky.
Hindsight being what it is, it’s easy to look back on a draft and see how it could, or should, have played out differently. But in the moment there is rarely a general consensus that extends beyond the first two or three rounds. By the time a draft works its way into the middle and late rounds, scouts are often buying one promising tool—high-end skating, hockey sense, puck skills, competitiveness—and hoping that one attribute can be the base for a more rounded player.
Take winger Jamie Benn for example. Scouts who saw him playing for Victoria of the BCJHL agreed that he would probaly fill out into an NHL-caliber frame, and that he already had an NHL-caliber shot, but there were concerns about his conditioning and hockey sense—and his skating. Scouts hated his skating, so much so that for many it diminished Benn to marginal status. “We’re not sure if he’s really that slow or if he just refuses to move,’’ was the opinion of The Red Line Report in its 2007 draft guide.
Eight years later, the Stars look like geniuses for selecting a player in the fifth round who went on to become not only their captain, but also an Olympic gold medalist with Canada. The reality is that while Dallas liked Benn, the team didn’t think as much of him as it did Nico Sacchetti, the skilled but undersized high school forward that the Stars took with the 50th pick in the same draft. Or forwards Sergei Korostin (64th), Colton Sceviour (112th) and Austin Smith, who was nabbed one pick ahead of Benn at 128.
“We really had no idea [what he could be] at the time,” said Les Jackson, Dallas’s director of player personnel. “If we did, we would have taken him in the first round.”
It was a similar story with center Joe Pavelski, whom the Sharks unearthed in the seventh round in 2003 out of the USHL—not exactly a hotbed of draftable talent in those days. One former scout, who asked not to be named, remembered checking out Pavelski, who was skating for the Waterloo Blackhawks at the time: “The skill was obvious. He could score. He was a great little puck handler. But [the NHL] was a different league back then and my estimation at the time was he was too small and too slow to help us. Here he is [now] and he’s still small and slow, but everything else came together for him. He was a classic late bloomer. Now he’s someone who scores and defends and wins draws and makes everyone around him better.
“One of many I’d like a do-over on.”
Dustin Byfuglien was another. An offensively-inclined defenseman with the Prince George Cougars of the WHL, he terrorized smaller opponents with a howitzer shot from the point and a punishing physical game.
“Problem was he was 300 pounds at the time,” the scout said. “At least. Hard to overlook that.”
The Blackhawks were willing, and they landed Byfuglien with the 245th pick in 2003. And while weight maintenance has dogged him at times during his pro career, he’s matured into an All-Star while proving himself equally effective as both a forward and a blueliner.
As the chart below shows, Chicago has had better luck than most teams in the later rounds of the draft. From 2001 through ’10, they drafted 62 players after the third round. Ten of them, a solid 16%, went on to play at least 50 NHL games, although not all with the Blackhawks. A league-high six, including Byfuglien, defenseman James Wisniewski and center Marcus Kruger, have played at least 250 games apiece. (Our chart includes notable late draft choices who are still with the teams that chose them or who played for them for a reasonably significant period before going elsewhere. Players who weren’t signed, but who later latched on with other clubs before having productive NHL careers were excluded.)
The Rangers have had the best success rate in terms of quantity: 14 of their 50 picks (28%) from the fourth round on played at least 50 games, with three of them, including winger Ryan Callahan, defenseman Marek Zidlicky and forward Petr Prucha, who top 250. (Goalie Henrik Lundqvist, New York’s crown jewel, was plucked in the seventh round of the 2000 draft, so he is not included in the chart.) It’s worth noting that several other draftees from this era, including forwards Carl Hagelin and Dale Weise (now with the Canadiens), are on the verge of that milestone as well.
At the other end of the scale are the Canucks and the Flyers, who might have done just as well if they’d simply picked names out of a hat. Both teams managed to identify only four players who met the minimum standard of 50 games. The Hurricanes were just as bad, selecting five 50-game vets, but failing to land even one that lasted 250 games.
Of course, even the best scouts swing and miss. While the Predators knocked the 264th and final pick of the 2005 draft out of the park with the selection of winger Patric Hornqvist, Detroit bet on defenseman Juho Mielonen and winger Johan Ryno, while the Bruins (asurprise leader on the chart) took forwards Wacey Rabbit and Lukas Vantuch. Failures like those are par for the course, but that doesn’t stop scouts from taking a chance.
"We all want good players,” Andersson said. “When they turn out to be like [Datsyuk], it’s a good feeling.”