There was a time, not so long ago, when the NHL entry draft was fraught with great risk. Remember 1986 when Neil Brady went third overall to the New Jersey Devils? They could have drafted Wayne Brady and it wouldn’t have demonstrably changed the fortunes of the franchise. Brady made it into just 89 NHL games over four years and then played out his career in the International Hockey League.
Or how about the 1988 draft, when hall of famer Mike Modano went first overall? That year, Darrin Shannon, Daniel Dore and Scott Pearson went fourth, fifth and sixth overall to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Quebec Nordiques and the Toronto Maple Leafs respectively. All three teams would have been far better off choosing any of the group that went from seventh to 10th that year – Martin Gelinas, Jeremy Roenick, Rod Brind’Amour or Teemu Selanne, who combined to play almost 4,500 NHL games.
Fifteen years ago, people were talking about the 1999 entry draft in the same way they are this year’s, which goes Friday in Philadelphia, with the Florida Panthers holding the first overall pick. The focus is on four players at the top, with a general perception that the quality drops off after that. In 1999, two of the sought-after studs – the Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel – did become stars. The two others, Patrik Stefan and Pavel Brendl, disappeared into the ether.
Every team has a few regrettable draft skeletons in their closets. The Edmonton Oilers took Jason Bonsignore fourth overall in 1994 and Steve Kelly sixth overall in 1996 (instead of Shane Doan at seventh, or maybe the local kid, Jarome Iginla at 11th?) The Calgary Flames did their franchise no favours when, with back-to-back sixth overall picks in 1997 and 1998, landed Daniel Tkachuk and Rico Fata.
But with the exception of a Thomas Hickey here and a Cam Barker there, there are far fewer misses now, especially at the very top, where high-end picks have delivered massively good returns over the past decade. Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin went 1-2 in 2004, ushering in a superstar generation that included Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, Steven Stamkos, Drew Doughty, John Tavares and Jonathan Toews. All became difference makers and many did so at precociously early stages of their respective careers.
So why teams are teams getting it right more than they once did?
My theory is that nowadays, young players not prepared to make the necessary commitment to play in the NHL are weaned out at a far earlier point on the development path than in the past.
Decades ago, you could make a junior or college team and get by on talent alone. The work habits came later, once you were drafted by an NHL team and learned the strides you needed to make in strength and conditioning to stick as a pro. Gary Roberts, now one of the foremost trainers of young players in the game, arrived at his first pro camp and couldn’t complete a single chin-up.
That wouldn’t happen anymore. Players in their early teens with professional aspirations are already consulting nutritionists, strength coaches and skating instructors with a view to getting an edge on the competition. Anyone trying to get by on ability alone, without plugging the holes in their respective games, falls by the wayside – often as early as midget hockey.
The preparation once needed to make an NHL roster is now required just to crack a major junior or U.S. college team.
For teenage prospects, the off-season has basically disappeared. Instead, it’s filled with spring hockey, followed by summer conditioning and tryout camps. They are working full-time at this – no chance to play baseball the way, say, Wayne Gretzky once did.
When Oilers general manager Craig MacTavish was coming through the ranks in the mid-1970s, summer time used to be for summer sports. Not anymore.
“Everybody in today’s era is trying to grind out a competitive advantage,” MacTavish told an Edmonton radio show recently. “These kids, even at a very young age, are exposed to things we never were – to high-level training techniques, mental coaching, sports psychologists. The level of preparation for these kids, especially the high-end kids, is unbelievable from about the age of seven or eight. They’re exposed to agents by the time they’re 12. They’re way more prepared for this in a myriad of ways. The type of polish you see on some of these kids in interviews is quite remarkable. They are an impressive lot.”
Maddeningly slow to turn things around, the Oilers are worth monitoring in the days ahead, as they angle to add a top-two centre plus a puck-moving defenceman and may be willing to move the third overall pick and perhaps centre Sam Gagner to get a deal done. It’s possible to see a fit with the Toronto Maple Leafs, which has those commodities available in centre Nazem Kadri and defenceman Jake Gardiner, two players that could be moved in the right deal.
Stay tuned. With trade speculation running rampant, and lots of new GMs anxious to make a mark, the NHL world is about to turn upside down again. The next 48 hours should be a fun wild ride.