The importance of a strong draft can never be under-stated. The Boston Bruins have had difficulties winning in 1999-2000 and when you look at the disastrous showing of Sinden and Company in 1996, you can begin to understand why. Despite a top-10 pick and eight additional selections, the Bruins have gotten exactly zero NHL games out of the players they chose that summer. Let’s take a trip back to that fateful June of 1996 and find out what went so terribly wrong…
That year, the Bruins owned the 8th pick, compliments of the then- Hartford Whalers who had dealt their top choices from ’95-’97 to the Bruins in exchange for defenseman Glen Wesley. Boston had tabbed Kyle McLaren the year before with the Whalers’ 9th overall selection and so there was reason for Bruins fans to be excited in 1996, despite the forecast from scouts of a weak talent pool from which to choose from. The Bruins had traded their own 1st-round choice(21st) in the deal for Bill Ranford, but seemed poised to get an impact player nonetheless because of Sinden’s shrewd deal back in 1994.
Things got off to an ominous start for Boston when it announced the trade of 24-goal scorer and former NCAA-star Shawn McEachern to the Ottawa Senators for the feisty Trent McCleary, he of 4 goals, and Ottawa’s 3rd-round choice. News of the deal raised eyebrows because of the disparity in talent levels between McEachern and McCleary, and time would prove it to be one of the worst trades Sinden has ever made. After Buffalo snagged the University of Minnesota’s Erik Rasmussen with the seventh overall selection, Boston stepped to the podium an announced Johnathan Aitken’s name. Aitken, a hard-hitting defenseman out of Medicine Hat of the WHL was a long-term project at the very least. The pick was perplexing because Aitken did not have shining credentials at the time. He was described by scouts as having the talent and size, but was seriously lacking in work ethic, desire and the all-important hockey sense crucial for defensemen to be able to play at the highest level. Aitken’s choice by the Bruins was equally baffling because he was not the highest-rated player at the 8th position. Aitken was a stay-at-homer with very little to offer offensively. The Bruins were a few months away from a Cam Neely retirement press conference, but a lack of talent and depth up front and on the wings had been exposed by the Florida Panthers in the ’96 playoffs when they crushed the Bruins 4 games to 1 en route to the Stanley Cup Finals. Meanwhile, players such as Ruslan Salei, Derek Morris, Dainius Zubrus, Marco Sturm and Jaroslav Svejkovsky were chosen after Aitken’s name was called in the first round.
The second round did not seem to fare any better for Boston. Missing out on the chance to draft blue-chippers Corey Sarich, Matt Cullen and Jan Bulis, the Bruins settled on another Medicine Hat player, winger Henry Kuster. Kuster’s selection was an unmitigated disaster. Kuster was a point-producer for the Tigers, but weak skating and questionable work habits had caused his stock to drop after being touted as a sure-fire first round choice the year before. Kuster would stay in Medicine Hat for two more years but was not even offered a contract by the Bruins when his junior career ended. Kuster was last spotted in the ECHL making a minimal impact. With the first selection of the 3rd round,53rd overall, acquired from Ottawa the Bruins took Eric Naud, a purported power forward out of St. Hyacinthe of the QMJHL. Like Kuster, Naud did not impress enough to even get placed in Boston’s minor system and is floating about somewhere in the minor league ranks, nowhere near Boston or even the Bruins’ top affiliate in Providence for that matter. In choosing up Naud, Boston passed on local product Tom Poti, who has fashioned a decent career thus far with the Edmonton Oilers. Oleg Kvasha and Mark Parrish are two others the Bruins woulda-coulda-shoulda had, but spurned in favor of Naud.
After Naud, the Bruins selected Jason Doyle, Trent Whitfield, Elias Abrahamsson, Chris Lane, Tom Brown and Bob Prier. Of those six, only Abrahamsson is even close to playing in Boston and while he currently holds a roster spot in Providence of the AHL, is considered a long-shot to ever reach the NHL. Doyle, Whitfield, Lane and Brown were not offered contracts at the conclusion of their junior careers in the OHL and WHL, while Prier was dubbed a sub-par skater and released in the summer of 1999 at the conclusion of his four-year college career at St. Lawrence University, where he led the Fighting Saints in scoring his senior season. Ottawa disagreed with Boston’s assessment and signed Prier to a minor-league contract. Michal Rosival, Andreas Dackell, Trevor Letowski, Pavel Kubina and Tomas Kaberle are all full-time NHlers who could have been had at any time by the Bruins, but are instead enjoying their time with other clubs who took a chance on them.
Okay, so what? NHL GMs cannot possibly predict who will pan out and who will flop, but as long as you can get at least one player out of a draft year, you can keep your team stocked with talent and reasonably competetive, right? Unfortunately, coming up on four years after a draft in which Boston Management had nine chances to get one right, it appears that they completely missed the mark. Johnathan Aitken finished an above-average WHL career, but had an up-and-down rookie season in the AHL despite being on the league’s championship team. In his second full pro year, he appears to have regressed and will be hard-pressed to make a Bruins team that faces the specter of captain Raymond Bourque’s looming retirement. Abrahamsson is an average minor leaguer with no offensive upside and limited ability. And the others? Caught somewhere in hockey limbo, but nowhere close to delivering the promise they had when Boston called their names in 1996. In retrospect, Sinden probably wishes he’d had a crystal ball to help him out that summer. One thing is for certain: while one draft year will not doom a team to certain failure, one can only wonder what might have been at a time when it appeared that the Bruins would benefit from reasonable draft position. The nightmare of 1996 seems to have given way to the utopia of 1997, which netted such stalwarts such as Joe Thornton and Sergei Samsonov.
Not a single impact player. Aitken. Kuster. Naud. Doyle. For now, those names seem destined for the same place ’94 first round choice Evegeny Ryabchikov has gone.