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NHL Teams Seek Late-Round Talent

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins
Entering the 2005 NHL Draft, Joe Vitale was so convinced that he wouldn’t be drafted that instead of attending or watching on TV, he went to church.


There, he received a call that the Penguins had selected him 195th overall in the seventh round.

From there, it took Vitale six years and a lot of hard work, passion and determination, but this past season, he earned the respect and admiration of Pittsburgh’s coaching staff – and a regular spot in the Penguins lineup.

Joe Vitale (Getty Images)
Vitale’s battle truly began as an infant, when he experienced kidney problems after he was born – resulting in two surgeries and a lot of stress and anxiety for his parents, Sam and Mary Anne Vitale.

But their son overcame those health issues to become a star athlete at Christian Brothers College High School in St. Louis, where he led the hockey team to three state championships. After that, he played four years of college hockey at Northeastern University.

Upon graduating, he expected to start his post-hockey career. But instead, Vitale was given an opportunity to prove what he could do in the American Hockey League in 2009.
 
After two-plus seasons in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and a brief nine-game stint in the NHL during the 2010-11 season, Vitale entered training camp last September hoping to gain a permanent spot in the NHL. And not only did Vitale earn a spot on the roster – he became a regular in the lineup.

The defensively reliable forward, who plays with speed and physicality and excels in the faceoff circle, has a blue-collar approach to the game.  

Vitale was rewarded with a two-year, one-way contract extension in February that will run through the 2013-14 campaign and has an average annual value of $550,000. But he won’t let himself get comfortable with his new deal. Vitale will continue to be the same type of player he’s been his entire career.

“There’s a lot of talent in this room, a lot of talent in this league,” Vitale said. “God didn’t give me the most talent as far as that goes, so I feel like I have to work a little harder to keep up. It’s a good mentality. I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me, so I have to keep going.”

Drafting is by no means an exact science, especially in the National Hockey League, where prospects are scattered all across North America and Europe. That’s especially true after the higher-end prospects are selected and the draft progresses to the later rounds, as less information is available on these teenaged players.

Rob Scuderi (Getty Images)
But teams must do their due diligence in trying to have reports on as many prospects as possible, because drafting well through all seven rounds is absolutely crucial in the salary-cap era in order to build winning teams.

Just look at the Penguins’ 2009 Stanley Cup championship team. Defenseman Rob Scuderi, drafted by Pittsburgh in the fifth round (134th overall) in 1998, played a key shutdown role for the Penguins during their title run, being matched up against other teams’ top forwards.

Two other late-round draft picks that played essential defensive roles in the Cup run were towering defenseman Hal Gill (Boston’s eighth-round choice, 207th overall, 1993) and responsible forward Craig Adams (Hartford’s ninth-round choice, 223rd overall, 1996).

And who could forget Max Talbot, Pittsburgh’s eighth-round choice (234th overall) in 2002? He was the Game 7 hero for the Penguins, scoring both goals in Pittsburgh’s 2-1 victory.

Here’s a look at some other late-round gems that are thriving in the NHL and playing key roles on their respective teams.

PAVEL DATSYUK
DRAFTED: DETROIT, 1998
ROUND: 6TH (171ST OVERALL)

Datsyuk had never been considered an elite prospect because of his size (he was 5-foot-8, 145 pounds his draft year). Because of that, Datsyuk got passed over in the 1996 and ‘97 drafts, finally chosen in 1998 by the Red Wings – who didn’t know if he’d ever become strong enough to play in the NHL. Now, Datsyuk is renowned throughout the league for his uncanny ability to slow the game down. He’s a stickhandling magician and produces highlight-reel plays with ease. He’s also one of the game’s best two-way forwards. Datsyuk has won two Stanley Cups (2002, ’08), the Lady Byng Trophy (2006, ’07, ’08, ’09), the Selke Trophy (2008, ’09, ’10) and is a four-time All-Star.

HENRIK ZETTERBERG
DRAFTED: DETROIT, 1999
ROUND: 7TH (210TH OVERALL)

Like current teammate Datsyuk, Zetterberg was also considered a long shot entering the 1999 draft. Though he possessed the necessary tools, Red Wings management had concerns about his size and pegged him to be a fourth-line winger. Instead, he’s now one of Detroit’s franchise cornerstones, being named the playoff MVP of their 2008 Stanley Cup championship run.

