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Draft day dawns for Blueshirts in Vancouver

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers

· Complete Draft Coverage

This afternoon at General Motors Place in Vancouver, the hockey world will get a glimpse of its future.

The league's 44th annual draft of amateur players will bring together some of the top minds in hockey -- charged with the difficult yet crucial task of projecting which 18-year-old athletes might one day emerge as NHL stars. It's an inexact science, but its ultimate result is often the foundation of a Stanley Cup championship team.

The Rangers hold the 21st overall pick in the first round of today's draft. The draft position reflects the team's marked improvement in 2005-06 but also raises the challenge of finding top talent after 20 players have already been taken. The Blueshirts' 11-man amateur scouting team, led by Head Amateur Scout Gordie Clark, will be ready to make the best possible selection not just at No. 21 but at every other draft position in Vancouver.

Clark will run the draft for the Rangers, alongside President and General Manager Glen Sather and Assistant General Manager Don Maloney. With more than 50 combined years of experience at NHL draft tables, this trio understands what it means to project talent years in advance.

Recognizing which underrated players have the potential to be stars in the future is a key to success at the draft table. Two key rookies from the 2005-06 Rangers, for example, demonstrate just how important draft day can be.

Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, taken 205th overall in 2000, and winger Petr Prucha, chosen 240th overall in 2002, might have seemed like afterthoughts in their respective draft years. In both cases, however, Rangers scouts correctly identified that once these players matured physically, they would find a home in hockey's top league.

Scouting isn't guesswork, though. It's a hard, often grueling life that often keeps dedicated scouts on the road away from their families. The payoff comes years later when the scout watches that boy become a man among NHL men, regardless of whether he was taken in the first round or the last.

During the 2005-06 season, Rangers amateur scouts attended more than 2,200 amateur hockey games around the world. This included the Canadian major junior leagues, U.S. colleges, prep schools and junior leagues, and European hockey leagues. All of this work was done with a focus on June 24, 2006.

In fact, the Rangers' eyes have been on most of the 2006 draft prospects for more than a year now. As far back as three years ago, Maloney said the scouting staff was taking notes on 15-year-olds who are now just coming into their draft year.

From the moment training camp ended last September, the Rangers scouts were on the road, keeping an eye on the top young talent.

"Everybody leaves training camp and they all go to their respective territories. They dive into their own areas right away and see every team," Clark said of his scouting staff. "By the end of November, everybody has pretty much identified players and put the flags on the ones considered the top prospects in each area. At that point I have two or three other scouts, along with me, called 'crossover' scouts go into each territory and rate the players. This way we can rate them against each other."

Last January, the Rangers scouts gathered for their annual mid-term meetings. Their goal was to come out with a list of the best 60 to 70 players that they would focus on for the remainder of the season. At the mid-term meetings, the Ranger scouts began to project where the team might be picking, based on a projected regular-season finish.

"January is important because it gives us our first idea of where we feel certain guys are," said Clark. "You continue to watch all the players, but you key in on a group of six to 10 that might possibly fit around your expected spot in the draft. You make sure you have watched them and know those players a lot."

Scouts also keep an eye on the rankings put out by major scouting services such as NHL Central Scouting, Red Line Report, and International Scouting Service (ISS). Clark and Maloney said these services are just a few of the many tools used by scouts themselves and are never a substitute for seeing a player in person.

"There's 30 teams at the draft," said Maloney. "And the thing is that you could have 30 scouts at the same game and they all might see something different."

In 1996, for example, the Calgary Flames used the No. 13 overall pick to choose defenseman Derek Morris, even though Morris was barely in the major scouting services' top 100 prospect lists. Morris would go on to make the NHL's All-Rookie team two seasons later.

While Morris was a surprising pick to the media, Clark said the talented defenseman was well known to scouts gathered that year in St. Louis - virtually all of whom considered him worthy of being taken in the first round.

Even when scouts know the landscape inside and out, there are still occasional first-round surprises.

Clark agreed that surprises are what make the draft such a unique moment in the hockey

"Everybody usually has the same 10 or 15 guys at the top of their list, but they might be in a different order. And if somebody goes outside of that group, it pushes some players later into the round," he said.

Drafting strategy will be particularly important with the 2006 class, which does not appear to be as deep as some other recent talent pools.

"You've got somewhere in the area of 10 guys that can really impact their position this year," said Clark. "After that there seems to be quite a drop in the skill of the players. A guy taken at 28 or 31 might be just as good as anyone taken at 13 or 14 because a lot of players are behind in their maturity, and some will definitely mature in the next few years."

Teams drafting outside the top 10 must look down the road at each player's potential size increase relative to their current skill. The recent NHL rules changes and officials' tendency to call more penalties have also made teams reconsider old drafting strategies.

"I don't think a lot of teams will be in there looking for size alone," noted Clark. "They might want good skaters with size, but they will care if they can play the game. You're going to see a lot of emphasis on this draft on speed and skill."

Clark said the Rangers' tendency to draft more skilled European players in the early part of this decade paid off when the "game changed overnight" as a result of the 2005 Collective Bargaining Agreement.

While first-round picks get all the attention, the Rangers are just as determined to find gems such as Prucha and Lundqvist in the draft's later rounds.

Don Maloney says there are always surprises on draft day.
"When you get down later in the draft, each scout has his own area, and it might come down to how much passion an individual scout has and how hard he pushes for an individual player," said Maloney.

When teams misjudge a player on draft day, Maloney said it's usually because they hoped for something that wasn't there in the first place.

"There are times at the draft when you reach," he said. "You have to hope certain things will come together. If those things come together, you have a player, but if they don't come together then you won't."

There are many calculated risks taken in every NHL draft, but one fact has been consistent for the past 43 years - it's still all about identifying the best raw talent.

"There are probably about 100 different little decisions that go into choosing a player," said Maloney. "It's a shifting puzzle and you don't want to put too much weight in any one area. But in the end you have to have talent to play. You win with talent."

For Clark, the bottom line on measuring draft success is equally clear.

"In the hockey world, we don't know a draft pick has really made it until we see him playing in the National Hockey League," said the Rangers' head scout. "That's the only time we know. In the end, it comes down to who ends up playing in the NHL because that's what you're drafting for."
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