(Parts of this story originally appeared on WashingtonCaps.com in 2004)
For hundreds of young hockey hopefuls, the NHL’s annual Entry Draft is a chance to begin pursuit of their ultimate dream, playing in the league. For scouts it’s the conclusion of another “season” and time to empty out all the information accumulated after watching hundreds of players in hundreds of games over hundreds of nights. For general managers it’s a chance to talk shop with their peers and begin shaping their organizations for the seasons ahead. And for NHL clubs it’s an opportunity to restock the pantry with talent and to perhaps latch on to a budding superstar.
For about four days every June the Entry Draft is the center of the hockey universe. The draft itself takes place on Saturday and Sunday, but there is plenty of activity going on behind the scenes in the days leading up to draft weekend.
One of the most difficult tasks facing an NHL team is that of watching 17- and 18-year-old kids play hockey and trying to project what type of players they will be four or five years down the road. It’s a very inexact science; of the nearly 300 players drafted every year fewer than half will achieve their goal of reaching the NHL. Fewer still will go on to forge careers as NHL regulars. A handful may stay in the league for a decade or more and a very select few will go on to become stars.
A recent survey of all 4,316 players drafted from 1979 through 1995 reveals that only 21% (or slightly more than 900) of all those players went on to enjoy as much as a modest career of 200 NHL games. The study, conducted by researcher and writer Simon Richard is featured prominently in the June 30, 2004 issue of The Hockey News. Richard’s research also shows that 55%of all players drafted from 1979-95 never made it to the NHL and only 6% percent turned out to be stars or superstars.
With this grim reality as the backdrop, 30 NHL teams annually spend millions of dollars and thousands upon thousands of hours trying to divine which of the “can’t miss” kids are the surest of all and which of the “sleepers” are mostly likely to pan out. In a given year there may be a degree of agreement among scouts as to who the top 1, 2, 5 or 10 players are, but beyond that the lists of the 30 teams are as varied as the flora in a Brazilian rainforest.
“I think some years you kind of have a feel for who might be there,” says Ross Mahoney, Washington’s director of amateur scouting. “Not a single specific player but maybe you look at it and you might be able to figure out the first three or four. You hear things. You assume that 30 teams are going to all these games, but their lists are going to be different. A lot of times there are consensus No. 1 picks, and it’s usually true.
“But I think you might have an idea some years of which three or four kids [that you like] might be there [when it’s your turn to pick]. But there are other times when you are stroking the names off of the list and you might say, ‘Wow, this person is still here. This is interesting. And you might try to trade up. But there are always surprises. And there are always players [who] get taken – it could be [at fourth overall] in the draft or it could be [at 20th overall] in the draft – that [are surprising].
“So I think the best thing is to make your list, go to the draft, and if there is an opportunity maybe to trade up and get somebody, you could try that. If it doesn’t work out, you are going to take the player you like anyway. You’ve done all that work. You’ve got your list, and you work from that.”
The list is made up with the input of all Washington’s amateur scouts. This well-traveled group of hockey-watching vets canvasses the globe and rolls up hundreds of thousands of travel miles as it watches the stars – and the busts – of tomorrow as the teenagers of today.
After watching draft-eligible players in tournaments and league play over the span of a calendar year, Washington’s scouts convene each May to compare notes and share opinions. This session produces the list from which the organization will draft at the end of June.
This task is not nearly as simple as it sounds. Not only are the players scattered geographically, but there is also a varying degree of difficulty and skill in the different leagues and countries.
“It is one of the toughest things for me,” says Mahoney. “Let’s say I go to a tournament in Slovakia and it’s an Olympic-sized ice surface; a huge sheet of ice. And everybody playing in the game is 17 years old. And then I go to watch a high school game where there is a player who is 17 and in grade 12 but he is playing against some grade nines and 10s and 11s. Some of the grade nines might be 5-foot-8 and 140 pounds. And then you go to a college game where a major college team is playing and there’s an 18-year-old freshman and he’s playing against maybe 23- and 24-year-olds because some of them might not have gone to school until they were 19 or 20. That’s a huge difference in maturity. Or you go out to the junior league and it’s the same thing. There are 16-, 17-, 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds playing. So it’s hard.
“I think you just have to remind yourself of the attributes. Can he skate? Well, if he can skate, it doesn’t matter if he’s playing in high school, European, college, major junior, Tier II, Midget Triple-A. If he can skate, he can skate. It’s not his fault he is still in whatever situation he is in. You wish they all played the same day on the same ice surface and all the variables would be equal. It would be a lot easier to do. But if he thinks the game, he thinks the game. It doesn’t matter if it’s midget, junior B, major college, high school. If he’s got good hockey sense, he has good hockey sense. You have to keep that in mind when you are evaluating those attributes.”
