Projecting the future is, at best, a tricky proposition. That is especially true when the future you are trying to predict is that of teenage hockey player. There are so many variables at work that there are bound to be more misses than hits, even in the early stages of the NHL draft. Predicting the future, however, is exactly what NHL scouts are paid to do and there are certain franchises that seem to regularly come up with players who go on to become contributors at the NHL level, while other organizations seem to come up empty year after year.
There are generally two components to a team’s drafting philosophy. The first is whether they try to fill a positional need or whether they go for what they think is the best player available at that point, regardless of his position. The second facet is the order in which teams rank the following criteria when assessing a potential draftee’s upside: size and strength (either current or “projected”, i.e., after a young player’s frame fills out); skating ability; level of competition; offensive statistics; and reports on the player’s coachability.
A team’s drafting record is often credited to (or blamed upon, as the case may be) the organization’s general manager. Although they rarely have the opportunity to scout the players directly, the GMs are the ones who have the final say and the ones who decide which of their scouts’ recommendations to trust when there is not a concensus on a pick. It is also the GMs who have selected many of the scouts in the first place, although there are usually carryover scouts from previous regimes.
The way that draft day is conducted is that in the weeks leading up to the draft, the team’s scouts make up rough “priority lists” of players whom they would consider drafting in a certain round if the opportunity arises. As the draft progresses, there are inevitably players who unexpectedly slip lower than their projected draft slot and others who go much higher. In such cases, a decision has to be made whether to stick with the game plan or change courses. This is an area where veteran drafters tend to have a bit of an advantage over their less-experienced counterparts. Of course, having a top-notch group of scouts certainly helps.
No matter how skilled a team’s drafting braintrust, there are always cases in which “hindsight drafting” would have produced different results. For example, in the legendary 1979 draft, both Dino Ciccarelli and Tim Kerr slipped through the entire draft unselected and were later signed as undrafted rookie agents by the Minnesota North Stars and Philadelphia Flyers respectively. Combined, that was a mere 972 worth of future goals that not a single NHL team drafted that year– and that’s only totaling Ciccarelli and Kerr’s regular season goals! Likewise, if teams had the 1989 entry draft to do all over again, Pavel Bure certainly would have been long gone before the 113th selection was made.
Have you ever wondered how the future of the NHL may have shaped up differently if certain entry drafts had worked out differently? A prime example: Had the 1979-81 entry drafts gone just a little differently, the Chicago Blackhawks could have assembled a virtual all-Hall of Fame blueline.
In 1979, Chicago selected defenseman Keith Brown with the 7th overall selection; one spot before Ray Bourque was picked by Boston. The following year, the Hawks got future Hall of Famer Denis Savard with their first pick (#3) but, in so doing, bypassed both Larry Murphy (#4) and Paul Coffey (#6). In the 1981 draft, the Hawks went for Tony Tanti (#12) three spots ahead of where Calgary selected Al MacInnis . In the second round of the ’81 draft, the Hawks opted for Kevin Griffin over hometown boy (and future Hawk) Chris Chelios , who subsequently went to the Montreal Canadiens .
Speaking of the Canadiens, the Habs 1984 draft represented one of the greatest single days ever experienced at an NHL drafting table. With successive picks, the Habs picked Petr Svoboda , Shayne Corson , Stephane Richer , and Patrick Roy . Three years later, they assembled several key contributors on their 1993 Cup-winning team (and/or future players of note with other organizations), with the selections of Andrew Cassels , John LeClair , Eric Desjardins , Mathieu Schneider , and Ed Ronan . Unfortunately for hockey’s most storied franchise, their drafts over the last decade have not even come close to filling the gaps left by the departures of many of the aforementioned players.
Changes in general manager regimes can ultimately have a huge impact on the caliber of selections that a team makes. These results typically show over the long haul, rather than the short term. Take the case of Philadelphia. Although Bob Clarke was the GM of the Flyers Cup finalists of 1985 and 1987, almost all the pieces of the team had been assembled by his predecessors, the legendary Keith “The Thief” Allen and Bob McCammon , who was as strong of a drafter as he was flawed as a coach.
Players selected in the draft in the years leading up to Clarke’s retirement as a player and first tenure as the Flyers general manager include Brian Propp , Pelle Lindbergh , Ron Sutter , Ron Hextall , Pelle Eklund , Rick Tocchet , Peter Zezel , Derek Smith , Lindsay Carson , and Dave Brown ; as well as undrafted rookie free agents Kerr, Dave Poulin , and Ilkka Sinisalo . 1984 draftee Scott Mellanby was technically a “Clarke” pick, since Clarke was the GM, but in actuality, Allen was still running the draft as Clarke was being eased into the unfamiliar role of GM. Clarke began to make the draft day decisions the following year.
After years of success at the drafting table, the Flyers draft pool dried up during Clarke’s tenure as general manager. The top players that Clarke’s first series of drafts produced were defensemen Gord Murphy and Murray Baron , forward Greg Johnson , and goaltender Dominic Roussel . A combination of poor drafting, poor trades, and crucial injuries soon depleted the once-forbidable depth of the Flyers organization and by 1989-90, the Flyers slipped out of the playoffs, not to return for five years, despite markedly improved drafting during the tenure of Clarke’s succesor Russ Farwell .
It has often been of Clarke’s drafting philosophy that given the chance to draft himself as a player, he’d have passed. Actually, that is what the entire NHL did in the first round of the 1969 draft– they ignored Clarke. They did so not because his junior credentials were lacking and certainly not due to fears that he wouldn’t work hard. They passed on him in the first round because he was a diabetic and their ignorance about what someone with the condition could and could not do led them to the conclusion that his diabetes would preclude him from playing succesfully in the NHL. Three Hart Trophies, two Stanley Cups, and a Hall of Fame induction later, the GMs of the NHL collectively looked mighty foolish.
The reason why Clarke the GM might pass on a latter day version of Clarke the player has nothing to do with diabetes. It has to do with size– Clarke is a big believer in hulking centermen. As a player of average size by 1970s standards (and well below-average size by today’s), especially one who was not an exceptionally gifted skater, Bobby Clarke would have little or no chance of being selected by Bob Clarke’s team. Years ago, unless a player was tiny, his size was rarely one of the things that could hold him back from being drafted.
As times have changed, so have the specific concerns that teams have about players. We’ve already touched upon the size factor and special circumstances like a diabetic medical condition. In the past, there were also political barriers that do not exist today (which largely precluded the selection of players from the former Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia). Likewise, there used to be concerns whether European players in general could make it in the NHL. Obviously, that is, in and of itself, a non-issue today. Scouts now actively search the world for talent and every team has a European, as well as North American staff.
When you look back at the history of the draft, it is important to note how all these factors shaped the progress of the draft. Teams didn’t draft the same way in 1988 that they did in 1973. And they don’t draft the same today as they did a decade ago, in part because there are now 30 teams in the league and much better organized central scouting than in the past. So when you look back and assess a draft years later, you have to remember that some selection breakdowns are a product of the times and others are a matter of some teams having better decision-makers and/or better luck than their competitors.