Looking Back: The 1998 NHL Entry Draft

By HF Staff

Looking Back: The 1998 NHL Entry Draft

By Joy Kim, December 2001,
Flyertown

Three and a half years have passed since the day of the 1998 NHL Entry Draft in Buffalo, New York. In that time, we’ve had three world junior championships, three world championships, three Stanley Cup champs. Mike Keenan’s coached three different teams, and the Flyers have had three different coaches. Ray Bourque won, Gretzky retired, and Lemieux came back. That’s a lot of hockey, folks.

So how have things panned out for the twenty-seven skinny teenagers drafted in the first-round back in 1998? It’s always hard to evaluate a draft–the more time, the better–but enough time has passed that we can have a basic idea of which players will live up to their expectations and of which players will not. All of them, even those who have tasted some significant NHL success, are still works-in-progress, and there might be a sleeper from 1998 who will be surprising everyone in 2008.

Twenty-seven players were drafted by twenty-three teams in the first round of 1998. Colorado had four picks; New Jersey picked twice after swinging a last-minute deal for Dallas’ pick at #27. The Sharks and Predators made a draft-day deal as well, swapping slots, so the Predators got David Legwand and the Sharks got Brad Stuart. Of the twenty-seven players, fifteen were forwards, ten were defensemen, and two were goalies.

Hockey pundits called it a deep draft, in its own way. In 1997, everyone was talking about one of the best drafts ever. In 1998, there was a perceived drop-off in quality after Legwand and Vincent Lecavalier and again after Stuart and Bryan Allen. Some observers also added, however, that the quality decline leveled off after those top four picks: a #27 pick might be as solid as a #12 pick. The play of the last few players selected in the first-round has certainly shown the wisdom of that prediction.

Obviously, there’s no single standard that can be used to judge and compare these twenty-seven players on different teams at different positions. In general, however, it’s worth considering three different things:

1) Expectation. What did the drafting team expect from their picks? Obviously, the Lightning (drafting overall) expected more from Vincent Lecavalier than did the Devils (drafting at #27) of Scott Gomez. Scott Parker, drafted at #20, has become a pretty good role player for the Avalanche, but was he worth a first-rounder (especially when the likes of Simon Gagne, Jiri Fischer, and Scott Gomez were still available)?

2) Production. Simply put, what has the drafting team gotten for its valuable pick thus far? This is where I’ll most look at NHL stats and hard numbers. It’s all well and good to have a nice prospect in the system, but sooner or later you want that prospect to become a contributing player.

3) Potential. How much more can the drafting team expect from its pick? At this point, some of these drafted players may have shown that their potential was highly overrated in June 1998. Has the player already reached his peak? Is the player showing a strong or weak learning curve? Is the sky still the limit, or are the limits becoming all too obvious?

The numbers

Let’s begin with some numbers. All these figures are based on NHL stats as of December 24, 2001. The player’s original draft order is indicated in parenthesis after his name.

Top NHL points per game average for forwards:Top NHL points for forwards:
1. 0.79 Alex Tanguay (12)1. 161 Vincent Lecavalier (1)
2. 0.77 Simon Gagne (22)2. 150 Alex Tanguay (12)
3. 0.76 Scott Gomez (27)3. 146 Scott Gomez (27)
4. 0.61 Vincent Lecavalier (1)4. 141 Simon Gagne (22)
5. 0.48 David Legwand (2)5. 90 David Legwand (2)
Top NHL points per game average for defensemen:Top NHL points for defensemen:
1. 0.38 Brad Stuart (3)1. 74 Brad Stuart (3)
2. 0.27 Martin Skoula (17)2. 54 Martin Skoula (17)
3. 0.26 Dmitri Kalinin (18)3. 26 Dmitri Kalinin (18)
4. 0.15 Jiri Fischer (25)4. 21 Jiri Fischer (25)
5. 0.12 Robyn Regehr (19)5. 20 Robyn Regehr (19)
Number of NHL games played:
1. 262 Vincent Lecavalier (1)
2. 199 Martin Skoula (17)
3. 193 Brad Stuart (3)
4. 192 Scott Gomez (27)
5. 190 Alex Tanguay (12)
6. 186 David Legwand (2)
7. 183 Simon Gagne (22)
8. 177 Manny Maholtra (7)
9. 163 Robin Regehr (19)
10. 144 Vitali Vishnevski (5)
11. 141 Jiri Fischer (25)
12. 129 Nik Antropov (10)
13. 122 Scott Parker (20)
14. 99 Dimitri Kalinin (18)
15. 85 Mathieu Biron (21)
16. 77 Milan Kraft (23)
17. 51 Mark Bell (8)
18. 32 Rico Fata (6)
19-tie. 13 Bryan Allen (4)
19-tie. 13 Eric Chouinard (16)
21. 4 Patrick DesRochers (14)
22. 3 Mike van Ryn (26)
23-tie. 0 Michael Rupp (9)
23-tie. 0 Jeff Heerema (11)
23-tie. 0 Michael Henrich (13)
23-tie. 0 Matthew Chouinard (15)
23-tie. 0 Christian Backman (24)

