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Different, But Still the Same

by Mike Vogel / Washington Capitals
As much as the NHL draft has changed over the years, one element has remained the same. Teams need to find talented players who eventually make it to the NHL. This past weekend marked the 35th time that members of the Washington Capitals’ braintrust and scouting staff assembled for an NHL Draft. This time around, the Caps made eight selections, bringing eight more kids into the organization. Only time will tell how many will go on to play for the Capitals.

In the course of Washington’s three-and-a-half decade membership in the National Hockey League, the Entry Draft has changed a great deal. Formerly known as the amateur draft, the new “Entry Draft” terminology was unveiled in 1979. In the old days, the draft was held in Montreal every year, year after year. These days, the draft moves to a different NHL host city every summer. The draft used to be conducted secretly in a conference room; since 1984 it has been telecast. Formerly consisting of a dozen or more rounds, the draft has been whittled down to seven rounds in recent years.

With every year that goes by, the NHL Entry Draft gains in profile, more and more fans show interest in the event, and more and more ink and pixels are devoted to covering the draft and breaking it down afterwards. For the kids themselves, it’s a big deal. They attend a draft combine to undergo physical and mental testing. They sit through interviews with various teams. They wonder which team will pick them and when. They read the mock drafts and predictions.

It wasn’t always that way.

“I had no idea it even happened,” says ex-Cap center Bengt Gustafsson, father of Anton, the Caps’ first choice (21st overall) in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. “That’s the difference. I had no idea. Maybe five months later somebody said, ‘Did you know you got drafted?’ I didn’t even know about it. There was nothing big going on in those days.”

The Capitals chose the elder Gustafsson with the 55th choice overall in the 1978 amateur draft, the second pick in the fourth round that year.

“I had a pretty good World Junior Championship in Montreal and I guess that’s why they drafted me,” Gustafsson recalls. “Scouting was totally different, too, then. The NHL for me then was so far away. There were not many Europeans here at all. If anything would happen it would be a big bonus. I had no thoughts and no drive to be an NHL player in my days. It was just trying to make it to the national team and play for Sweden; that was the goal you had as a player. The NHL was so far away.

“When it happened, signing with Edmonton like I did in the WHA, it was totally different anyway. It was a big thing that I ended up in the NHL and a big story in my life, but it was totally different.”

The draft is totally different in many ways. These days, no team would blow off the draft altogether and decline to participate in the draft as the St. Louis Blues did in 1983. Embroiled in a dispute with the NHL over the pending sale of the club, the Blues cut off their nose to spite their face. They did not send any representatives to the draft and they forfeited all of their picks.

These days, no one would (or even could) commit the sort of tomfoolery that Buffalo GM Punch Imlach pulled off in 1974. Fed up with what he believed to be a tedious draft process, Imlach invented a nonexistent player named Taro Tjujimoto, who he claimed was a star in the Japanese league. The NHL made the choice official, and it was reported as such in The Hockey News and in other media outlets.

Some time later, Imlach admitted his ruse. He had made up the team (Tokyo Katanas translated to Tokyo Sabres) and pulled the player’s name from the Buffalo white pages. The league later noted the choice as an “invalid pick,” but Buffalo still includes Tjujimoto in its annual official media guide.

With the new salary cap environment, the draft is serious business and big business. There’s no room for hijinks anymore, at least not during the draft. It’s difficult enough to perform well and consistently at the draft table without goofing around. And with only seven rounds, teams have fewer arrows in their quivers. Teams that can consistently produce two to three NHL players in each draft – regardless of the round in which they are chosen – should be able to sustain on-ice success as long as they’re also making sound decisions in the trade and free agent markets.

Including the eight players Washington drafted this past weekend, the Caps have drafted a total of 377 players over the years. Only 147 of them have gone on to lace up the blades in the NHL, and just 52 have enjoyed careers in the league of 200 or more games. Of course, the eight players drafted in ’08 haven’t had a chance to make the Caps roster yet, and one can’t reasonably expect many of those from recent Washington drafts to make it to the NHL already, let alone play in 200 games.

It’s impossible to evaluate the success (or lack thereof) of a team’s performance at the draft table until about five years after said draft. Sometimes, even five years isn’t enough. The Caps drafted Eric Fehr five summers ago, but few people are ready to write him off just yet.

Of the 211 players chosen in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, only four (Patrick Kane, Kyle Turris, Sam Gagner and David Perron) played in the NHL in 2007-08, and only three were with their clubs throughout the entire season. Twelve of the first 13 players chosen in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft have played in the NHL, but only nine of the last 200 players taken in ’06 have seen action in the league.

Going back to the ’05 draft, a total of 14 players has played as many as 65 games in the league. Going back to 2004 only 16 have played 100 or more games, and three of those (Alex Ovechkin, Jeff Schultz and Mike Green) are Capitals. The 2003 draft is thought to be one of the best in recent years, and the numbers bear that out. Twenty-eight players chosen in 2003 have already played in 130 or more NHL games, and those 28 as well as a couple dozen others are almost certain to reach and exceed the modest 200 games threshold.

The Caps are starting to show better acumen in the draft after a lengthy fallow period. From 1994 through 2001, Washington drafted a total of 76 players in eight Entry Drafts. Thirty of those players made it to the NHL, but only five went on to play as many as 200 games in the league.

In their last seven NHL Entry Drafts (2002-08), the Caps have selected a total of 67 players. Ten have already made the grade, and three have already surpassed 200 games in the NHL.

Steve Eminger, Alexander Semin and Boyd Gordon are three NHL regulars from the 2003 draft. The Caps still hold out hope that Fehr can represent the 2003 class, a group that produced only six Washington picks. Hershey center Andrew Joudrey is the only other player in the bunch who appears to have even a slim chance at playing 200 NHL games.

The 2004 draft has already produced Ovechkin, Schultz and Green for Washington. Chris Bourque, Sami Lepisto and Andrew Gordon are among the others in the 2004 class who could go on to enjoy NHL careers. None of the seven players chosen in 2005 has reached the NHL as of yet. One of those seven (Tim Kennedy) was traded away immediately after he was drafted, and only three of the other six played professionally in North America in 2007-08.

Calder Cup finalist Nicklas Backstrom is representing the class of 2006 with style. Several others from his draft class (Simeon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth, Francois Bouchard, Oskar Osala and Mathieu Perreault) will play their first full pro seasons in North America this season.

Washington’s first two choices in 2007 (defensemen Karl Alzner and Josh Godfrey) will also turn pro in 2008-09.

Don’t expect to see any of Washington’s 2008 choices turn pro before 2009-10, and it’s unreasonable to expect to see any of them at Verizon Center before 2010-11 at the earliest. But if two or three of the eight members of the class of ’08 prove themselves worthy of regular NHL duty, the Caps will mark down the 2008 NHL Entry Draft in the “success” column.

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