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Rangers ready for another dip in draft pool

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers
By Dan David,

When the NHL Entry Draft begins on Friday night in Montreal, 30 teams will have a powerful opportunity to strengthen their futures. They will do it by capitalizing on the hard work of amateur scouts who have spent the past year evaluating prospects throughout the world.

Good scouting means good drafting, and the Rangers organization has enjoyed a lot of both under the leadership of Gordie Clark, the Director, Player Personnel, who issues the same challenge to his entire scouting staff each year.

Rangers Director, Player Personnel, Gordie Clark compares the talent pool in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft to what he saw in 2005, when the Rangers selected Marc Staal at No. 12 overall in the first round.
"The last four years, we have picked between No. 16 and No. 21, so our scouting staff knows it has to pick later," said Clark. "But I'm asking my staff every year to pick somebody that's as good as the players in the top few picks."

This year continues the 16-to-21 range trend, as the Blueshirts are scheduled to pick 19th overall in the first round. The following day, June 27, they will return to the draft table for seven more picks over the next six rounds, drafting at No. 47 overall in the second round and No. 80 overall in the third before getting three fifth-round picks (Nos. 127, 140 and 151), a sixth-rounder (No. 170) and a seventh-rounder (No. 200).

Clark, who has been Rangers President and General Manager Glen Sather’s point man on amateur scouting since 2005, said that succeeding in the NHL Entry Draft is really all about doing your homework in the long year that precedes it. The past two Rangers first-round picks are excellent examples of how that homework is rewarded.

The late Alexei Cherepanov, drafted 17th overall in 2007, was well on his way to reaching the NHL when he died tragically during a KHL game in Russia last October. Cherepanov, a right wing, had been considered one of the top five players in the 2007 draft, but many teams were afraid to take a Russian player due to concerns about the Russian federation's willingness to allow players to leave or even worries that stars like Cherepanov might be inclined to stay closer to home.

The Rangers, however, had done their homework. They knew how much Cherepanov wanted to play in the NHL, and they knew that the politics would sort itself out. As a result, Cherepanov fell all the way to 17, and the Blueshirts were more than happy to take him there.

In 2008, defenseman Michael Del Zotto was ranked among the top 10 prospects in major-junior hockey for much of the year. His Oshawa team had struggled, however, and other teams' scouts worried about his commitment to maximizing his own talent in such a situation. Again, the Rangers had done the necessary homework, understood Del Zotto’s mindset and were able to scoop him up with the No. 20 pick. He returned to the Ontario Hockey League and dominated this past season.

First-round caliber talent can be found in later rounds, too. Last year, forward Evgeny Grachev was one of the top-rated European skaters, but some of the same concerns surrounding Cherepanov prevented other teams from picking him, and he slid into the third round. The Rangers happily drafted Grachev, signed him last fall, and then watched him go on to become the first Blueshirts draftee named the Ontario Hockey League's top rookie.

"There was a question about Grachev (coming over) because he's Russian," said Clark. "Both those guys (Grachev and Del Zotto) had dominant years. Because of the amount of ice time they got and the kind of coaching they got, they both just went up to another level. Grachev scored 40 goals and 80 points. He was the talk  of the OHL as far as people wondering where did this guy come from?”

Clark said he expects both Grachev and Del Zotto will make a big splash at training camp in September.

"I can guarantee you that they will push some people for their positions at training camp," said Clark, who saw a lot of both players this season. "Del Zotto and Grachev are definitely more prepared to fight for a (roster spot) because of the exposure to the ice time and the positions they were put in with their junior teams. They are now in a better position to push somebody for a job in September.”

Later-round picks such as Grachev have been a boon to the Rangers throughout this decade. Skillfull selecting on the second day of the draft (Rounds 2-7) can yield real impact players, as the 2008-09 Blueshirts roster demonstrated. Several key members of the team -- including Henrik Lundqvist, Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan – were drafted outside of Round 1.

Teams that draft well in the later rounds are those whose scouting staffs are best at projecting talent and recognizing the qualities that it takes to succeed at the NHL level. Clark says knowing what to look for in given situations is what's most important when assessing a player’s potential, and it’s the reason scouting is such an art.

It is also critical to identify when players are ready to make the jump to the NHL. Four years ago, the Blueshirts drafted Marc Staal at No. 12 overall. While the recent trend has been for teams to elevate more young players right into the lineup, Clark said that Staal benefited more from returning to junior for two years, even though he might have been able to compete at the NHL level right away.

"There's no question he was better served by staying in junior," Clark said. "He played over 30 minutes a game in every situation. He wouldn't have been playing that kind of ice time in the NHL, and he also won two gold medals with Team Canada. He came to us as a champion. ... I'm a big believer that you should stay and dominate in the league you're in as long as you possibly can because it's so tough to play in the NHL."

Staal's selection in 2005 also shows the value of draft-day trades -- even if such deals happen at the last minute. Clark said the Rangers scouts had identified Staal as a top-five pick in 2005, and they never expected him to be available at the No. 16 spot, where they were scheduled to pick. But as Staal slid down in the draft, the Rangers saw an opportunity to trade up and get him at No. 12. The trade came together in a hurry, but its impact will be felt for the length of Staal’s NHL career.

Clark said all draft-day trades involving positioning should only be driven by the players left on the board. Trades aren't made for the sake of moving up, but rather to land a specific player.

Ontario Hockey League star John Tavares could be the No. 1 pick in this year's NHL Entry Draft. Tavares has been a media sensation in the Toronto area since he entered the OHL at age 14.
"You have to let it unfold. It's impossible to try to guess," Clark said of the order in which players are taken. "You make your list, and then you'll see a couple of other guys come in there who surprise everybody and that pushes somebody else to you.”

Fans tuning into Versus on Friday night will find the talk of the 2009 draft centering on a handful of top-end players, specifically Del Zotto's London Knights teammate John Tavares, a center who could go No. 1 overall, and Swedish defenseman Victor Hedman, a hulking presence at 6-foot-6. Matt Duchene, a former junior teammate of Rangers prospect Bobby Sanguinetti, will also challenge for No. 1 status.

"For me, this draft is similar to Staal's year, although there's no (Sidney) Crosby," said Clark. "After Crosby went that year (2005), there were a lot of questions about where other people might go, because there weren't any other clear-cut franchise players. ... So you might get somebody at 15 that's as good as somebody at 4. It's that type of year. There's a group of about 10 to a dozen players that are very capable of impacting a top-two line position or a top-four defense position, which is a pretty good player."

Clark said that the Rangers will take the same approach to this draft that they took in 2005 and would consider trading up if a specific player remained available. However, the No. 19 spot is a perfectly comfortable one for Clark and his team, who are used to picking in that range.

"Even if you sit at 19, you're going to get an NHL player," said Clark. "You're going to get a solid NHL player. You hope you're getting a top-six forward or a top-four defenseman, and you might, but you're definitely getting an NHL player."
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