There was a time, earlier in the NHL Entry Draft's history, when being a first-round pick almost guaranteed that a player would begin the following season in hockey's top league.
That hasn't been true for quite awhile, as the first-rounders who go right to the NHL are few and far between. The last two draft crops brought instant sensations Jordan Staal, Patrick Kane and Sam Gagner, but they were the exceptions rather than the rule.
|Fans watching tonight's draft can expect to hear a lot about Steven Stamkos -- the OHL star who, as predicted, was chosen first overall by the Tampa Bay Lightning. |
• FOLLOW ROUND 1 IN PROGRESS
New York Rangers fans certainly know that the development of a highly-rated first-round pick, such as defenseman Marc Staal
in 2005, can take up to two years before the youngster is ready for NHL action.
Staal made a tremendous impact as a rookie in 2007-08, and the first-rounders who followed him -- defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti in 2006 and winger Alexei Cherepanov in 2007 -- are also expected to become household names among Rangers fans once they are ready for the upgraded competition.
The last Rangers first-rounder to reach the NHL on a regular basis in his first post-draft season was goalie Dan Blackburn, who was pressed into service in 2001-02. The last skater to jump right into the NHL was center Manny Malhotra, a full decade ago in 1998.
This year's first-rounder, who would be taken with the No. 20 overall pick at the draft at Ottawa's Scotiabank Place tonight (airing at 7 p.m. on Versus) is unlikely to see the NHL any sooner than his predecessors. However, his arrival will be just as eagerly anticipated, thanks to the remarkable depth of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft crop.
The 2008 Entry Draft's potential first-rounders might be the deepest group since the 2003 draft, which yielded Marc-Andre Fleury, Eric Staal, Nathan Horton, Dion Phaneuf, Zach Parise, Ryan Getzlaf and numerous other current NHL regulars. This group of 2008 prospects is so strong that Rangers head amateur scout Jim Hammett expects to see as many as five of the players drafted tonight on opening-night rosters come October.
"It's a pretty good year," said Hammett earlier this week before leaving for Ottawa. "I foresee some of the first-round selections might be able to make the jump right into the NHL next year. … I think this one is one of the most promising (drafts) in recent years."
Hammett will be participating in his first draft for the Rangers this year after joining the team in July 2007. Prior to taking his job with the Blueshirts, Hammett scouted for the Canadian national team as a specialist in evaluating junior. His work there helped produce multiple gold medals at the World Junior Championships. He also spent five years as the Colorado Avalanche's chief scout – a run that included the selection of current NHL star Paul Stastny in 2005.
Barring any late trades, the player who will get the most attention tonight will most likely go No. 1 overall to the Tampa Bay Lightning. His name is Steven Stamkos, and he has been impressing NHL scouts for years, particularly the past season with the Ontario Hockey League's Sarnia Sting. Stamkos, who has been compared to former Red Wings star Steve Yzerman, might not be on the level that Sidney Crosby or Alexander Ovechkin were at in their draft years, but he is very close.
"In my opinion, this guy (Stamkos) could step into the NHL next year," said Hammett. "He has such a good combination of speed, skill and hockey sense. He's a hard-working guy, and he does things at both ends of the ice, so I believe he's a guy you could build your team around for the next 15 years. He's got a chance to be an organization's cornerstone for a long time."
While Stamkos, and some other top prospects such as Drew Doughty and Zach Bogosian, won't be on the board by the time the Rangers draft, the depth of this group will still be evident even 20 picks into it.
"As a staff when we were building our list this year, we walked away with (a lot of) names and still could have added to it," said Hammett. "And we probably will once we're in Ottawa. There's no question that we're going to get a good player at 20."
In addition to Stamkos and the draft's remarkable depth, the other big story tonight will be defensemen. Five of NHL Central Scouting's top five prospects are defenseman, ranking in the Nos. 2-6 slots after Stamkos. It's often tough to find blue-chip blueliners in the first round, but not this year.
The big five defensemen in this draft are Doughty, Bogosian and Alex Pietrangelo of the OHL, Luke Schenn of the WHL's Kelowna Rockets, and Russia's Nikolai Filatov.
"They (the defensemen) just came around at the right time," Hammett said of the bumper crop. "This is a special group of defensemen. Out of the top five, I would foresee a couple of these guys going right into an NHL lineup."
While Europeans have dominated the first rounds of some recent drafts, tonight's televised first round will likely be loaded with major-junior players.
"I would say you'll see more North Americans in the top part of the draft," Hammett said "But there's definitely a key group of 10 Europeans that could be top-six forwards, top-four defensemen or a starting goalie."
Tonight's portion of the draft will encompass only the first round. The remaining six rounds will take place on Saturday, and the Rangers will make five picks in that stretch. The team has a draft pick in every round except the fourth, which was dealt to St. Louis in exchange for Christian Backman at last February's trade deadline.
The Blueshirts also hold Carolina's third-round pick (No. 75 overall) as a result of a trade made last summer. That replaces the third-rounder that had been sent to Los Angeles as part of an earlier deal for Sean Avery
No matter whom the Rangers select, the organization won't rush them into the league, even if it means the kind of eager wait that followed Staal's selection three years ago.
"Depending on what position you draft a kid, you just want to make sure that they're doing the right things off the ice that will translate on the ice," Hammett said of the years ahead. "Their off-ice training is absolutely huge, so I think strength and conditioning is a huge thing you look for. If they're able to do that, their game is just going to fall into the right spot."