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St. Louis, Purcell not defined by undrafted status

by Corey Masisak /
BOSTON – Four weeks from now, there will be 211 names called out at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.

There will be elation for 211 young players who have their dream of being drafted by an NHL team realized. There will also be despair for the young men who either made the trip to St. Paul, Minn., or sat by the phone for two long days without hearing their names called.

If this run by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs has taught anything to kids who harbor hopes of playing in the NHL, it should be that what happens on draft weekend doesn't have to define a player. The Lightning will face the Boston Bruins on Friday night at TD Garden with a berth in the Stanley Cup Final on the line.

Two of Tampa Bay's top three scorers, and two of the top five in the League in this postseason, are Martin St. Louis and Teddy Purcell. Those kids who feel dejected on draft weekend when their names aren't called will have something in common with St. Louis and Purcell – both went through the same thing.

"That's what is fun -- that is what is great about hockey," Tampa Bay forward Simon Gagne said. "It shows now to the young players that might not get drafted -- it shows them what is possible to do and you don't want to quit there. There's always a reason for it, and after that if you believe in it and are working hard like those guys did, look at what you can achieve."

Added St. Louis: "If you take the percentage of all the guys who are drafted and actually make a career out of it, there's not that much. It is not because you don't get drafted that you don't have a chance in this League. You can still work it out."

St. Louis' path to the NHL included four years in college at Vermont and some time in both the International Hockey League and the American Hockey League before he realized his dream of playing in the NHL. Even then, he had to overcome a major hurdle -- Calgary, which originally signed St. Louis, waived him after two seasons -- and he needed a move to Tampa Bay before he was able to fulfill his potential and become not only an NHL player, but an MVP and Stanley Cup champion.

Purcell's route to this point had some similarities. He spent three years in the United States playing amateur hockey -- two in the United States Hockey League and one in college at Maine -- before signing as a free agent with the Los Angeles Kings. Like St. Louis, Purcell did not flourish immediately at the NHL level despite all of his success at lower levels, and the Kings were willing to include him in a trade for Jeff Halpern at the trade deadline last March.

St. Louis was 25 in his first season with the Lightning, and he finished with 18 goals and 40 points. Two seasons later he had 33 goals and 70 points, and in 2003-04 he won the scoring title and claimed League MVP honors while helping the Lightning win the Stanley Cup.

"I had a chance to play against Marty in the past years, and it was always hard to play against him," Gagne said. "He's the type of player that he's going to make the difference, and you know that. Having a chance now to play with him, it's an honor, and at the same time it's fun. You know that something good's going to happen every time he's on the ice, and he's one of the players that enjoys the game almost every day and coming to the rink with a smile and that shows on the ice too.

"Marty went through a tough time before getting his chance in Tampa. Those guys get all the credit for all the work they put in and what they went through. They were patient and not quitting. Maybe at one point they could have said, ‘That's enough.' I think Marty deserves what is going on and the same thing with Teddy."

While St. Louis had 4 goals in 69 games with the Flames before joining the Lightning, Purcell had 8 goals in 91 contests for Los Angeles before moving on to Tampa Bay. This is his age-25 season, and Purcell had career-highs of 17 goals and 51 points in the regular season.

Where Purcell's career goes from here remains to be seen, but he has been a star in this postseason. There are only four players with more points in the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs than the 17 produced by Purcell -- including St. Louis, who has 20. He has scored 5 goals in this series against the Bruins, including two multi-goal games in the past three contests.

"Marty came here probably at about the same age, 24 or 25, and yeah -- I think Teddy is having a great year," Vinny Lecavalier said. "I think he's been overlooked a little bit by the media. People notice him now because he's scoring goals but he's been playing that good all year. As a teammate of his, I didn't really know him before last year and when we first started playing together you could tell. He's got that hockey sense, that speed, that determination. I knew right away, and now obviously everybody knows with the way he's been playing this playoffs."

Added St. Louis: "At this level for a guy like Teddy, he came out of college and you're trying to find your way. Sometimes it takes time to let the game almost settle around you a little bit. Teddy has realized that and found his game -- not that he didn't have a game before but he's able bring out his tools at this level at that speed. It almost like the game slows down a little in your mind. Teddy has done it at every level, and obviously the NHL is the toughest level. He's shown everybody now that he can do it at this level at such a high-pressure moment."

At 5-foot-8, St. Louis had obvious physical limitations that might have swayed some scouts to question his ability to play at the NHL level. Purcell might have been too skinny as a teenager (and still could probably stand to add some more muscle to his lanky frame), but there aren't 211 kids in every draft class who are 6-foot-2 and have hands and hockey sense like Purcell. Having his birthday fall on September 8 meant he was one of the youngest players eligible for the 2003 Entry Draft, and playing Junior A hockey in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League as an 18-year-old might have been part of why teams passed on him again in 2004.

Purcell spent two years in the USHL and was a 21-year-old freshman at Maine -- a classic late bloomer who excelled but was old for his level until he reached the AHL and became a true prospect with 83 points as a rookie for Manchester.

It didn't work out in Los Angeles, but Purcell has taken full advantage of his opportunity in Tampa Bay -- and just like St. Louis, he has proven there are many different paths for young players to the NHL. He also showed that not being drafted doesn't mean being an impact player in the NHL is out of reach.

"I think Teddy's certainly one of those guys that's learned a lot this year," coach Guy Boucher said. "He's put a lot of effort into it. It's not something that just happened. He's worked really hard at it. He's been through a lot. We sat him one time in the stands. After that, had a little tendency to understand faster, but we always knew he had the skill and always believed that he was a really good player. And I think he didn't know how good he was. So I think when he figured that out, he started to control the puck a lot better. He started to figure out that he's got a lot more speed than he thought. And then he's six-foot something, and he can certainly manage himself on the ice against the big boys. Certainly I'm part of a group of people that's very proud of him right now."

Added Lecavalier: "It is sad [on draft day]. I've got some friends I played junior with and they were sitting down waiting for hours and hours and that was their dream of being drafted and their name wasn't called up. But [St. Louis and Purcell] obviously persevered and didn't let that stop them. Marty is a prime example and now you've got a guy like Teddy Purcell -- I know he's going to be a star in this League."
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