One of them is "NHL-ready."
But just how NHL-ready are the prospects in this year’s draft? Steven Stamkos might have his Tampa Bay Lightning sweater ready for him, but will he be the only one donning an NHL sweater next season?
If recent history holds form, he might have some company, but not much.
Just four players taken in the 2007 Draft played in the NHL last season. Three of them — Chicago’s Patrick Kane, Edmonton’s Sam Gagner and St. Louis’ David Perron — played in the League all season. Kyle Turris played the final three games of the Phoenix Coyotes’ season after finishing his freshman season at the University of Wisconsin.
From the previous two drafts, only three players — Pittsburgh’s Jordan Staal and Boston’s Phil Kessel (2006) and the Penguins’ Sidney Crosby (2005) played full NHL seasons the same year they were drafted. Gilbert Brule, taken eighth overall by Columbus in 2005, started 2005-06 with the Blue Jackets, but played most of the season in the Western Hockey League after being returned to his junior team.
In six drafts between 2001 and 2007, only once did more than six players skate in the NHL in their draft season. The exception was the talent-laden 2003 Draft, which saw nine players spend some time in the NHL — Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury, Carolina’s Eric Staal, Florida’s Nathan Horton, Columbus’ Nikolai Zherdev and Dan Fritsche, San Jose's Milan Michalek, Los Angeles' Dustin Brown, Minnesota's Brent Burns and Boston's Patrice Bergeron.
So what does it take for a teenager to jump right into the NHL? Tremendous skill and size are essential, but most importantly, the player has to have the mental acuity to cope with the ups and downs of playing in the world’s top hockey league.
"You have to have the confidence of playing with the best players in the world," said Jarmo Kekalainen, assistant general manager and director of amateur scouting for the St. Louis Blues. "Even when you're physically ready, you might not have that. … The hockey sense allows you to move on easier to the next level. If you have the hockey sense and the instincts, that allows you to play on the highest stage. The thinking and the timing gets so much quicker there. Unless the hockey sense is good, you're going to have a tough time adapting to that pace."
That's exactly what separated players like Kane, Gagner and Perron from the rest of their draft class.
"If you look at Gagner, Kane, the guys that can step in and play and play well right away, it's the great hockey sense they have," Kekalainen said. "Jordan Staal is a big man, but if you look at one quality as to how he is as a player, it's hockey sense. It makes everything easier. It's a lot easier to handle the skating, to handle the less time guys have because guys put more pressure on you."
The Blues saw Perron was ready to handle the strains and stress of the NHL. The Oilers saw the same in Gagner.
"In Sam's case, his maturity level was off the scale – not only for an 18-year-old, but for anyone," Oilers GM Kevin Lowe said. "Maturity, understanding the game, absorbing the coaching — he's as good as anybody."
While skill and maturity are the most important factors, there also has to be an opportunity.
"I think if your team is a team where you're established and you know you're in the top five, six, seven teams in the League, you probably don't keep a player like that," Blues GM Larry Pleau said. "You can't get him enough ice time for guys like that. We made our decision that if we can get (Perron) in the lineup for 45 or 55 games, that would be good. We felt if we can get him in that many games, it would be better for us next year. Can you afford to keep a player with you like that on your 23-man roster? And is it better for him to develop here? We felt we had a spot, we could get him enough games and we felt it was the right thing to do."
|"In Sam's case, his maturity level was off the scale – not only for an 18-year-old, but for anyone. Maturity, understanding the game, absorbing the coaching — he's as good as anybody." - Oilers GM Kevin Lowe |
Pleau feels they accomplished that goal, as Perron had 27 points in 62 games while averaging 12:33 of ice time.
"We decided that the right decision for him going forward in our organization was that we could keep him and he would get enough out of this year to be better for the following year," Pleau said.
Lowe has a similar open-minded stance, bred into him from his own playing career.
"I keep going back to (Glen) Sather and the early years of the Oilers," said Lowe, a key member of Edmonton's dynasty in the 1980s. "He kept going with those guys. I'd rather go with a young guy who can develop into an elite player than an older guy who will keep you where you are. Someone like Sam had the maturity and the understanding that even if he wasn't contributing on the score sheet, he didn't panic. He knew he could contribute within that game and it might not show up on the score sheet, but go home that night and know that he contributed. Some kids might think, 'I didn't do anything last game, I better do something the next game,' and do something risky and put the team down, and now you're farther behind the 8-ball."
Not every GM is as open-minded as Lowe. General managers grapple with the question of whether the player's long-term development would be better served by spending an extra year playing against players their own age.
"(Sam) made the team out of the gate and we said we'll see how it goes,'" Lowe said. "We didn't make any commitment to him. We said we'll see how he plays in the first 12-15 games of the year. Clearly he played well enough that we wanted to keep him around."
So are there any players in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft that could be worth keeping around for the 2008-09 season?
A few players were confident.
"Hopefully I'll be in the NHL," Stamkos said. "That's my main objective coming into the summer, to work hard and train hard. We got a firsthand glance when we went to Detroit (for the Stanley Cup Final). The guys were physically mature and they're so big and strong and fast. I've got a lot of hard work to do, but my main goal is to be in the National Hockey League next year."
Added Zach Boychuk, rated No. 8 among North American skaters by the Central Scouting Bureau, "I'm a guy that likes to set my goals high. Anything can happen. It just inspires you to see guys like Patrick Kane, Sam Gagner and all those guys, kind of smaller, skill guys similar to myself, who had great rookie seasons in the NHL. It makes me push that much harder. And once that day comes when I get drafted by a team, I'm going to put all my heart and soul into it and try to give myself an opportunity for a spot."
The scouts have their own opinions.
"Stamkos, (Drew) Doughty, (Luke) Schenn and (Alex) Pietrangelo might be ready to play right away," said one NHL executive who requested anonymity.
"I know (Kelowna coach) Bruce Hamilton, and he thinks Schenn can play right now," another League executive said. "I was impressed with (Nikita) Filatov … and I hear that (Zach) Bogosian is close."
So will we see a progressive team take a chance on a player straight out of the draft?
"It’s having an open mind," Lowe said. "In their (other GMs) minds, the kid's going back. We don't operate like that. I have an empty canvas. We knew that Sam would be a much better player in the second half, so you put up with the growing pains. And if by speeding up the development process he's going to give you a chance to win sooner or later, you do that."
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com.
Author: Adam Kimelman | NHL.com Staff Writer