Be prepared. Be alert. Be flexible. But above all, be right. Draft choices are precious, particularly high draft choices, and a mistake can haunt a franchise for years.
“More than ever, if you miss, it hurts,” said Scotty Bowman, the Hall of Fame coach and Blackhawks’ senior advisor for hockey operations. “With the hard salary cap in our sport, if you make a bad choice, you’re pretty well stuck with it.”
Then again, when the National Hockey League stages its annual Entry Draft at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., June 24-25, all 30 franchises will bring encyclopedic knowledge to the table about the class of 2011. There might be strategic maneuvers but no state secrets.
Team historian Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. Verdi authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001.
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“It’s so much more sophisticated than it used to be,” Bowman went on. “We just had the league combine in Toronto, for instance, with 120 prospects there. We’re picking 18th, and we must have interviewed 30 of them. You not only draw information from your scouts, but these players undergo all sorts of tests, beyond just physicals. Do they have character? Do they have any baggage? You talk to their coaches. There’s very little chance of a guy slipping through the cracks, like Wayne Gretzky.”
Indeed, “The Great One” signed with the rival World Hockey Association as a 17-year-old in 1978. When the NHL consumed four WHA teams in 1979, Gretzky became part of the establishment with the Edmonton Oilers. But some organizations, notably the Winnipeg Jets, were not convinced he could succeed.
“I have to admit,” Bowman said. “I saw Wayne play in Montreal with the World Juniors in 1977, and there’s no way I would have expected him to become what he was. He was a skinny kid. Now, if I have a criticism of all these tests the prospects undergo these days, it’s that so many of them are off-ice, to gauge strength and body fat and all. Wayne always joked that he was the weakest guy on his team. But like he said, ‘How many push-ups do you have to do during a game?’
“He never went through the draft. In those days, you made mistakes. Montreal, a great organization, even made them. In 1980, they took Doug Wickenheiser over Denis Savard. A bad miss. Denis was playing in their backyard. The Canadiens could have watched him play every night. But they thought he was too small. You don’t see that much now because there’s so much information out there.
“Every NHL team has scouts all over Europe. There aren’t as many Russians coming over because the Kontinental League tries to keep the top kids playing at home. But the possibility of discovering a gem in some small town in Sweden? Not likely. Look at Alexander Edler of the Canucks. In 2004, only two teams were interested in him, Vancouver and Detroit. We were ready to take him with the Red Wings, but Vancouver took him first. All it took then was two teams to know. Now, it’s as though everybody knows.”
There’s the element of luck in the draft order itself. Pittsburgh got Sidney Crosby by winning the lottery in 2005, and we got Patrick Kane the same way. That’s two of the last Stanley Cup winners, and I would say they’re the two teams in the best shape as far as having young, core players signed for the long term. - Scotty Bowman
For the second straight year, Edmonton will select No. 1 overall, and the Oilers are widely predicted to have settled on Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, a playmaking center from Red Deer, Alberta, who might complement winger Taylor Hall, last spring’s choice. Back in the day, NHL teams secured talent primarily through sponsorships of junior clubs — Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita became Blackhawks via the St. Catharines Tee Pees. But with the advent of expansion, the NHL instituted a more egalitarian system whereby the Canadiens did not have first call on prodigies within the entire province of Quebec.
“Now, if you miss the playoffs, you get one of the high picks,” Bowman said. “And you want to make sure that you wind up with a top six forward or top four defenseman who can make it to the big club, and contribute, within three years. Drafting 18th, as we are, we’ve targeted about six guys we think might be available when it’s our turn.
“The most difficult part for the scouts, I believe, is coordinating the list of North American players with the list of European players. You’re working on that all the time, right up to the day of the draft. Obviously, there’s the element of luck in the draft order itself. Pittsburgh got Sidney Crosby by winning the lottery in 2005, and we got Patrick Kane
the same way in 2007. That’s two of the last Stanley Cup winners, the Penguins and Blackhawks, and I would say they’re the two teams in the best shape as far as having young, core players signed for the long term.”
In 1970, prior to the league’s second expansion from 12 to 14 teams, NHL President Clarence Campbell used a roulette wheel to determine the No. 1 draftee. Vancouver took numbers 1 through 6, 7 was a wash, and Buffalo opted for 8 through 13. After spinning the wheel, Campbell announced the Canucks had won with No. 1. But Sabres’ GM Punch Imlach lodged an inquiry.
“Mr. Campbell had read it wrong,” Bowman recalled. “It was 11, not 1. So the Sabres grabbed Gil Perreault, and the Canucks took Dale Tallon. I think that’s why Perreault wound up wearing No. 11. Dale was a nice player, but Perreault was tremendous. Funny thing, Boston had traded up and would have had the top two choices. Then came expansion. If it wasn’t for the two new teams, the Bruins could have picked both Perreault and Tallon and put them on a roster with Bobby Orr. Can you imagine that? The year after, Guy Lafleur was in the draft, and Montreal had the No. 1. You know, he wasn’t a slam dunk. That might surprise you. But the Canadiens chose him, and Detroit took Marcel Dionne. No misses there. Both Hall of Famers.”