While on-ice performance is certainly the fulcrum of a player’s perceived “value,” teams look beyond what a player can do on the ice, too. With all the money and time invested in player development they would be foolish not to delve deeper into a player’s background.
That said, these are 17- and 18-year-old kids. As difficult as it is to get an accurate read on what type of hockey player he might be when he is 23 or 24, it’s often just as tough to gauge what type of a person or leader he is or will become. Even the most emotionally and intellectually mature 18-year-old has barely scratched the surface of his ultimate maturity level.
So while it is difficult to learn more about these young NHL hopefuls, that doesn’t stop NHL organizations from trying. In the days and weeks leading up to the draft the 30 NHL scouting departments are interviewing draft prospects and watching as players are put through their paces in workout and interview situations.
From May 25-29 hundreds of the draft-eligible class of 2004 descended upon Toronto to participate in fitness testing and in-person interviews. This annual ritual is similar to the NFL’s scouting combines where hordes of scouts watch players perform a variety of physical tasks and skills.
Each team will also choose a handful of players to interview and will end up re-interviewing several of these prospects in the days leading up to the draft.
Draft eligible hopefuls and their families will converge in Carolina days before the draft actually starts at noon on Saturday, June 26. NHL clubs will spend all day Thursday and Friday interviewing and re-interviewing players, and players will spend the days going from one interview to another. For a teenager whose immediate hockey future is to be decided in the upcoming days, it can be a nerve-racking experience.
The interviews last 10-15 minutes each and cover a wide variety of topics – including but not limited to hockey. Players rarely move up or down or off a team’s list based on their interview performance, but the process does give the scouting staff a different perspective by which to judge prospects. It can also help affirm the staff’s assessment of players and to provide a window into a player’s character and demeanor. When you’re trying to determine what type of player and person an 18-year-old kid is going to be a few years down the road, all the information you can gather is useful.
In a given draft year, only a very select few players will be able to make an NHL roster and spend the entire season with an NHL club. When teams choose players in the NHL Entry Draft, they do so with the hope that the players can enter the league and become productive players four or five years down the road. For this reason it is folly to draft for “need” in the NHL.
A team needing offensive punch at the NHL level in 2004-05 would be foolish to pass up a chance at getting a top defenseman or goaltender in the ’04 draft to take a forward who is perceived as a lesser prospect. Unlike the NFL where draftees are older and often more mature physically, intellectually and emotionally, NHL draftees are seldom able to step right into the lineup and adequately fill a pressing need. Almost universally, NHL scouts, personnel men and general managers will draft the best player available regardless of position. Needs change over time and can be addressed via other avenues, including trades and free agent signings. The purpose of the NHL draft is to accumulate assets within the organization, not to address specific needs on a team’s NHL roster.
Only with the benefit of several years worth of hindsight can it be determined how well a team has performed in an individual draft. Sometimes it takes six or seven years – or more – after a player is drafted for him to develop and “break out.” This is especially true for players taken after the first round.
For example, it has been six years since the 1998 Entry Draft. While players like Vincent Lecavalier (first overall), Alex Tanguay (12th), Simon Gagne (22nd), Scott Gomez (27th) and Brad Richards (64th) have long since made names for themselves in the league, several other players from that same draft are just now starting to break out and establish themselves as NHL regulars.
Chicago’s Mark Bell (eighth), Buffalo’s Dmitri Kalinin (18th), Calgary’s Robyn Regehr (19th), Pittsburgh’s Milan Kraft (23rd), Florida’s Mike Van Ryn (26th), San Jose’s Jonathon Cheechoo (29th), Montreal’s Mike Ribeiro (45th), New Jersey’s Brian Gionta (82nd), Carolina’s Josef Vasicek (91st), Montreal’s Pierre Dagenais (105th), Boston’s Andrew Raycroft (135th), the Islanders’ Trent Hunter (150th), Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk (171st), Chicago’s Tyler Arnason (183rd) and Montreal’s Michael Ryder (216th) are also members of the 1998 draft class and all of them are coming off their best NHL seasons or seasons in which they established themselves as NHL regulars. Interestingly, Raycroft, Hunter and Ryder are this year’s three Calder Trophy finalists.
Patience is important; the players listed above are only 23 or 24 years old but several are no longer with the club that drafted them. It’s impossible to hit a home run with every pick, but generally speaking, if a team is able to draft two or three players who will become NHL regulars each season it will be able to continually inject enough talent into its system to remain competitive on the ice and to avoid lavish outlays for aging free agents.