For the first time in years, the focus going into, and coming out of the NHL Entry Draft was the same thing: the young athletes embarking on the next step in their hockey careers.
Wheeling and dealing still took place at the draft as teams struck deals to move up in certain rounds, exchange positions or sent role players back and forth. But for the most part, the attention remained on the players being drafted, the players the day was planned for.
The combination of a mass-meeting of general managers, extreme media attention and a world of young prospects, picks and assets in front of their eyes usually proves too much a magnetic pull towards deals for the day to go off without a major player switching teams. But aside from the movement of Jochen Hecht, Slava Kozlov and Mariusz Czerkawskit to new area codes, the attention stayed on the young players for the most part.
Czerkawski will take his offence to the Montreal Canadiens as part of a deal that sent forward Aaron Asham and a fifth-round pick to the New York Islanders. But for Isles GM Mike Milbury, that was as “mad” as this Mike got. Aside from picking up Mattias Timander for a fourth rounder, Milbury remained eerily silent for the most part. Two years removed from sending franchise goaltender Roberto Luongo to Florida and one year after making blockbuster draft day deals to acquire Alexei Yashin and Michael Peca, Milbury chose only to tinker with his team this time around.
Kozlov finds himself plying his trade with the offence-short Atlanta Thrashers from now on, packaged along with a second round pick from the Buffalo Sabres for a second rounder and a third rounder. Hecht left Edmonton for Buffalo in return for a couple second-rounders in the draft.
For the most part, those were the players who could even somewhat pass for “big names” to switch hands at the 2002 NHL Entry Draft.
Though none of the GMs would outright blame Tampa Bay GM Jay Feaster for devaluing picks in the draft with the early trade he accepted from Philadelphia, a fourth overall selection in return for forward Ruslan Fedotenko and two second-round picks, many talked about the impact that trade had on the way trade proposals were framed. Attempts to acquire the top picks began to feature quantity, not quality.
“I don’t really like to comment on anybody else’s situations,” says Milbury. “This is Jay Feaster in his first stint as a manager doing the best he can for his team and I’m sure there was a lot of thought going into what he did and I hope for his sake it works out.”
Milbury says he attempted on several occasions to move up in the draft and thought he had something pegged down with the Lightning at one point in time, “but in the end, Tampa went another way.”
Other GMs also found it a strange year for trade proposals leading up to the draft. Whereas deals usually become sweetened with valued players as deadlines close in, Florida, Columbus and Atlanta were instead bombarded with quantity over quality in proposals. Potential deals would make the teams better in the short term but would hold questionable value in any attempts to resurrect the teams in the long run.
“It was a funny year for conversation,” says Milbury. “I mean the value of a draft pick has gone the way of the stock market, it’s just plummeted. The first ten or so? Yeah. But the rest? No.”
Despite his best attempts to use his pick as the asset it usually is in attempts to make his team better, Milbury found the mood surrounding this draft vastly different from past years.
“It’s really put a damper on trading,” he says. “It used be the first three rounds were truly coveted but now people are just trying to take them off their shelf.”
Milbury cites a series of reasons for the evolution, or devolution, of the value of a draft pick and he refused to openly cite Feaster’s pre-draft move.
“It’s too expensive to sign draft picks,” he says, “and the crap shoot that it is makes it extremely difficult to be accurate very often.”
In the end, the draft picks remained more valuable as keepers than traders and many teams chose to keep their picks and help fill holes on their teams in the long term. No reputations were to be made or broken at this year’s draft for the NHL’s GMs and no mass press attention could be had.
For the young players themselves, perched in the stands and awaiting their 15 minutes, they wouldn’t have it any other way.