By Dan David, newyorkrangers.com
Thirty years ago, when the Rangers were coming off their run to the 1979 Stanley Cup Finals, the No. 19 overall pick in the National Hockey League Entry Draft wouldn't have even landed a team in the first round.
Back then, on the eve of a merger with the old World Hockey Association, there were only 17 NHL teams -- and that was already nearly three times more than the glory days of the Original Six. In fact, in 1979 the NHL also saw fit to widen the draft-eligible list by throwing the doors open to underage players. At that time, there was even concern that the inclusion of teen-agers would trim years off the scouting process -- thereby cheapening the quality of all selections.
|Lauri Korpikoski, who had a strong rookie year in 2008-09, was the last player the Rangers selected with a No. 19 overall draft pick in the 2004 draft's first round. |
Three decades later, the league has swelled to 30 teams, but the draft pool remains deep enough to make all first-round picks as consequential as they were a generation ago. That's due to the remarkable influx of European and American players as well as the end of Communism, which opened up a previously untapped talent market in Eastern Europe.
After all these years, a first-round pick remains a golden opportunity for any NHL team, regardless of its position -- giving teams such as Pittsburgh the chance to become overnight Cup contenders at the high end of the first round, while stronger teams that draft lower get a shot at players who can mature into stars.
If anything, the draft has become a greater source of talent than before. Many of the league's premier European players were not "discovered" until the late rounds because they had yet to grow into their bodies or were under-scouted. Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk was chosen 171st overall in 1998. In 1999, the Red Wings' Henrik Zetterberg was picked 210th, and in 2000, Rangers All-Star goalie Henrik Lundqvist
was chosen 205th overall.
If you don't think the draft is a make-or-break night, consider the fact that the Rangers' MVP in each of the past three seasons is a player who could have been taken by all 29 other teams if they had been just a bit more astute that day in Calgary.
Lundqvist did not arrive in the NHL until five years after he was drafted, but he was certainly worth the wait. Marc Staal
, Brandon Dubinsky
, Ryan Callahan
and Lauri Korpikoski are four other Rangers draft picks who required patience on the organization's part, each taking two to four years before reaching the NHL. All four are a reminder of how much a team can help itself by making the most of every pick, even if the player is relatively unknown on draft day.
On June 26 in Montreal, the Rangers are scheduled to pick 19th overall for the third time since the 1979 expansion. Korpikoski was taken 19th in 2004, while Stefan Cherneski was picked at that spot in 1997. The contrast between these two players is an example of how differently life can turn out for players chosen at the same draft position. Korpikoski is on his way to what promises to be a long NHL career. Cherneski, on the other hand, was limited by major injuries during a three-year pro career and was out of hockey by 2001 without ever having played in the NHL.
The Rangers are used to picking at roughly this point in the draft and have done very well with first-round picks since the lockout. Staal was chosen 12th after the Rangers traded up to get him in 2005. Bobby Sanguinetti, coming off a big rookie pro season in Hartford, went 21st in 2006 and the late Alexei Cherepanov was picked 17th in 2007. Cherepanov was on the verge of a great pro career at the time of his death last October and fans will never know how good he could have been in the NHL.
Last year, the Rangers picked up OHL All-Star defenseman Michael Del Zotto
at No. 20, and like the others, he went out and had a tremendous junior season in his first year after the draft. If Del Zotto was available at 20 last year, there's should be a very good player available at 19 this time around.
The Rangers would do very well to match any one of the three most impressive No. 19 overall first-round picks in league history. In 1989, the Washington Capitals chose Vezina Trophy winner Olaf Kolzig (303 career wins) at No. 19. The following year, Winnipeg took four-time All-Star and 500-goal scorer Keith Tkachuk at 19. More recently, in 2003, Anaheim picked up Ryan Getzlaf, one of the NHL's most exciting players and a 91-point scorer this past season, at the No. 19 spot.
Having the 19th pick is a very big deal if you can get a young version of Kolzig, Tkachuk or Getzlaf there. Two other former Rangers fan favorites -- Jeff Beukeboom and Martin Straka -- were also taken at 19th overall in their draft years. While these two don't have Hall of Fame career numbers, they are additional examples of the impact players available at this position in the draft. Beukeboom, incidentally, was drafted by current Rangers President and General Manager Glen Sather during Sather's tenure in Edmonton.
Like Cherneski, several other players picked at No. 19 over the years never managed to develop as NHL regulars, but history shows that this draft position commands significant value in a league where you can still find a Datsyuk, Zetterberg or Lundqvist hundreds of picks later.