After looking at these numbers, it’s easy to divide the first-rounders into a few general groups.

Above and beyond

The NHL draft is always a game of chance. It’s nice to get a solid NHL player from a pick, let alone a player that has star potential. Three forwards from the first-round of the 1998 draft have already tasted NHL success and exhibit the potential to reach even greater heights: Alex Tanguay (#12, Colorado), Gagne (#22, Philadelphia), and Gomez (#27, New Jersey). This trio entered the league in 1999-2000, and they had an immediate impact while playing for elite teams. Gomez had the most impact as a rookie. He raked in every rookie honor, scored a point a game, and won the Stanley Cup with the Devils that season.

In 2000-2001, Tanguay was probably the biggest star of the bunch. Playing with flashy forwards like Joe Sakic and Milan Hejduk, Tanguay scored 77 points during the regular and added 21 points during Colorado’s successful Stanley Cup run.

Now, in 2001-2002, Tanguay and Gomez have both struggled, while Gagne has soared. The production of Tanguay and Gomez is down; both players are on a pace to have less points than they did during their rookie season. Tanguay probably has Stanley Cup hangover, while Gomez is missing his old linemate, Alexander Mogilny (now in Toronto). Meanwhile Gagne is now on pace for his first thirty-goal season and he is the youngest member of the Canadian Olympic team.

Over their two and a half years in the league, Tanguay, Gagne, and Gomez have nearly identical numbers, and it’s impossible to say which of the bunch will ultimately be the best. All three have a combination of talent and character that will take them very far. It seems clear, however, that they’re at the head of a class of elite young forwards. All three have been excellent picks for their organizations, though Gagne and Gomez were bigger steals, being drafted later.

Before going on to the defensemen, it’s worth noting one important thing about this successful trio. They were all drafted by deep, talented, playoff-caliber teams: Colorado, New Jersey, and Philadelphia. These teams have depth and talent aplenty. They don’t need to rush their prospects, nor do they burden their draft picks with the expectation of being the savior of the franchise. (Well, not anymore at least–we all remember the twisted Philly-Lindros affair.) And these three teams are stocked with veterans who can support, teach, and guide their young teammates. So Tanguay, Gagne, and Gomez enjoyed an extra year in juniors. When they finally arrived in the NHL, they were surrounded by talent that passed them the puck, that put their passes in the net, and that taught them how to be an NHL player.

Simon Gagne is developing into a young star, but he’s had his rough patches (especially after he injured his shoulder in February 2001). How much do you think he’s grown due to the guidance and protection of veterans like Mark Recchi and Rich Tocchet? Ditto for Alex Tanguay in Colorado–he plays with Joe Sakic and even lived in Patrick Roy’s basement during his rookie year. Teenagers don’t flourish in the NHL without great teammates, and Tanguay, Gagne, and Gomez are no exceptions.

Depth on the blueline

Ten defensemen were drafted during the 1999 first round, and seven of them are already taking regular shifts on teams around the NHL. Not too shabby. These seven are: Brad Stuart (#3, San Jose), Vitali Vishnevski (#5, Anaheim), Martin Skoula (#17, Colorado), Dmitri Kalinin (#18, Buffalo), Robin Regehr (#19, Colorado, now with Calgary), Matthieu Biron (#21, Los Angeles) and Jiri Fischer (#25, Detroit). Stuart and Skoula are probably the highest-profile members of this group. Stuart had a very solid rookie year in 1999-2000, being both All-Rookie and a Calder Finalist, and he’s very quickly becoming a #1 defenseman for the Sharks. Skoula was recently named to the Czech Olympic team. Again, it’s difficult to say which of these five players has the highest potential. Most would put Stuart first, but who knows what the future holds? Young Jiri Fischer has struggled to earn ice-time on a veteran Detroit club, but no one knows what he’ll accomplish as he begins to share the load of players like Chris Chelios and Niklas Lidstrom.

