Later this month, 210 names will echo throughout BB&T Center in Florida as another group of prospects join the select fraternity of NHL draftees. The rare honor bestowed to the group of predominantly teenagers only represents the start of another strenuous and elite journey, however.
It’s not much of a secret that a large number of NHL Draft picks never play in the very League they’ve pursued since close to birth, and even fewer skate at hockey’s highest level the season after which they’re drafted. Due to the odds stacked against each prospect they select, Nashville Predators Chief Amateur Scout Jeff Kealty and Co. feel a wealth of pride when they see a draftee rise through the ranks and contribute to the Preds.
“When you see the players we’ve drafted as staff move on and help our team, it’s gratifying knowing that all the work that went into it, the travel and preparation in a Draft was [worth] it,” Kealty said. “[For months], we’re trying to build a list and come up with a strategy so you can execute it on Draft day. It’s one thing to know the players and have them rated the right way, it’s another step to get the players with the picks you want and execute the way we describe it.”
With so little, if any, margin for error in each NHL Draft, a comprehensive strategy that outlines players’ abilities, rankings and where the Preds scouts think they’ll be available is essential. Not convinced on the difficulty level yet? Let’s look at the 210 names called last year in Philadelphia's 2014 Draft.
Preds forward Viktor Arvidsson, who logged six games in the NHL during the 2014-15 season, was selected 112th overall in the fourth round. Suiting up in Preds Gold during the recent campaign made the Swede one of seven players from his Draft class to log a game in the NHL last season - that’s 3.3 percent of prospects immediately contributing to the team that drafted them. Arvidsson was also the only player not picked in the first round of the 2014 Draft to skate in the League. But don’t call it luck, Kealty says.
“Viktor Arvidsson, that’s a guy we really targeted when we took him last year,” the Preds scout of 14 years said. “I want to say there’s only like seven players that have played out of last year’s Draft, and for us to have two of them - our first-round pick last year (Kevin Fiala) to play in a playoff game for us - those are exciting things because you know that you’ve got some good, young kids coming.”
Crazily enough, stories like Arvidsson’s can’t be rare for a NHL scouting staff that wants to be considered successful. Each year, scouts must meticulously plan, extrapolate players’ ability and then pull the trigger on skaters they often are projecting to be one thing or another. Oftentimes, that’s the only way to gather true NHL-level talent.
“This job is all about projecting where the player can go,” Kealty said. “There are some players where you haven’t seen the numbers or the production, but you’re projecting where he can be once he’s stronger or once he gets more ice time.
“It’s not something that you usually get instant payoff on. You mention guys like Roman Josi [selected 38th overall in 2008], that’s a player we targeted in the Draft and made a move up to the second round to get him. Craig Smith [selected 98th overall in 2009] is another guy. It’s like a Viktor Arvidsson case; we talked a lot about [Smith] as to where we were going to take him in the Draft after seeing him for a couple years. To see him blossom into a 20-plus goal scorer that’s a big part of our team, that’s what it’s all about.”
In a sense, overcoming steep odds is the name of the game for both a prospect hoping to be drafted and the scout who has been studying him for years. Kealty would say proper planning and execution make walking a path fraught with chance more than manageable, and players like Craig Smith, Pekka Rinne, Shea Weber and Viktor Arvidsson seem to indicate he’s right.