Away from the lottery-pick spotlight and first-round glamour boys, smart hockey people look for an edge.
The later rounds of the NHL draft are hockey’s equivalent of a dented dryer or factory second jeans; you might end up with something essentially indistinguishable from the full-price article, save a cosmetic flaw or two.
But you need a canny eye, and it helps to be lucky – drafting is gambling, even if some teams make a habit of beating the odds.
Which brings us to Charles Hudon and Darren Dietz, a pair of intriguing Montreal Canadiens prospects and the team’s most recent fifth-round picks (Hudon was selected in 2012, Dietz a year earlier, Montreal traded away its fifth-round choice in 2013).
“I just wanted to get drafted, I wanted that shirt … I knew it wouldn’t be a handicap [to be a late pick], they signed me the year after and that gave me a lot of confidence. I didn’t have the stress of being a first- or second- or even a third-round pick, I could just play freely,” said Hudon, a 19-year-old product of Alma, Que. “Talent doesn’t depend on draft ranking.”
True, and the junior-aged Hudon was perhaps the best player at the Habs’ just-concluded rookie camp.
Dietz, meanwhile, is about to undertake his first professional season, both are among the 55 invitees to the Canadiens’ training camp, which opens Wednesday.
Each is a prototypical low-risk, high-reward choice.
Hudon oozes top-end skill, but is, to put it politely, undersized. Dietz has NHL heft and smarts, but there are questions about his skating and shot – yet, here he is, with a chance to make an impression.
“The team treats every prospect equally … they saw something in us that they think can develop into a hockey player. That’s all you need,” said the 20-year-old Dietz, who hails from Medicine Hat, Alta. “I mean, look at all the guys who have played in the NHL who didn’t get picked at all. The draft is just a guideline of where you sit at that age.”
And maybe that’s the point; some NHL teams have identified a market inefficiency, namely projecting the development of unheralded players.
That both Dietz and Hudon are getting their first taste of the NHL with Montreal is no coincidence, the Habs have a passel of fifth-rounders in their midst.
The best-known is Brendan Gallagher, an NHL rookie of the year award nominee in 2013. But there are others: winger Gabriel Dumont (the Habs’ fifth pick in 2009), defenceman Greg Pateryn (drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2008, but acquired in exchange for Mikhail Grabovski, a former Habs fifth-rounder in 2004), winger Travis Moen and goalie Dustin Tokarski, who were picked by the Calgary Flames and Tampa Bay Lightning, respectively.
The Canadiens are also far from alone in finding NHL talent in the mid to late rounds.
Of the 270 players drafted in the fifth round between 2003 and 2011 – players drafted since then still have junior eligibility – 69 have played at least one NHL game.
That’s not to say impact players of Gallagher’s ilk are generally available outside the top 120 picks, but it does happen.
Take Chicago Blackhawks players Andrew Shaw (139th overall 2011) and Marcus Kruger (149th in 2009), Los Angeles Kings defenceman Jake Muzzin (141st in 2007), Florida Panthers forward Kris Versteeg (134th in 2004) or the poster child for bargain shopping, Dallas Stars forward Jamie Benn (129th in 2007).
The emphasis some clubs place on player development – the Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings leap to mind – means they can mould middle-rung prospects into serviceable NHLers, a competitive advantage in a cap era where the premium is on entry-level contracts.
The incentive is to draft well and give prospects a shot – front-office types say teams are far-more diligent now in scouting prospects who are projected to be taken deep in the draft.
Just over half the Habs’ projected 23-man roster is made up of players unearthed by Montreal’s scouting department, although a plethora of recent picks such as Dumont, Jarred Tinordi, Nathan Beaulieu, Louis Leblanc and Magnus Nygren will be pushing for spots.
In Montreal, getting picked in the fifth round – or later – is no impediment. In fact, it’s far better than getting picked in the fourth round.
Of the Habs’ past 28 fourth-round picks, 26 played five or fewer career NHL games. (Nygren, picked in the fourth round in 2012 as an overager, faces some headwinds.)
If the recent past is in any way predictive, no one should be surprised if, at some point, Hudon and Dietz find their nameplates on a Bell Centre locker.