What about the other three, you ask? Bryan Allen is still a top prospect of the Canucks, but he’s mostly playing in the minors. He had an excellent rookie season in the IHL in 2000-2001, and he now plays in the AHL. Mike Van Ryn became a free agent through a legal loophole, signed with the St. Louis Blues, and now plays in Worcester (AHL). And Christian Backman is still playing in Sweden.

What about #1 and #2?

This brings us to Lecavalier and Legwand, drafted at #1 and #2 overall. On draft day, they were considered to have a far superior level of talent and potential than any other player available. Consequently they have faced much higher expectations. The owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning famously compared Lecavalier to Michael Jordan on draft day, and Legwand was supposed to be the cornerstone of the new Nashville franchise. How can any teenager be expected to live up to such hype?

Many don’t. Sure, some number ones flourish in the NHL, but for every Mario Lemieux there’s a Alexandre Daigle, for every Mike Modano there’s a Greg Joly. (Greg Joly? Wondering who that is? I think that proves my point.)

This is why Lecavalier and Legwand must be considered apart from the rest of their draft class. Like the players named above, they’ve developed into solid NHLers, but they haven’t burned up the league. Lecavalier jumped directly to the NHL and soon became the captain of the hapless Lightning. They’ve still missed the playoffs for three years, and this season doesn’t promise to be much different. Legwand failed to make the Predators roster in his first training camp, and he returned for one more season in the OHL. His numbers have been somewhat underwhelming as well, and his point per game average is far lower than Lecavalier’s.

The jury’s still out on Lecavalier and Legwand. Oh, we know that they can play in the NHL–we simply don’t know at what level. Will they remain above-average forwards on mediocre (or worse) teams? It’s particularly difficult to judge them on their production thus far simply because they’ve played on some really wretched teams. I’d bet good money that Lecavalier would be a superstar if he’d had the luxury of playing with Joe Sakic for a couple of years.

No one doubts their talent or potential–especially for Lecavalier, who every team in the league would like to trade for–but if Lecavalier and Legwand don’t make a greater impact in the next few years, the pundits are going to start wondering aloud, “Why didn’t they draft so-and-so instead?” Because for #1 and #2 draft picks, above-average is a disappointment.

Falling stocks

Disappointment is the main sentiment associated thus far with a handful of other draft picks from the 1998 draft. Michael Rupp, Michael Henrich, and Jeff Heerema are three of just five players from the 1998 first-round who have yet to play a single NHL game. Of the other two, one is a goaltender (Mathieu Chouinard) and one is European (Christian Backman). So Rupp, Henrich, and Heerema have some explaining to do.

Rupp never came to terms with the Islanders. He re-entered the draft and was eventually picked by New Jersey. Obviously the Islanders got nothing for this pick, and it’s not entirely clear if New Jersey will either. Rupp, Henrich, and Heerema are all now playing in their second year in the AHL, and each has been somewhat productive this season. Observers think that they have NHL skill, but they might lack the desire and drive that’s necessary for NHL success. They still all have a good shot to become solid regulars, but there’s much less of a reason to think that they can ever live up to being a first-round pick.

Hindsight’s always 20/20, but these days its difficult to see why these players were drafted before most of the players that followed them in the first-round.

Two other disappointments from the 1998 first-round are Rico Fata and Manny Malholtra. Both are now in the Rangers organization, though Fata was originally drafted by Calgary. Malholtra largely seems to have been a victim of circumstance. He was rushed to the NHL in 1998-1999, and his development has undoubtedly suffered since then. Overmatched at the NHL, his confidence has suffered, and it may be a while before anyone can get a real read on what he can become. Malholtra’s defensive play has been very good, but he might benefit from a change of scenery. And who knows when that could happen? Malholtra’s name has been a regular in trade rumors since he was drafted.

