Could 2012 NHL Entry Draft be among worst in league history?

The depth of quality talent in this year’s NHL entry draft has some critics predicting it could be among the worst in league history.

A recent report in the Ottawa Sun suggested the NHL 2012 entry draft “could be weakest in years”.

Bruce Garrioch cited an unnamed Eastern Conference executive suggested the level of talent in this year’s draft was “terrible”, prefacing it with an bleeped out expletive.

It’s just a bad year,” the East executive said. “There are just a lot of warts on a lot of the players. There’s just not as many slam-dunk guarantees as there normally are right from the top. If you take some of these guys, you wonder what you’re going to get out of them. “ 

An unnamed director of player personnel told Garrioch he got the sense teams could go “off the board” following the tenth overall pick, as there’s “a huge drop-off” which could force teams making their selections to consider players other than those in the current draft rankings.

Even those predicted to go in the top five could significantly vary. Garrioch claimed a poll of five scouts on the top five could produce five different results. He also cited a Western Conference executive who claimed “it’s just not great at the top end and the depth in the draft is just not there”.

Harsh criticism, indeed.

Of course, it remains to be seen how the picks in this year’s draft turn out, especially those in the first round. It will take at least three seasons before we begin to get a good idea how this draft pans out, especially compared to previous years.

If the benchmark is “the past twelve years”, and removing the 2010 and 2011 entry drafts from the equation (not enough time has passed to measure the depth of those drafts with true accuracy), the 2000 Entry Draft would arguably get the dubious honor of the worst during that period.

The first overall pick was goaltender Rick DiPietro, who sadly has become more renowned for his injury history. The other top five picks included Dany Heatley, Marian Gaborik, Rostislav Klesla and Raffi Torres. Scott Hartnell and Justin Williams were the other notables in the first round.

A true late round gem (7th round, 205th overall by the NY Rangers) was goalie Henrik Lundqvist. The only other notable late round pickwas defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky, taken three rounds prior to Lundqvist (fourth round, 118th overall) by Los Angeles.

Only one genuine superstar (Lundqvist) emerged from that draft. Heatley and Gaborik at one time were considered in that class, but the former has become a spent force over the past three years, while the latter has seen his potential greatness hampered by numerous injuries.

Subsequent  draft years resulted in the usual handful of true superstars (Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Steven Stamkos, Ilya Kovalchuk, Claude Giroux, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Eric Staal, Corey Perry, Pekka Rinne, Drew Doughty, and John Tavares) and  a number of very good and average player. The majority of players selected from 2001 to 2009 (over 6o percent) have either yet to make it to the NHL, or never will.

Fact is, the NHL entry draft always has been, and always will be, a crap shoot.

Don Waddell, former GM of the former Atlanta Thrashers, is often derided for selecting Patrik Stefan first overall in the 1999 Entry Draft.

Stefan became one of the biggest “busts” in NHL Entry Draft history, but at the time, he was one of the highest rated prospects, largely due to his playing two seasons in North America in the IHL, where his coach considered him a cross between Mike Modano and Sergei Fedorov.

Little wonder, then, Waddell picked Stefan first overall for his fledgling NHL team, banking on him becoming his franchise player.

NHL fans love to mock Mike Milbury for his many wild deals when he was GM of the NY Islanders, earning the moniker “Mad Mike”.

Milbury’s selection of DiPietro first overall in the 2000 Entry Draft (passing over Heatley and Gaborik, and trading away Roberto Luongo to acquire the rights to land DiPietro) is often cited as the epitome of his incompetence as a general manager.

While it was an unusual move, DiPietro was a highly-touted prospect from the American college ranks,singled out for his puck-handling skills and mobility. Given how Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy had elevated such skills to a high art in the 1990s, it’s not surprising Milbury and his staff saw DiPietro as a potential Brodeur/Roy clone.

Has Stefan blossomed into an NHL star as the Thrashers had hoped, and injuries not waylaid DiPietro, history would’ve recorded those moves differently.

Teams makes mistakes, and sometimes it’s not just one team, but several who end up bypassing a talented kid in the first round of a draft. Zach Parise is a perfect example of a passed-over future star.

Son of long-time NHL veteran J.P. Parise, and a former two-time nominee for the Hobey Baker award as the top player in US college hockey, Parise headed into the 2003 entry draft ranked the 9th best North American player by the NHL Central Scouting Bureau, who singled out his skills and work ethic.

