TORONTO – With the NHL Entry Draft approaching, it’s time to remind hockey fans that a high draft position does not always translate into a great career. Many excellent Europeans were drafted when virtually everyone had left the building.
What was it that Alexander Daigle said shortly after he became the No. 1 pick in the 1993 NHL Draft by the Ottawa Senators?
“No one remembers who came second,” the flamboyant Daigle said at the time.
Well, raise your right hand if you can name the 111th player picked that year in the NHL’s annual cattle call? Or the 227th? Or the 250th?
While Daigle never lived up to the hype as the next Mario Lemieux (Daigle has spent his last four years in the Swiss league), the second overall pick was Chris Pronger of the Philadelphia Flyers, and he is in the autumn of a career worthy of consideration one day by the Hall of Fame.
But other star players emerged from later rounds of the ’93 Draft.
The 111th pick was Miroslav Satan, who has 1050 regular-season NHL games on his résumé. The 227th pick was Pavol Demitra, who has 847 regular-season games to his credit, while Kimmo Timonen, who with Pronger helped anchor the Philadelphia defence in the Stanley Cup Finals against the Chicago Blackhawks, was the 250th pick. Timonen has 812 regular-season games on his resume.
And of the aforementioned mid- to late-round picks, Demitra is the only one who came to North America right after he was drafted in an attempt to take a shortcut to the NHL, and he seemed to have paid a price. It took him almost a handful of years of bouncing back and forth between the minor leagues and the Ottawa Senators before he landed a fulltime NHL job, and that was with the St. Louis Blues.
Satan and Timonen remained in Europe, where they honed their skills on the ice and developed into mature men off the ice. There was no drama to sign them to an NHL contract right away and allow them to learn life-skills on their own when they were thousands of miles away from the comforts of home.
The moral of the story is this: The NHL Draft is a crap shoot at the best of times and there are lessons to be learned from not rushing players into the spotlight.
Consider the Detroit Red Wings.
“Because our team has been good over the years, we didn’t have to rush anybody. The NHL is the toughest league in the world, both physically and mentally,” Detroit general manager Ken Holland once said. “And if you are not a man, if you are still a young player and still developing (and you are brought up too soon) this league will over time take your confidence away.”
Holland should know what he is talking about because he has first-hand experience.
The Red Wings are the envy of the NHL for their ability to find late-round players who can develop into NHL talent. Pavel Datsyuk was a sixth-round pick in 1998; Henrik Zetterberg was taken in the seventh round in 1999; and Tomas Holmström was taken in the 10th round in 1994 after 256 over players were drafted.
Nicklas Lidström joined the Red Wings two seasons after he was the 53rd overall pick in the 1989 draft. (The Swedish defenceman was actually eligible to be drafted already in 1988, but was entirely overlooked.)
Did the Red Wings benefit from not rushing their prized prospect? You bet. Lidström is arguably one of the best defencemen in NHL history, and maybe the best Swede ever. He was named the NHL Player of the Decade by both the Hockey News and the Sporting News.
Now consider the success the Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks have had with mid to late-round picks.
Defenceman Niklas Hjalmarsson was a fourth-round pick, No. 108 overall, in 2005. He spent the next three seasons in Sweden before taking his game to the NHL.
A very big pick for the Hawks, winger Dustin Byfuglien, came to Chicago in the eighth round (No. 245) of the 2003 Entry Draft. Forwards Troy Brouwer (2004 seventh round, No. 214) and Adam Burish (2002 ninth round, No. 282) also came seemingly out of nowhere to earn NHL positions and championship status with the Blackhawks.
If someone were to peruse the draft history of every NHL team, they would find that everybody has found a gem way past the time the hype has died down about the top pick.
While it’s hard to believe, but nobody wanted Daniel Alfredsson when he was eligible to be drafted in 1990. He was passed over again and again and again until the Ottawa Senators used the 133rd pick in the 1994 draft to pluck him out of Sweden.