Fata was put on waivers this fall, which is how he ended up with the Blueshirts. Fata’s main asset is his blinding speed, but he hasn’t shown much aptitude for scoring at the NHL level–he has all of one assist in 32 NHL games. His play has also been frustratingly inconsistent, and some scouts who suggested that Fata lacked hockey sense now seem vindicated. The fact that Fata was even put on waivers suggests how far his stock has fallen.

Predictions

Draft Day’s always a time for guessing and making predictions for the future, so let’s make some predictions for the first round of the 1998 draft.

#1: That Tanguay, Gagne, and Gomez will continue to shine. Teams around the league will wonder why they didn’t draft them. Pierre Lacroix in Colorado will think to himself at some point in time that he could have drafted all three. Imagine all three on one team!

#2: That Vincent Lecavalier will become the superstar that he has always been destined to be. He’s got too much going for him to simply be above average. In the next three years, he’ll be as productive as Tanguay, Gagne, and Gomez. I’m afraid I’m not yet willing to predict the same for Legwand.

#3: That Brad Stuart will someday win a Norris Trophy.

#4: That one other member of this draft class will be a late bloomer a la Joe Thornton and surprise us all, after we’d dismissed them as a bust.

Honors earned by the first round of the 1998 draft:

Calder Trophy
1999-2000: Winner – Scott Gomez
1999-2000: Finalist – Brad Stuart

All-Rookie Team
1999-2000: Simon Gagne, Scott Gomez, Brad Stuart

NHL All-Star Game
1999-2000: Scott Gomez
2000-2001: Simon Gagne

Stanley Cup
1999-2000: Scott Gomez
2000-2001: Alex Tanguay, Martin Skoula, Scott Parker

2002 Olympic Teams
Canada – Simon Gagne
Czech Republic – Martin Skoula

A player-by-player look at the first-round of the 1998 draft:

1. Tampa Bay: Vincent Lecavalier, C
Stats: 262 GP, 68G-93A-161P, 145 PIM, -78
Points per game: 0.61
Notes: Lecavalier has been in the news a lot recently and for all the wrong reasons. He held out for a bigger contract over the summer, lost his “C”, and reportedly demanded a trade. No trade has been made, mostly because the Lightning are reluctant to get rid of a player who has so much potential.

Over the years, Tampa Bay has been a city where first-rounders have gone to die. Lecavalier could still become the next Lemieux, the next Mike Modano, the next Stevie Y–or he could remain simply an above-average forward on a below-average team. Lecavalier’s future is very tightly bound to the future of his team. If Tampa Bay’s management turns things around and gets rid of the losing atmosphere, Lecavalier could very well become the Michael Jordan of hockey. If they don’t, Lecavalier’s best hope for hockey superstardom will be somewhere else.

2. Nashville: David Legwand, C
Stats: 186 GP, 35G-55A-90P, 106 PIM, Even
Points per game: 0.48
Notes: Unlike Lecavalier, Legwand did not immediately jump to the NHL after the draft. His development has been somewhat hampered by injuries, and he has also suffered from playing on an expansion team. Like Lecavalier, however, there’s no reason at the moment to feel that Legwand is a bust. At 22 he is obviously a solid NHL player, and as he matures, he could very well become the superstar that he was expected to be.

3. San Jose: Brad Stuart, D
Stats: 193 GP, 18G-56A-74P, 113 PIM, +18
Points per game: 0.38
Notes: Named to 1999-2000 All-Rookie Team. Finalist for the Calder Trophy in 1999-2000. Stuart has become of the Sharks’ best overall defensemen. Defensemen generally take longer to develop than forwards, and that’s true with Stuart. While he’s been a full-time NHL player over this 2.5 years in the league, he can still be pressured into positional mistakes. Stuart’s development remains on schedule, however, and he’s a bright part of the Sharks’ long-term future.

4. Vancouver: Bryan Allen, D
Stats: 13 GP, 0G-0A-0P, 6 PIM, +1
Points per game: 0.00
Notes: Currently toiling in the AHL with Manitoba, Bryan Allen still seems to be potential star defenseman. So far, however, he’s only been potential. Unlike Brad Stuart, Allen has had no impact at the NHL level. There’s little reason to expect he’ll ever put up big numbers–he hasn’t at any other level–and he’ll have to push to move up on the Canucks’ depth chart. Allen looks to be a bonafide NHLer someday, but it’s debatable at this time whether he merited a top 5 pick.

