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HS players becoming an acquired taste for scouts

Monday, 04.06.2009 / 4:10 PM / 2009 NHL Entry Draft

By Mike G. Morreale - NHL.com Staff Writer

TORONTO - The quantity of quality scholastic hockey players emerging from schools across North America has expanded exponentially in recent years.

That, in turn, has alleviated some trepidation on the part of general managers contemplating taking a flyer on a high-school player with one of their valuable mid- to late-round draft picks.

Of course, NHL Central Scouting Service has made the process even easier for the League GMs, particularly during the past six years. Since the 2003 Entry Draft, 94 high school players have been selected by NHL teams. Last year alone, 15 were taken, which works out to be 7.1 percent of all North Americans drafted.

Among that group were five Minnesota natives, including first rounder Jake Gardiner (Minnetonka High) by the Anaheim Ducks at No. 17. Second-round picks were used on Roseau's Aaron Ness, No. 40 by the Islanders, and Shattuck-St. Mary's Derek Stepan, taken at No. 51 by the Rangers. In the third round, Kent School's Justin Daniels, of Suffern, N.Y., was taken at No. 62 by the San Jose Sharks, while Shattuck's David Toews was taken four picks later by the Islanders. Eastview High's Corey Fienhage was the final high-school player taken in the third-round, tabbed by Buffalo at No. 81.

"The quality of play and the player pool (among high-school players) has expanded a great deal in the last five years," Central Scouting Service scout Gary Eggleston told NHL.com. "I think that there's been a strengthening or education of the scouting fraternity in recent years. They have a little more history now and they can compare more favorably those kids playing in high school to the major-junior kids. We're seeing that maybe this kid is as good as the kid playing in the WHL or OHL.

"The dynamics of the seven-round draft have changed things, but many general managers will still take these kids, just not as many as one might expect because there are fewer rounds."

Eggleston has seen a drastic improvement, especially west of the Mississippi River.

"The Minnesota kids have improved by leaps and bounds," said Eggleston, who scouts primarily in the East. "The one benefit they have is the great structure they have with their elite league in the fall. The league is arranged by districts and they play every weekend until after Labor Day up and until early November. In New England, you could never get anything like that done because of the nature of the high schools, since kids are playing soccer at those schools."

The high school elite development program and the Upper Midwest High School Hockey Elite League operate from September through mid-November and are intended primarily as a high-level supplement to the high-school season. The league features five teams from Minnesota, one North Dakota/Minnesota combo team and Wisconsin's top prep team.

Shattuck's top team and other top Midget AAA teams also participate in some of the league's action. The program even has a dedicated staff of paid and volunteer individuals who administrate, promote, scout and coach.

In addition to the elite season in Minnesota, the top players are also invited to the Nike Bauer National Invitational Tournament, held in New Hope, Minn., in early November. The NIT includes five teams from Minnesota, representing specific areas of the state, a North Dakota and Minnesota combined team, an all-star prep team from Wisconsin and prep power Shattuck-St. Mary's, a six-time Midget AAA USA Hockey National Champion. This season, a couple of California teams also took part.

It's interesting to note, however, that the highest-rated scholastic player on Central Scouting's midterm rankings for 2009 -- Phillips Andover Academy's Chris Kreider -- is a Massachusetts product.

"I think it runs in cycles," scout Jack Barzee said when asked about the popularity of the high-school player in recent drafts. "The pool of players dictates the interest. To be honest, I'd be surprised if there are more than 15 high-school kids drafted this year, and I'm counting those from Boston and Minnesota. If a kid is ranked higher, the easier it is to pull the trigger on him for the right reasons because he's not as risky."

The most scholastic players taken in a draft occurred in 1987, when 69 high-school kids were plucked from various regions throughout the country. The first scholastic player off the board that year was John LeClair, who had just completed his senior season at Bellows Free Academy in St. Albans, Vt.
"I think the high picks that come out of the high schools are guys I think we project will mature in three years. If they go to college for two years and then spend a year in juniors, that's the higher echelon-type kid. The bottom one is the wild card and I think if you look at the percentages of the high-school kids going in the later rounds now, you don't see a positive percentage." -- CCS scout Jack Barzee
Since 2003, no fewer than 10 high school players have been grabbed with the hope that even one will pan out to become a future star in the League.

"I think the high picks that come out of the high schools are guys I think we project will mature in three years," Barzee said. "If they go to college for two years and then spend a year in juniors, that's the higher echelon-type kid. The bottom one is the wild card and I think if you look at the percentages of the high-school kids going in the later rounds now, you don't see a positive percentage."

Contact Mike Morreale at mmorreale@nhl.com.