JOE PAVELSKI
DRAFTED: SAN JOSE, 2003
ROUND: 7TH (205TH OVERALL)

Pavelski has developed into one of the Sharks’ most productive players. He’s scored at least 25 goals in three of the last four seasons (hitting 20 goals in the fourth). But where Pavelski has especially thrived for San Jose is in the playoffs, where he’s proven to be a clutch. He exploded for nine goals and 17 points through 15 games in San Jose’s run to the Western Conference finals in 2009-10. Pavelski then produced 10 points (5G-5A) as the Sharks returned to the Western Conference finals the following season. The Plover, Wisc. native competed for the United States in the 2010 Winter Olympic Games and won a silver medal.

DUSTIN BYFUGLIEN
DRAFTED: CHICAGO, 2003
ROUND: 8TH (245TH OVERALL)

Byfuglien is one of the NHL’s most intriguing players. He’s built like a linebacker at 6-foot-5, 265 pounds, but skates very well for his size. Byfuglien won a Stanley Cup with Chicago in 2010, scoring 11 goals and 16 points in 22 games as a forward. After being traded to Atlanta (now Winnipeg) that summer, he switched back to the blue line and has since been logging big minutes alongside D-partner Tobias Enstrom.

PEKKA RINNE
DRAFTED: NASHVILLE, 2004
ROUND: 8TH (258TH OVERALL)

Imagine drafting a goalie that you have never seen play a game. Because that’s exactly what Nashville did with Pekka Rinne in 2004. "Our scouts (said) if you want to get an eye on this goalie, you have to come to warm up, because he hardly ever plays," Predators general manager David Poile told USA Today. The Predators ended up liking what they saw in the pregame skate and decided to go ahead and take Rinne in the eighth round (258th overall). He’s now the Predators’ franchise netminder and one of the best in the league.

JAMIE BENN
DRAFTED: DALLAS, 2007
ROUND: 5TH (129TH OVERALL)

Benn made a name for himself in 2011-12 with his excellent season. After back-to-back 22-goal campaigns his first two seasons in the league, the big, versatile forward hit career highs across the board last year with 26 goals, 37 assists, 63 points and a plus-15 rating – which earned him a nomination to the 2012 All-Star Game.

OTHER NOTABLES:

TIM THOMAS
GOALTENDER, BOSTON BRUINS
DRAFTED: MONTREAL, 1994
ROUND: 9TH (217TH OVERALL)

EVGENI NABOKOV
GOALTENDER, NEW YORK ISLANDERS
DRAFTED: SAN JOSE, 1994
ROUND: 9TH (219TH OVERALL)

MIIKKA KIPRUSOFF
GOALTENDER, CALGARY FLAMES
DRAFTED: SAN JOSE, 1995
ROUND: 5TH (116TH OVERALL)

BRIAN CAMPBELL
DEFENSEMAN, FLORIDA PANTHERS
DRAFTED: BUFFALO, 1997
ROUND: 6TH (156TH OVERALL)

RYAN MILLER
GOALTENDER, BUFFALO SABRES
DRAFTED: BUFFALO, 1999
ROUND: 5TH (138TH OVERALL)

HENRIK LUNDQVIST
GOALTENDER, NEW YORK RANGERS
DRAFTED: NY RANGERS, 2000
ROUND: 7TH (205TH OVERALL)

MIKE SMITH
GOALTENDER, PHOENIX COYOTES
DRAFTED: DALLAS, 2001
ROUND: 5TH (161ST OVERALL)

RYANE CLOWE
FORWARD, SAN JOSE SHARKS
DRAFTED: SAN JOSE, 2001
ROUND: 6TH (175TH OVERALL)

BROOKS LAICH
FORWARD, WASHINGTON CAPITALS
DRAFTED: OTTAWA, 2001
ROUND: 6TH (193TH OVERALL)

PA PARENTEAU
FORWARD, NEW YORK ISLANDERS
DRAFTED: ANAHEIM, 2001
ROUND: 9TH (264TH OVERALL)

TOBIAS ENSTROM
DEFENSEMAN, WINNIPEG JETS
DRAFTED: ATLANTA, 2003
ROUND: 8TH (239TH OVERALL)

MARK STREIT
CAPTAIN, NEW YORK ISLANDERS
DRAFTED: MONTREAL, 2004
ROUND: 9TH (262ND OVERALL)
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