5. Anaheim: Vitali Vishnevski, D
Stats: 144 GP, 2G-14A-16P, 163 PIM, -10
Points per game: 0.11
Notes: Vishnevski has developed into an aggressive and physical defenseman for the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. He’s often compared to Pittsburgh’s Darius Kasparaitus. He was lauded as an offensive dman on draft day, though he looks to be more of a defensive dman at the NHL level

6. Calgary: Rico Fata, C
Stats: 32 GP, 0G-1A-1P, 10 PIM, -4
Points per game: 0.08
Notes: Originally drafted by Calgary, Fata is now part of the New York Rangers organization after being claimed off waivers this fall. A change of scenery might be just what he needed. His speed is his biggest asset, but he’s show little offensive ability at the NHL level (1 point in 32 games). At this point he’s looking more like a checking forward than a big point-scorer–and teams don’t expect to get merely a checking forward with the #6 pick in the draft. Obviously, Calgary got very little for their pick from Fata. We’ll see what happens with him in New York.

7. NY Rangers: Manny Malhotra, C
Stats: 177 GP, 12G-19A-31P, 56 PIM, -15
Points per game: 0.18
Notes: Like Legwand and Lecavalier, Malhotra has suffered from entering to NHL as a teenager on a very bad team. On draft day, Malhotra was expected to be a decent scorer with a good defensive conscience and great leadership skills. The Rangers rushed him to the NHL, however, and thus his offensive upside has never been developed. He’s frequently mentioned in trade rumors, possibly because he gets little ice time behind the likes of Eric Lindros, Petr Nedved, and Mark Messier. For that reason, he may be converted to a left-wing.

8. Chicago: Mark Bell, C
Stats: 51 GP, 8G-13A-21P, 47 PIM, Even
Points per game: 0.41
Notes: Playing in his rookie year, Bell is emerging as a possible candidate for the Calder Trophy at year’s end. He has not turned into the player that the Blackhawks expected on draft day, though it looks like he could have a long career in the NHL.

9. NY Islanders: Michael Rupp, LW
Stats: No NHL games played.
Points per game: N/A
Notes: Re-entered draft in 2000, drafted 76th overall by New Jersey. The Islanders got nothing for this pick, and Rupp’s not doing very much to distinguish himself in the deep New Jersey system. Now playing for Albany in the AHL, Rupp has 11 points in 29 games and he is a whopping -10. He was a risky pick at #9 that has not panned out at all.

10.Toronto: Nikolai Antropov, C
Stats: 129GP, 19G-30A-49P, 75 PIM, +18
Points per game: 0.37
Notes: Antropov is perhaps best known for being one of the players that Toronto offered to Philadelphia in a potential Eric Lindros deal. That aside, Antropov has been nothing to write home about. Physically huge, he has frustrated Pat Quinn through his inconsistency. It culminated in Antropov being sent down to St. John’s in the AHL after playing in 129 NHL games. Antropov’s been productive at the AHL level (averaging a point per game) and will be looking for a callup to a currently successful Toronto club. The jury’s still out on Antropov, who needs to show that he won’t be a work-in-progress forever.

11.Carolina: Jeff Heerema, RW
Stats: No NHL games played.
Points per game: N/A
Notes: Heerema’s a speed demon now playing for the Lowell Lock Monsters in the AHL. Through 33 games in the AHL thus far, he has 29 points and is +14. The organization was disappointed in his first pro season (2000-2001, with the IHL Cyclones), but Heerema could be redeeming himself this year. On the other hand, he doesn’t seem like someone who should have drafted ahead of Tanguay, Gagne, Gomez, and company.

12.Colorado: Alex Tanguay, C
Stats: 190GP, 50G-100A-150P, 81 PIM, +46
Points per game: 0.79
Notes: Won the Stanley Cup with the Avalanche in 2000-2001. Tanguay has been flat out a great pick. There were fairly high expectations for him from Colorado, and Tanguay seems destined to fulfill all of them. He’s already produced a good deal at the NHL level. He had an excellent playoff run in 2000-2001, the year that the Avs won the Stanley Cup, and he has the good fortune of playing with Joe Sakic and Milan Hejduk a good deal. Tanguay’s numbers are down in his third pro season, however, which probably cost him a spot on the Canadian Olympic Team. With his speed and talent with the puck, Tanguay is going to be a big part of the next generation of elite wingers.

