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Graves was first-rounder in all but name

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers
Graves was chosen by Detroit with the first pick in the NHL Entry Draft's second round on June 21, 1986, in Montreal.

Video from 2007:
In Columbus, Graves Recalled His Own Draft Day
after the Rangers Chose the late Alexei Cherepanov

By Dan David,

When it comes to buzz at the annual NHL Entry Draft, second-round picks don’t typically upstage first-rounders, but after the draft on June 21, 1986, executives from the team that selected No. 1 overall in the first round couldn’t stop talking about a player they got in Round 2.

That’s because after choosing Joe Murphy with the top pick in the 1986 draft, the Detroit Red Wings got an even bigger thrill when they landed an 18-year-old named Adam Graves with the 22nd overall selection, which was the opening pick of the next round in the 21-team NHL era.

Yes, we’re talking about the Detroit Red Wings here, and not the Rangers, but the man who led the draft for Detroit that year would later become very familiar to Blueshirts fans as the architect of the 1994 Stanley Cup championship team that would also include Graves.

"I can hardly think straight," said Neil Smith a full three years before being hired as the Rangers general manager. "We got two first-rounders. It made my whole draft. If they threw us out of the Forum after two rounds, we would go home smiling. Without a shadow of a doubt, we've been able to get two NHL players. To think we could get Graves would have been as ridiculous as saying we thought we should get Jimmy Carson or Shawn Anderson in the second round."

In fact, getting Graves in Round 2 was more ridiculous. For the record,  Carson, who went No. 2 overall to Los Angeles,  would become a 50-goal scorer, and Anderson, a defenseman went No. 5 to Buffalo, would also play several years of pro hockey, butneither one had anything close to the impact that Graves enjoyed at the NHL level. Graves won the Stanley Cup twice, which is two more times that Anderson or Carson won it, and he also scored more goals than Anderson and Carson combined.

If Smith was happy on that day, then his boss, Red Wings GM Jim Devellano  was even more ecstatic.

"I can't think for the other teams,” said Devellano, who would go on to build the Red Wings dynasty of the 1990s. “It was a real shock. We had him (Graves) rated the top player in the Ontario Hockey League. To get him on the second round is unbelievable."

Smith and Devellano had reason to be so excited. Of all the players who have ever slipped into the second round – even barely, as in Graves’ case – Graves is one of the most mystifying. In fact, one of the few teams that can’t be blamed for passing on him in Round 1 was the Rangers, who made the most important first-round pick of the 1986 draft in landing Brian Leetch at No. 9 overall.

The Rangers couldn’t pass on Leetch, of course, but most of the other teams that passed on Graves had absolutely no excuse. Heading into that 1986 NHL Entry Draft at the Montreal Forum, there was no doubt in any scout’s mind that Graves belonged in Round 1. Indeed, a quote in the 1986 Hockey News Draft Preview issue said as much:

"We know that he is a definite first-rounder," said an unnamed scout. "That's not even in question. What we'll be trying to find out is how high in the first round he should be selected."

Graves was ranked 14th overall among prospects in that Hockey News preview. He was ranked 15th by NHL Central Scouting and as high as No 8 in reporter Bob McKenzie’s final assessment of 1986 draft prospects. All of those rankings should have easily placed him in the first round.

In all likelihood, however, teams were afraid to select Graves because he had battled a shoulder injury for much of the 1985-86 season with the OHL’s Windsor Compuware Spitfires. As a result, he had missed 10 games and wasn’t entirely effective in many of the ones he did play. He finished the season with 27 goals and 64 points in 62 games, but would have had many more had he been healthy.

Another factor was Graves’ position. Although he made his mark in the NHL as a left wing, Graves was a center in major-junior hockey, and centers were easy to come by in 1986. The top three picks – Murphy, Carson and Neil Brady – were all centers, and a full third of the first-round played that position.

More than two decades later, the names of some centers taken ahead of Graves are staggering under 20-20 hindsight. Brady (89 career NHL games) went at No. 3 to New Jersey; Dan Woodley (five career NHL games) went at No. 7 to Vancouver; and Ken McRae (137 career NHL games) went at No. 18 to Quebec.

At the time, Smith commented that it was the Brady selection by the Devils that  "threw a monkey wrench into things” and “threw Adam Graves into our lap." That might be true, but doesn’t explain why so many other centers were taken ahead of Graves.
For his part, Graves was very gracious about slipping out of the first round.

"I thought maybe I'd go in the first round, but going to Detroit makes me very happy," he told a reporter from Detroit.

One year earlier, Graves had also been passed over by five teams in the Ontario Hockey League priority selection, even though he was rated the province’s top midget-level player. In fact, two of the midget players taken ahead of Graves never even reached the NHL with one never playing beyond major junior.

It shouldn’t have surprised anyone – even back then – that Graves would take his NHL draft-day disappointment in stride. Scouts and coaches were already talking about his great character at a very early age. A reference to it could be seen at the end of a descriptive blurb issued by Central Scouting:

Excellent skater with good balance and agility ... pivots well ... has good lateral movement ...  excellent shot, hard and on net ... moves out of defensive zone quickly ... excellent puck control  and stickhandler ... very strong on faceoffs ... plays left wing as well as center ... keeps good position when checking ... excellent use of body, likes to hit ... plays a tough and aggressive game ... well disciplined and dedicated ... works hard in practice ... a team leader.

"The thing I like about him is that he has a quality of toughness," one anonymous scout told The Hockey News. "It's not the kind of toughness where he runs all over hitting guys. It's a quiet sort of tough, a real inner strength.”

Paul Theriault, then coach of the OHL’s Oshawa Generals, also noticed Graves’ toughness

"He's fast, he's strong and is a really good playmaking center," Theriault said. "But the thing that  really strikes you about him is that he's a tough son of a gun. He plays like a big man, which is what he'll be once he fills out."

Jim Rutherford, who would go on to become a Stanley Cup winning general manager with the Carolina Hurricanes, was Graves’ GM at Windsor. He, too, had high praise for Graves back in the day:

"He's only 17," Rutherford said in January 1986, "and he's one of our team leaders.  … I'd never hesitate to put him out in key situations. Because he plays aggressively, he makes things happen in the offensive end. But he's real smart in the defensive zone, too.”

The pundits often take criticism for being wrong about the draft prospects they praise, but when it came to Adam Graves, the projections were right on. Of all the things that were written about him leading up to the draft, however, perhaps the most significant item could be found in his brief bio on the Windsor Compuware Spitfires’ page of the 1985-96 OHL Yearbook:

"A pleasure to watch."

This image of Graves as a junior player was part of his 1986 Hockey News prospect profile. The magazine ranked Graves No. 14 among all prospects for the 1986 NHL Entry Draft.
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