Alfredsson has put together a Hall of Fame-worthy career as the Senators long-time captain, this season becoming one of only 22 Europeans to reach 1,000 NHL games.
“To be honest, my goal at the time was not to establish myself in the NHL. I didn't have the NHL on my mind,” Alfredsson said a while back about his years in Sweden. “My goal was to establish myself in the Swedish Elite League.”
Alfredsson worked on his skills and look how it paid off.
Other notable late-round gems from the 1994 draft include goalies Evgeni Nabakov, who was the 219th pick, and Tomas Vokoun, who went 226th.
The New York Rangers made Swede Henrik Lundqvist the 205th overall pick (7th round) in 2000 and then waited five years from him to develop into a No. 1 goaltender. Lundqvist won Olympic gold in 2006 and is one of the NHL’s top goalies and his success shoots down the theory that a team simply takes a body with a late-round pick.
Did the Montreal Canadiens think that goalie Jaroslav Halak would be their hero in the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs when they made him the 271st overall pick in the 2003 draft? They probably didn’t but they let their prospect polish his game in the minor leagues before he wound up with a roster spot on the NHL team.
And as things turned out, Halak was traded for Lars Eller, a Danish prospect who was a first-round pick by the St. Louis Blues in 2007. The Blues were a mediocre team when they drafted Eller, but they showed patience. Eller spent two seasons with Frölunda of the Swedish Elite League before playing for the Peoria Rivermen of the AHL this past season.
The common thread here is players who were given time to mature, time to sharpen their skills on the ice, have fared well when it comes to making it in the NHL. This adds credence to the theory that development should be the top priority over everything else.
Neil Smith was a trailblazer when it came to taking Europeans in mid to late round of the drafts, and then letting them work on their game overseas before they made their NHL debuts. Smith was the head scout for the Detroit Red Wings when he struck gold by taking Lidström with the 53rd pick in 1989 and then Sergei Fedorov with the 74th pick in the same draft.
“Our philosophy was always to in the later rounds to pick Europeans. The truth of the matter is in the later rounds, those European guys who were still available have a lot more talent than the Canadian and U.S. kids who were still available,” said Smith, who won a Stanley Cup in 1994 as general manager of the New York Rangers.
“Leaving them over there worked well because it gave them a chance to develop and mature.”
Smith recalled how with the last overall pick in the 1994 draft, the Rangers made Sweden’s Kim Johnsson the 286th player taken that year. Johnsson has 739 NHL games under his belt and only 19 players taken in his draft year have more NHL games on their résumé.
Very interesting: Patric Hörnqvist (Nashville, 2005) and Jonathan Ericsson (Detroit, 2002) are other Swedes who were picked as the very last player in their respective drafts. Hörnqvist, 2010 Olympian and the Predators’ top scorer this past season, was selected 230th overall while Ericsson, projected as a top-four blueliner the day Lidström and Brian Rafalski retire, went as 291st overall (nine draft rounds in those years).
One can also add German-Canadian Justin Krueger who was taken by Carolina as the last selection in the 2006 draft, 213th overall. The son of the former Swiss national team coach Ralph Krueger has taken the very patient and wise approach. After completing his four years at Cornell University, Krueger made the German national team for the 2010 Worlds and he will continue his hockey education with SC Bern of the Swiss league.
In the cases of Johnsson, Hörnqvist, Ericsson and Krueger, the buildings were virtually deserted when their names were called.
“You have a much higher level of talent taken in those later rounds. There was just no comparison between a player who was a non-star in Canadian major junior. They did not have the ability of the Europeans still available,” said Smith.
“You just have to be patient.”
Footnote: The 2010 NHL Entry Draft will be held in Los Angeles on June 25-26.
Footnote II: Nearly 60 per cent of draft picks never play an NHL game, and of the 40 percent who do play, one in five play less than ten games.