13.Edmonton: Michael Henrich, RW
Stats: No NHL games played.
Points per game: N/A
Notes: Henrich’s played very inconsistently for the Edmonton organization since being drafted. Despite having all the talent in the world, Henrich has yet to play in a single NHL game and he’s going to need to really exert himself to get on a very good, young Edmonton squad. Now playing in his second season with Hamilton in the AHL, Henrich has 19 points in 22 games. It’s a partial redemption of last season, and it’s still way too early to call him a bust. But more was expected of him by now.

14.Phoenix: Patrick DesRochers, G
Stats: 4 GP, 2 GS, 182 min, 0W-2L-1T, 11 GA, 3.63 GAA, 66 sv, .857 save %
Notes: Goaltenders must be developed slowly. More than any other position, they benefit from a couple years in the minors, where they face lots of rubber and play behind rather porous defenses. That said, DesRochers’ numbers in the AHL and in his few NHL games have been underwhelming. This year he has a 4.51 GAA in 9 games for Springfield in the AHL. With his size and athleticism, DesRochers mainly needs to work on his mental game in the minors before he can seriously challenge for a slot in the NHL.

15.Ottawa: Mathieu Chouinard, G
Stats: No NHL games.
Notes: As with DesRochers, Chouinard is a goalie and thus must be developed slowly. Thus it is no surprise or disappointment that he has yet to play in a single NHL game. Now in his second pro season, playing with the Grand Rapid Griffins of the AHL, Chouinard has a 2.53 GAA in 18 games played. In a near future, he could be challenging for a slot in the NHL. There’s no reason to think Chouinard was a bad pick, and every reason to think he could turn out to be a very good one.

16.Montreal: Eric Chouinard, C
Stats: 13GP, 1G-3A-4P, 0 PIM, Even
Points per game: 0.31
Notes: Eric Chouinard has faced all the pressure that comes with being a French-Canadien prospect in the Montreal organization. There’s a little extra twist to his pressure, however. Chouinard is a great friend of Simon Gagne, who was his teammate in midget and juniors. Montreal was widely expected to take Gagne when they took Chouinard instead. So far Gagne’s looking like the better player, and in comparison Chouinard seems like a disappointment.

That said, Chouinard is an excellent goal scorer who has been productive this year for Quebec in the AHL (26 points in 29 games). There’s a good chance he’ll be converted to a winger (not having the defensive game to make it as a center in the NHL), but he’s also in the position of needing to prove he has more than potential.

17.Colorado: Martin Skoula, D
Stats: 199GP, 15G-39A-54P, 82 PIM, +19
Points per game: 0.27
Notes: Named to Team Czech Republic for 2002 Olympics. Won the Stanley Cup with the Avalanche in 2000-2001. Skoula was another great pick by the Colorado Avalanche, as he’s becoming one of the best young blueliners in the NHL. With Rob Blake and Adam Foote as teammates, Skoula has the luxury of somewhat less pressure in these formative years. Skoula will probably be a #1 or #2 dman sometime in the future.

18.Buffalo: Dimitri Kalinin, D
Stats: 99GP, 5G-21A-26P, 46 PIM, -8
Points per game: 0.26
Notes: A solid pick, like Martin Skoula who was taken before him. Kalinin is developing right on schedule and looks to have all-star potential for his future. For now, he’s a solid NHLer who will probably be one of the Sabres’ top four blueliners.

19.Colorado: Robyn Regehr, D
Stats: 163GP, 7G-13A-20P, 145 PIM, -16
Points per game: 0.12
Notes: Another great Colorado pick. Regehr has recovered miraculously from a major car accident that he was involved in before turning pro. Part of the Theo Fleury trade, Regehr is now plying his trade on the Calgary blueline with the young, flashy Derek Morris. His character and physical game suggest that he will be a rock-solid defensive defenseman for many years to come.

