The NHL draft on June 23rd and 24th will offer over 200 prospects from all over the globe the honor of hearing their names called as they get drafted into the newest class of up-and-comers.
It goes without saying that draft day is one of the most important and pivotal moments of a young player’s career. The hype of the single day, however, represents the end of a challenging and overwhelming journey of preparation and sacrifice for this weekend. The year leading up to a prospect’s moment on the dais—and the many before it—is one of learning, growing, fixing mistakes, networking and making a statement.
For Mississauga Steelheads defensemen Nicolas Hague, a 6-foot-6 defenseman projected to go in the first round in Chicago, the “draft year” actually began well before.
"It's a really long journey" says Hague. "I have been preparing for this for two years. Whether it’s the big workouts or all the little things you try to fix, it’s all leading you to being prepared.”
After his first season in the Ontario Hockey League in 2015-16, the blueliner went into the off-season with 14 goals and 24 points in 66 games. As a sophomore with the Steelheads, he improved those totals to 18 and 46 in 65, leading to him being the 20th-ranked North American skater in this draft.
The road to making the rise up those rankings is unpredictable and emotional, requiring a lot of work and sweat.
"The hardest thing for most of these kids to prepare for, is the lifestyle changes that go along with being drafted," says Sportsnet analyst Sam Cosentino, who follows prospects year-after-year. “Immediately you are submersed into a culture where eating, training, resting, practicing and playing become part of your job and not just about the enjoyment of the game.”
In other words, it’s a shot for these kids to turn something they’ve been doing their entire life into a career with some adjustments and tweaks to their favorite pastime. The direct and indirect challenges put the young players under the microscope of scouts and teams, who watch them closely at games and events throughout the year with junior and college teams. For many, the bigger events in a draft year are the ones that can gain them the most exposure. Tournaments like the World Junior Championships offer a chance to showcase their talents in front of NHL brass while playing against some of the best amateurs the rest of the world has to offer.
For a player like Swiss-born Nico Hischier, the No. 2-rated North American skater in the draft, a memorable World Juniors turned plenty of heads in his favor. Playing for team Switzerland, the 18-year-old center posted seven goals and 15 points in 11 games. On the season with the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads, he notched 38 goals and 86 points in 57. Combine those two big performances and there’s a reason he’s in the conversation to be the top pick and could surpass countryman Nino Niederreiter as the highest-drafted Swiss player in history.
For Hischier, the draft is the next spectacle, though he downplays the the effect it had on his season.
No. 1 Picks of the NHL Draft
“Yes, the NHL draft will always be in the back of your head, but during the regular season with Halifax you don't focus on that,” he says. “I just try all the time to get better and help my team win games that comes first.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean the next generation isn’t picking up things along the way.
“Going to some of the events like the World Junior A Challenge and the NHL Combine humbled me as a player and were extremely beneficial,” says Cameron Crotty, 6-foot-1 defenseman ranked 89th among North American skaters. “Experiencing the college recruiting process with Boston University gave me a taste of the atmosphere and expectations at the next level.”
The high-profile events and opportunities over the season with the CCHL’s Brockville Braves and Team Canada East at the WJAC gave Crotty confidence, helped him improve his skill set and also significantly elevated his draft stock.
“I'm not sure if there was any one thing that helped me the most,” he says. “Rather it was a combination of all the experiences I had over the year that has prepared me for it.”
The preparation and opportunity is only part of it, however, as the draft year brings with it a lot of pressure. Learning how to deal with a constant stream of information coming from a variety of places can create a lot of noise around a player.
“You always hear about it every day,” Julien Gauthier says about the draft. The No. 21 pick in the 2016 draft, the winger sympathizes with the added pressure that comes from living in a digital age where scouting reports and message boards are at anyone’s fingertips. “Sometimes it's annoying but you need to focus on your goal and keep any form of distractions away from your game.”
When the buzz grows louder, it means the grand finale is nearing and all the hard work is about to pay off.
“All the work I have put in over the years has helped me to be ready for the big day in June” says Scott Reedy, a University of Minnesota commit who won a gold medal with Team USA at the IIHF Under-18 Championships. “Nothing gives me more confidence than knowing that I've done everything I could to prepare myself. At that point I let the dust settle and get back to work.”
As the big day approaches, however, keeping their eyes on the prize is important: a fledgling NHL career that awaits after a year of training preparing and improving in high-pressure situations.
On June 23rd, that dream becomes a reality and the stress of the previous season turns to elation—and perhaps a new set of goals to attain over the next 365 days.
“At this point all I want is to have a jersey at the end of the day,” says Antoine Morand a forward with the Acadie-Bathurst Titan and the No. 53 skater on Central Scouting’s list. “I don't think about which team will draft me, I want to be drafted and prove to the team that they made the right pick!”