One would expect, with his bloodlines, college resume and high ranking by Central Scouting, Parise was a sure thing to go in the top ten of the 2003 Entry Draft.

That draft, one of the deepest in NHL history, saw Marc-Andre Fleury, Eric Staal, Thomas Vanek, Ryan Suter, Braydon Coburn, Dion Phaneuf, Jeff Carter, Dustin Brown and Brent Seabrook all taken within the first fifteen picks, so it wasn’t surprising Parise didn’t go in the top ten.

Still, it came as a significant surprise that Parise wasn’t selected until 17th overall, when the New Jersey Devils acquired that pick from the Edmonton Oilers to get him.

The Columbus Blue Jackets (Nikolay Zherdev), San Jose Sharks (Milan Michalek and Steve Bernier), Montreal Canadiens (Andrei Kostitsyn), New York Rangers (Hugh Jessiman) and NY Islanders (Robert Nilsson) passed on Parise.

Sure, hindsight is 20/20, but the fact Parise fell that far surprised experienced observers. Then-TSN analyst Pierre McGuire was particularly agitated, pinning the problem in part on the perception Parise’s lack of size was seen as a detriment by scouts.

If anything, these incidents illustrate the difficulty in determining which prospects are going to develop into stars. Someone taken first overall pick, who appears a “sure thing”, can fail to meet expectations, while those who slide further down in the selections, or taken in the later rounds, can sometimes blossom into superstars.

Scouts watch the players and compile their reports, they meet with their respective bosses, compare notes, and make their best evaluations. The front office staff of each NHL team watch the best prospects put through their physical paces at the Draft Combine, conduct their player interviews, get together again to compare notes, make their final evaluations, and then hope the players they want are still available when their draft order comes around.

After that, with only a few exceptions, it’s anyone’s guess how those picks will turn out.

Following the draft, most prospects return to their junior or European teams, many never to be return to the NHL level again. Some will earn invitations to training camp, where a few could make the cut, but most get sent back to junior, with that training camp invite to be the closest they ever come to playing in the NHL.

Most can expect their pro careers to be riding the buses in the minors or in one of the European leagues.

Of those who eventually make it to the NHL, most can at best expect to play an average of seven seasons. Some will be good enough to stick around longer as role-players, bouncing around three or four NHL teams. A smaller number will become “good” players, the kind who become second and third line forwards, second-pairing defensemen, or perhaps a starting goalie on an average or lousy team.

A lesser number will be the “very good”, those who are either on the cusp of superstardom, or most likely, won’t be good enough to reach that level, but will still be invaluable players for their respective teams.

They tend to be the guy who’s good enough to play on the first line with better players, or can hold his own on the first defense pairing, or a goalie capable of winning 25-30 games per year for his team in the regular season, maybe steal a round in the playoffs. Only a handful reach the rarefied air of superstardom.

That doesn’t mean teams shouldn’t conduct due diligence in evaluating young prospects. It simply means preparation can improve their odds of their best guesses panning out more often than those of rival clubs.

Some drafts will ultimately result in a higher volume of superstars, stars, average players and nobodies than others.

Perhaps this year’s entry draft will be, as its critics suggest, among the worst in the past dozen or so years. Perhaps it’ll be no better or worse. Perhaps it’ll result in a higher than usual number of player going on to great NHL careers, or a higher number of stars, or lesser lights.

Nobody can accurately forecast it, because we don’t know with any degree of certainty how 18- and 19- year-olds (who are really still more like boys, mentally and physically) are going to perform over the next ten years.

Only time will tell how this year’s entry drafts stacks up against the best or worst in NHL history.

3 Comments

  1. I guess that’s why Nashville felt comfortable giving up a 1st rounder for a 4th liner (Gaustad) and Detroit giving up theirs for a depth defenseman (Quincey).

  2. Interesting article and well-written. However I’ll be glad when the draft is over so I don’t have to see the phrases, “we’ll have to wait 3-5 years to see how this draft pans out” and “only time will tell how good these picks are”, even though everyone’s been saying the exact same things for 50 years now.

    Not picking on you specifically, Spector, but I’m just commenting on the over-saturation of these articles in the hockey world.

  3. When ‘weakest’ draft is defined, are we saying first round choice selection? Seem post first round picks are always a total wildcard. So, I think the top 15 or so define the crop. Anyone agree? Disagree? Why?

    Also, the article looks to Heatley and Gaborik as disappointments (`spent force`). Really? I’d say those are successful picks, even if they aren`t as good as they once were (and they ain`t done yet…)