20.Colorado: Scott Parker, RW
Stats: 122GP, 2G-3A-5P, 302 PIM, -6
Points per game: 0.04
Notes: Won the Stanley Cup with the Avalanche in 2000-2001. Parker’s developing into an ideal young enforcer with a little skill on top. He’ll be nothing more than a role player, however, and he’s still a defensive liability. Parker’s fists will give him a job in the NHL, but I don’t know how many teams want to use a first-round pick on a tough guy.

21.Los Angeles: Mathieu Biron, D
Stats: 85GP, 4G-5A-9P, 54 PIM, -13
Points per game: 0.11
Notes: Now in Tampa Bay after being acquired from NY Islanders in June 2001. Biron is another young blueliner who mainly needs some NHL experience to polish his game. Biron has a good shot from the point and more offensive potential than his numbers thus far might suggest. A diamond-in-the-rough, but still a diamond.

22.Philadelphia: Simon Gagne, C
Stats: 183GP, 62G-79A-141P, 54 PIM, +55
Points per game: 0.77
Notes: Named to 1999-2000 All-Rookie Team. Named to 2000-2001 NHL All-Star Team (Injury replacement). Named to Team Canada for 2002 Olympics. Gagne was one of the best players in the first round of the 1998 draft and with Scott Gomez, one of its biggest steals. Now in his third NHL season, Gagne keeps improving. He had a 48 point rookie campaign, avoided sophomore slump, played in the All-Star Game, and now is averaging a point per game in his third pro season. He’s also been named to Team Canada for the Olympics, and he’s the youngest player on the team. Gagne’s been everything the Flyers have hoped for (and more), and he’s going to be one of their core players for many years to come.

23.Pittsburgh: Milan Kraft, C
Stats: 77GP, 12G-9A-21P, 18 PIM, -11
Points per game: 0.27
Notes: Many European players take a couple of extra years after being drafted before coming over to North America. Such is the case with Milan Kraft, who spent part of 2000-2001 in the AHL and is now the Penguins third-line center. Although his production has not been very exciting thus far, he’s a player to be excited about with his world-class skill and vision. Kraft could become one of the other big steals of the 1998 first-round.

24.St. Louis: Christian Backman, D
Stats: No NHL games played.
Points per game: N/A
Notes: This Swedish blueliner has yet to come over to North America. He’s projected to become a top offensive defenseman, and the Blues hope that he will eventually join the rest of their fearsome blueline arsenal. That said, there’s some concern about the fact that Backman has not yet come over. It might be better for him to get North American experience in the AHL rather than another year in the Swedish Elite League. He’s one of just five players drafted in the first-round of the 1998 draft who has yet to play in a single NHL game.

25.Detroit: Jiri Fischer, D
Stats: 141GP, 2G-19A-21P, 145 PIM, +9
Points per game: 0.15
Notes: Jiri Fischer was another major steal of the 1998 draft. The Wings are one of the deepest teams in the league, and that’s the only reason that Fischer has had problems getting enough playing time. His size, physical play, and mobility promise to make him a top two defenseman at the NHL level someday.

26.New Jersey: Mike Van Ryn, D
Stats: 3GP, 0G-0A-0P, 0 PIM, -1
Points per game:: 0.00
Notes: Van Ryn became a free agent due to a hockey loophole and signed a lucrative contract with St. Louis. He was recently called up from Worcester in the AHL. He has the potential to be a very complete defenseman, but he’s behind a lot of very good players on the St. Louis blue line. Obviously, New Jersey has gotten nothing for this pick (which just goes to show you shouldn’t draft someone that you can’t sign), but it looks like Van Ryn could end up being a good player for the Blues.

27.New Jersey: Scott Gomez, C
Stats: 192GP, 36G-110A-146P, 142 PIM, +5
Points per game: 0.76
Notes: Winner of Calder Trophy in 1999-2000. Named to 1999-2000 All-Rookie Team. Won the Stanley Cup with the Devils in 1999-2000. Played in 1999-2000 NHL All-Star game. The very last pick of the first-round of the 1998 draft, Gomez is the player who enjoyed the most immediate NHL success. He won the Calder Trophy in a year with some very good rookies (Stuart, Tanguay, Gagne, Boucher). He had a case of the sophomore slumps last season, and this season his point totals have declined perilously (mostly due to the departure of Alexander Mogilny). He has a lot of talent and a great disposition, however, and this season will probably be no more than a slight aberration in a star career.