Time to roll the dice

Overlooked by the NHL draft can often be a blessing

24.06.2009
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Team USA Olympian Brian Rafalski is living proof that being overlooked at the NHL draft is irrelevant for a player's career. Photo: Jukka Rautio / Europhoto

It’s time for the last hockey spectacle of the season – the NHL draft. For players who will be picked lower than expected or not selected at all we say; don’t worry. Great hockey careers are not always determined by the draft.

The NHL entry draft is a great show and a fabulous drama. The drafting tables of the 30 NHL clubs on the floor of the hockey arena – this time the Bell Centre in Montreal on June 26 & 27 – and young prospects, girlfriends, parents and agents in the stands. All keen and nervous.

Those who will go high know well in advance about their fates as expert predictions for the first round (the 30 first selections) are rarely off base. The six remaining rounds (180 selections) is basically a lottery.

Teenagers expecting to go in the second round may hear their name called in the seventh and those who thought they were good enough for the third or fourth don’t get drafted at all.

For every name called that’s not theirs, the disappointment grows and by the fifth round there are hordes of dejected youngsters and families. One can see the disappointment in their eyes as they, with growing desperation, wait for their name being called.

At this point, the round and the club don’t even matter anymore. “Just get my name out there. Anyone, before this is over. Spare me the humiliation.”

Many leave the arena downhearted, as if their future careers depended on a draft position.

But careers don’t. Never have, never will.

The history of the NHL Entry Draft – introduced in 1963 – shows that many high-ranked and highly-drafted prospects have mediocre NHL careers, while the ‘rejects’ become stars.

The reason for this is simple. The draft – although it is the final act of two or three years of thorough talent scouting and evaluation – is an inexact science. Anything can happen between the age of 18 and 25.

Some prospect selections are "no brainers" because of their superior talent and focus. Teams who selected first overall knew that they couldn’t go wrong with Guy Lafleur, Mats Sundin, Joe Thornton, Ilya Kovalchuk, Rick Nash, Alexander Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby.

But who remembers Greg Joly, Dale McCourt, Brian Lawton, Joe Murphy, Alexander Daigle or Patrik Stefan – all first overall draft picks. They were predicted to be franchise players, or at least stars. But the draft day was their career pinnacle.

Draft history shows that there is nothing as overestimated as a high-end draft position. Some examples:

1990:
Scott Scissons (6th overall) 2 NHL games.
Peter Bondra (156th overall) 16 NHL seasons, 503 goals.

1992:
Ryan Sittler (7th overall) 0 NHL games
Nikolai Khabibulin (204th overall) 13 NHL seasons and counting.

1994:
Alexander Kharlamov (15th overall) 0 games
Daniel Alfredsson (133th overall) 13 NHL seasons and counting.

1998:
Rico Fata (6th overall) left the NHL after 27 goals in eight seasons
Pavel Datsyuk (171st overall) MVP candidate, all-star forward

1999:
Patrik Stefan (1st overall) 7 disappointing seasons and retired.
Henrik Zetterberg (210th overall) probably the NHL’s best two-way forward.

2004:
Alexandre Picard (8th overall) 58 NHL games in four years, 0 goals.
Johan Franzén (97th overall) 63 playoff games in four years, 29 playoff goals.

Franzén is an excellent example of how differently players develop and how difficult it is to determine a prospect’s future.

At the age of 21, three years past his draft age, Franzén was still playing amateur, minor league hockey in Sweden. He was drafted by Detroit at the age of 24, in the third round, but remained in the Swedish league until he was 25. He enjoyed his best season as a 28-year-old and at 29 he signed a multi-million dollar deal for the next 11 years.  

Had Franzén been drafted at the age 18 and sent to a North American minor league at 19, he would likely have been retired today.

Another very good example is American defenceman Brian Rafalski, one of NHL’s most solid defencemen in the last decade, a U.S. Olympian in 2002, 2006 and likely in 2010.

Rafalski, who has won the Stanley Cup three times, was never drafted. When he graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1995, none of the teams wanted to spend even a late-round pick on the Detroit native.

Undrafted and unwanted, Rafalski went to Europe and hooked up with the Swedish elite club Brynäs Gävle for two seasons and later with Finland’s HIFK Helsinki for another four years.

Suddenly at 26, Rafalski was a hot commodity. He signed as a free-agent with New Jersey in 1991 has never looked back. The steady blueliner will be 36 this autumn and has no plans to retire.

So to all the 18-year-old kids who have studied various rankings and draft charts for the last twelve months and who plan to go to Montreal accompanied by agent, family and friends and believe that a draft position determines success of their career, some advice: take it easy.

The tangibles that make a career are talent, acquired skill and determination. All those pieces can fall into place when you are 20, 23, 25 or 27 or later.

The competition for an NHL roster spot doesn’t start at the draft. It starts at the training camp, where one’s draft position becomes irrelevant. On that day, all are equals and the only thing that counts is performance.  

SZYMON SZEMBERG


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