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Draft a year in the making for Rangers scouts

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers

Rangers Head Amateur Scout Gordie Clark poses with 2006 first-round draft pick Bobby Sanguinetti. Clark will oversee the Blueshirts' 2007 draft on Friday and Saturday in Columbus.
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The late-season surge that lifted the 2006-07 New York Rangers from the fringes of the playoff picture into the Eastern Conference elite was a great thrill for Blueshirts fans, but it was also the cause of much nail-biting for the team's scouting staff.

In the space of just a few weeks in February and March, the Rangers went from a possible lottery pick in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft to what became the No. 17 overall selection. The team is scheduled to make that pick on Friday night when the draft gets under way at Nationwide Arena in Columbus.

Had they missed the playoffs and received the lottery pick, the Blueshirts could easily have been choosing in the top 10. Knowing this could happen, Head Amateur Scout Gordie Clark and his staff began looking closely at some of the really elite prospects in this year's draft. When it became evident that the Rangers would make the playoffs, the strategy had to change, since those players were likely to be selected before the Rangers' got to their first-round pick.

By going 13-3-4 over the final six weeks of the regular season, the Rangers played themselves out of the draft lottery.

"Just before (the surge), we were scurrying around because we knew a lot of the junior players who didn't make their league playoffs would be done in March," said Clark. "We were scurrying around looking at maybe some higher-pick guys. Then, all of a sudden, the Rangers just took off. We contacted (Rangers management) and they told us the team was playing well and it wasn't any fluke. When we started hearing that, we realized the pick number was going to keep going up."

The scouting staff's work during those crucial weeks in March was part of a year-long process that saw 11 full-time amateur scouts attend thousands of major-junior, college, high school, Tier II and European-league games with the goal of finding the top players eligible for this year's draft. All players born prior to Sept. 15, 1989, are eligible for this draft, and the 18-year-olds taken in the first round are sure to be the very best of a heavily-scouted group.

Once again this year, Clark will oversee the Rangers' draft table, which will draw plenty of attention at Friday night's live, nationally-televised broadcast of the first round. In a break from tradition, the league will conduct the opening round of the draft in prime time, saving the remaining rounds for Saturday. This marks the first time in draft history that a day of drafting will have concluded after only one round, and it puts an even greater focus on the first 30 picks.

While the draft will raise its profile in 2007, one thing will be very much like 2006 – the depth of its talent pool. Last year's draft lacked the multitude of young stars up for grabs in years like 1993 and 2003, although the best of the group was very strong.

Picking 21st a year ago, the Rangers came out of the first round in great shape after selecting defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti, who went on to become one of the highest-scoring blueliners in major-junior hockey over the past season. The challenge will be to find another player who might be undervalued in his draft year but on the verge of great things.

"This is not a real deep draft in terms of what most scouting staffs would call impact players," said Clark. "You're going to get some players in the second half of the first round that are going to play good roles on your team, but you might not be able to get that first or second-liner, or a guy that's going to be a regular top-four defenseman in three or for years from now and then sustain that for the next 10 years. These last two drafts have been pretty much the same. Between Europe and here, it hasn't bee full of high-skilled players."

Each year, major scouting organizations such as NHL Central Scouting, International Scouting Services and Red Line Report rank the top players available in the draft. The consensus top-three picks are right wing Patrick Kane, who scored 145 points for the Ontario Hockey League's London Knights this season, left wing James vanRiemsdyk of the U.S. National Team Development program in Ann Arbor, Mich., and center Kyle Turris, a Tier II star with Burnaby of the BCHL.

Kane grew up in Buffalo rooting for the Sabres, and vanRiemsdyk was raised in New Jersey as a die-hard Rangers fan. One of these two Americans is likely to be taken with the No. 1 pick, which currently belongs to the Chicago Blackhawks. Clark says either player would be an outstanding choice at No. 1, although they play very different styles of hockey

The scouting service rankings will get plenty of lip service weekend, but for Clark and the Rangers staff, only one ranking matters – the one Blueshirts scouts themselves have assigned to the thousands of players they have observed during the season.

Typically, even players taken with the earliest picks need a couple of years to prepare themselves for the NHL. Last year, however, Pittsburgh took Jordan Staal No. 2 overall. Staal, the younger brother of Carolina's Eric Staal and Marc Staal, the defenseman drafted 12th overall by the Blueshirts in 2005, stepped right into the Penguins lineup and scored 29 goals as a rookie.

"There's no scout in the business who could have told you they knew what Jordan Staal would do," said Clark. "...It's all done on projection, and Jordan Staal didn't have the huge numbers (in junior). What he did was extraordinary."

Staal's situation was the exception, rather than the rule. It did, however, prove that at least one player taken in Columbus this weekend could be capable of making an impact right away.

"When you're talking about the top six or seven, there are some guys who could step in and play," said Clark. "With the depth of this draft not being as strong, when you get past the 15th pick or so, you're looking at guys who are three to four years away."

At the No. 17 pick, Clark said the Rangers will take an approach similar to the one they had selecting Sanguinetti at No. 21. At the time, the Blueshirts were looking to find a future power-play quarterback, recognizing it would take the player some time to develop. Sanguinetti, who finished the year with the AHL's Hartford Wolf Pack, exceeded expectations with his production and is already ahead of schedule.

Clark said the long-range approach to developing draft picks is an important part of the Rangers' strategy, and the past few years have represented a sea change in the organization's approach to building an NHL team. The draft is more important than ever since, like many other successful NHL teams, the Rangers are committed to scouting and developing their own stars. Players like Henrik Lundqvist, Petr Prucha, Fedor Tyutin and Ryan Callahan are evidence of how well the process is working.

"That's what I really like here," said Clark, whose job was previously held by current Rangers head coach Tom Renney. "... We make the right trades and get the right free agents to keep the big team competitive, while also spending a lot of time with the coaches in Hartford. So to me, we're doing it the right way."

But even with the most thorough scouting, hindsight will always be 20-20, and draft picks who don't pan out sometimes become fuel for criticism of a scouting staff. All scouts know their work might one day be severely second-guessed, but even "mistakes" are made with the best intentions.

"Some guys have peaked at 18, but we don't know it at the time," said Clark. "That's why every NHL team has hits and misses. We all say we have skeletons in our closet, but those picks weren't mistakes at the time. That kid was very good at 18, but how can we project that certain kids are going to mature certain ways? There is a lot of evaluation and projection involved in drafting, but there's a lot of luck also."

Friday night's draft will be televised nationally on Versus, and exclusive interviews with draft picks from both days will be posted during the weekend on Rangers on Demand.
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