There are a million stories surrounding the NHL Draft, and they’re all stories about a lifetime of hard work, hope, heartbreak, investment, sacrifice, and the human condition. This year’s chapter begins in Sunrise, Florida, and according to all of the draft experts, it promises to be an historic day for hockey’s future.
Of course, all of the focus is on the top end of the selection list, where players like Connor McDavid of the Erie Otters, Jack Eichel of the Boston University Terriers, Mackenzie Blackwood of the Barrie Colts, Mikko Rantanen of TPS Turku, and Ilya Samsonov of Magnitogorsk are among the more heralded names. But the true story of the NHL Draft is not always in how the actual selections correspond to all of the pre-draft rankings. It is how all of that raw material and potential is rounded out into the hardened steel of a Stanley Cup foundation on a League roster.
The hope for every team on the draft floor is that such a foundation will be built, not in one draft alone, but in several. Then, the visions of accepting the Stanley Cup from the NHL Commissioner, skating around the SAP Center with it, taking it around the Bay Area to restaurants, taverns, ballparks, and the like will not only dance in our heads, but will become closer to reality.
Since 2003, the Sharks have been one of the more successful teams in the NHL, so their draft position has been lower than most. They’ve had a top 10 draft selection only 10 times in their entire 25-year history, and only two in the last 12 summers. In spite of that fact, their draft selections since 2003 have played in more NHL games (7,232) than any other organization. There are only two other teams over the 7,000 mark: Montreal (7,176) and Chicago (7,107). That’s a pretty impressive job by the scouting staff.
Normally, if a team gets more than one player that sticks in the NHL, a draft is considered to be a success, but in that fabled 2003 draft, San Jose wound up selecting four players that “made it.” While they selected Milan Michalek 6th, Steve Bernier 16th, and Matt Carle 47th, their best moment came at pick #205, when they nabbed a young forward from Waterloo of the USHL named Joe Pavelski. They also drafted a center from HV 71 in Sweden named Alexander Hult (236th overall), who never played for the organization but who returned to the Bay Area years later with his wife and became a regarded restauranteur in Los Gatos. It’s a small world!
One never knows what will happen on the draft floor. Back in 1993, for instance, there were six players on the “most heralded” list. The Sharks initially had the second pick in the draft after recording only 24 points during the previous season, but the seeds of their strategy had been planted after a meeting in Switzerland with a 30-something hockey legend named Igor Larionov, who agreed to join the club.
At the draft table, the Sharks traded down, moving their 2nd overall selection to the Hartford Whalers in exchange for four assets: the 6th overall pick in the draft, the 45th overall pick in the draft, the 58th overall pick in the draft, and the rights to Sergei Makarov.
The Sharks selected one of the six highly touted players, Viktor Kozlov, with the 6th selection, Vlastimil Kroupa, and Ville Peltonen with the other two, and all made contributions to the franchise. But the key to the deal was the reunification of Makarov with Larionov, which proved to be a crucial building block in the franchise’s history. Can anyone imagine Sharks history without the core to the team that bested Detroit in seven games, took Toronto to seven games, beat Calgary in seven games, and established a love for Sharks hockey in the Bay Area? No, probably not.
Sometimes you trade down to help your team, and sometimes, you trade up. In 2007, GM Doug Wilson moved three picks, including his first and second rounders, ranked 13th and 44th overall, and a third rounder in the 2008 draft (87th overall), to St. Louis. In return, San Jose received just one pick, the 9th overall selection in the draft, which they used to take a young center from the Ottawa 67’s named Logan Couture.
Sometimes, what looks like a trade for a meaningless pick turns into something important. That same year (2007), the Sharks had previously acquired a 7th round selection, 201st overall, in exchange for goaltender Nolan Schaefer. At the draft table, Tim Burke and his outstanding staff utilized the pick to select a defenseman from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst named Justin Braun, who has become an important part of the team.
What do we look for in this season’s NHL Draft? Well, look for an outstanding group of players to be selected by all 30 teams, and remember that while the so-called “top end” is of exceedingly high quality, there will be a lot of great players selected in the later rounds, some of whom will undoubtedly become excellent NHL players.
Look for the drama, but also compare what the pre-draft rankings were to the actual results on the draft floor. Which players will be selected high up, out of the blue? Which players will drop like a rock to an unexpected level?
Remember another side to the day: there are many who have invested a lifetime into the sport, but are not selected. If you’re at the draft, and you’re there for later rounds, you’ll probably see some young players with their families who have come all the way to Florida to see that investment pay off with a selection, only to see the draft come and go without the name being called. Some of these players get to the NHL as free agents, but most do not, and it is certainly sobering to see the empty stares into nowhere that accompany some of these young men.
But the most important thing to note is that the NHL Draft is not an end, but a beginning, even for those who are not selected and for those who are, but never make it. It is the beginning of a life’s path that cannot be evaluated for many years. It is a day to look ahead to greener pastures, hopes for the future, and the achievement of one’s dreams. Most of all, it’s a day for all hockey fans to have fun.
There are a million stories surrounding the NHL Draft. These have been a few of them.