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Addressing Draft Needs

by Aaron Lopez / Colorado Avalanche
It was easy to forget at times last season, but having two 18-year-olds step into an NHL lineup and make an immediate impact just a few months after being drafted was an extremely unique situation.

That’s what the Avalanche experienced during the 2009-10 campaign with Matt Duchene and Ryan O’Reilly – a pair of rookies who helped Colorado earn a playoff berth while displaying a maturity level beyond their years.

The NHL Draft isn’t typically viewed as a “quick fix” method for teams looking to shore up their rosters. With the exception of a few standout players, most draft picks are considered long-term investments from the moment their names are called out on draft day.

“We went through an extraordinary situation last season where we had two 18-year-olds fit into our lineup, and that certainly isn’t the norm,” said Avalanche director of amateur scouting Rick Pracey. “It’s great to have that success, but I think at the same time in scouting and looking at the long-term, we’re looking at three-to-five years down the road as opposed to immediate help.”

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Still, each team in attendance at the 2010 NHL Draft in Los Angeles on June 25-26 will be hoping to emulate the success Colorado had a year ago. General Managers and scouts league-wide will be searching for a top-end talent like Duchene who can make an immediate impact, or a second-round gem like O’Reilly who has the ability to turn heads with his strong defensive play and penalty-killing ability.

However, the more realistic view is that teams generally draft with an eye toward the future, not the present.  After making a selection, NHL clubs typically have to sit back and hope that a combination of personal growth, coupled with some developmental aid from the organization, will help the player reach the NHL a few seasons down the road.

If that prospect exceeds expectations, maybe they can jump straight from juniors or NCAA hockey to the professional ranks. Or perhaps with an accelerated learning curve, they crack an NHL roster one year after they are drafted.

That’s what makes creating a draft list so tricky for NHL scouts. How do you strike a balance between evaluating young players in relation to the current needs of the organization, versus projecting what that team’s roster might look like years from now?

Is there an ever-changing flow chart which attempts to extrapolate what the team’s organizational needs might be in three years? Or is it a matter of striking a balance between organizational needs and simply taking the best player available?

“Balance is a good word, because when we’re building our list it’s important for us to try to put all those factors aside. We truly try to put our list in order of ability,” said Pracey. “There are always going to be organizational needs. It’s important to keep in mind that the needs of the team today might not be the needs of the team four years down the road.”

Kevin Shattenkirk - Colorado's first-round pick at the 2007 NHL Entry Draft - signed an entry-level contract with the Avs in April after playing the past three seasons at Boston University.
Pracey’s point is that the approach most NHL teams take during the draft is similar to that of clubs in Major League Baseball, where the vast majority of draftees need a few years to continue their skill development before jumping to the big leagues.

That style differs greatly from the NBA and the NFL, for example, where teams see a hole they need filled for the coming season and can often plug their draft selections directly into said spot.

“We’re dealing with projecting 17-and 18-year old kids. It isn’t like the NBA or NFL Draft, where drafting for need is more prevalent,” said Pracey. “The most prominent part of our job is figuring out who the best players are, getting them in the right order and figuring out why we like them. Then, if there are circumstances that come into it – maybe it’s an organizational need or a positional need – maybe those things come later in the evaluation process. The challenge first and foremost is to get them in the right order based on ability.”

Completing that task is easier said than done. It takes countless man-hours spent traveling far and wide and evaluating prospects across the globe to come up with a final draft list.

But one thing is certain – when the hockey world convenes in Los Angeles later this month for the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, every team in the league will be trying to follow, in one way or another, the blueprint utilized by the Avalanche a year earlier.
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