Thursday, June 22, 2006

The 2006 NHL Draft Preview

This weekend marks the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, where teams stock up on 18-year old prospects who they hope will contribute 4-5 years down the road. While NHL prospects develop and arrive in the show at a quicker rate than baseball prospects, the hockey crapshoot has more in common with that one than it does with the NFL and NBA drafts, where you see more players make an immediate impact. Of the 200-plus players who will be drafted, less than a dozen of them will see action in the NHL immediately, and most of the ones who do make it won’t arrive for at least 2-3 more years. Teams tend to consider a draft successful when they get 2 every game players out of it (they will average 7-8 picks), which means that the bar for success is pretty low.

With that in mind, here’s a question and answer guide designed to help you prepare for the weekend.

Didn't You Do A Mini-Preview A While Back?
I certainly did. You'll notice that some of the ideas from that post resurface here. I also just noticed the comment from the AOL guys. I will note that I had included their site in the links below prior to digging up this post.

What Are Some Of The Unique Things About Watching The Draft?
• Unlike in other sports, pretty much every kid who has a remote chance of getting drafted shows up. That ensures that even if your team goes off the board, you’ll get to see the first round pick come on stage to try on the jersey and shake hands with the front office.

• The above is also a bad thing, as kids get their hopes up and show up with family and friends in tow, only to be passed over by all 30 teams. This subject takes up at least one Coach’s Corner every year, where Cherry relays the story of some kid crying in the stands because he wasn’t going to be picked.

• While in the NBA and NFL drafts, the Commissioner announces the picks, the NHL lets each team come on stage and announce the pick. It’s always fun to see who the General Manager brings on stage with them, almost like guessing who at the MTV Awards will bring the biggest posse on stage.

• Unlike the NBA and NFL drafts, which are held in the Madison Square Gardens theater each year, the NHL rotates between different cities, and also hosts it in actual hockey arenas. One of the benefits of this is that each team gets to set up their ‘war room’ on the arena floor, so we get to see all the action as it develops.

What Are Some Of The Memorable Moments From Past Drafts?
• After being selected first overall in 1991 by the Quebec Nordiques, Eric Lindros refused to even don their jersey. Lindros, the most touted prospect since Wayne Gretzky, and potential savior of the Nordiques, had previously expressed his unwillingness to play for Quebec. Ironically, he would eventually deliver multiple championships to the franchise (they’d win all of them in Denver) by forcing a trade to Philadelphia that netted the Nordiques/Avalanche franchise Peter Forsberg, and a host of other players and assets that would help form the nucleus of the championship teams of the late 90s/early 00s.

• Edmonton hosted the draft in 1995. With the hometown Oilers on the clock, and local boy Shane Doan on the board, fans began a “Doan!” chant, which was promptly silenced when Glen Sather picked Steve Kelly. If you’re wondering who Steve Kelly is, he’s a big reason why the Oil didn’t make it past the second round of the playoffs for another 10 seasons after this.

• After his team selected Vincent Lecavalier first overall in 1998, Tampa Bay Lightning owner Art Williams, never one to be stingy with hyperbole, called him “the Michael Jordan of hockey”.

Tangent: People might not remember now, but in his draft year, Vinny was one of the biggest prospects to come along in years – possibly since Lindros. The Colorado Avalanche actually ended up acquiring 4 first round picks that year, in large part to increase their chances of landing him. As another bit of trivia, the guy that Tampa took in the third round (64th overall) was a teammate of Lecavalier’s in Junior. His name was Brad Richards; some of you might have heard of him.

• The New York Islanders selected Taylor Pyatt in the top 10 of the 1999 draft, only their scouting director introduced him as “Nelson Pyatt”, which is actually the name of his father – a retired NHLer.

• In 2000, the New Jersey Devils held up the draft for a good 5-10 minutes because league officials had to confirm that the player they wanted to pick in the first round was actually on the list of draft-eligible players. Surprisingly, this kid (Adrian Foster) has yet to establish himself in the big leagues.

Who Are The Teams To Watch This Year?
The St. Louis Blues, who finished with the worst record this past season, won the draft lottery, and will pick first. Pittsburgh, Chicago, Washington, Boston, Columbus, New York Islanders, Phoenix, Minnesota, and Florida will follow them in the top 10. Three teams have two first round picks – The Minnesota Wild (#9, and #17), the St. Louis Blues (#1 and #30), and the Washington Capitals (#4 and 23). The Caps also have picks #34 and 35 near the top of the second round, so if they want to move up from either of their first round spots, they have the ammo to do it. I’ve heard rumblings that the Carolina Hurricanes are going to try and move into the top 5 (to pick Jordan Staal), but I can’t see how they’re going to accomplish that without giving up a young blue-chipper such as Andrew Ladd or Jack Johnson, which they probably won’t do.

Who Are The Players To Watch?
This is a top-heavy draft, with 5-7 players seen as being top prospects, then the talent starts to drop off after that. Of the group of elite prospects, all of them are forwards except for Defenseman Erik Johnson of the United States National Team Development Program, who has emerged as the favorite to be picked first overall. After the first group of players (Johnson, Phil Kessel, Jordan Staal, Jonathan Toews, Nicklas Backstrom, Peter Mueller and, depending on who you ask, Derrick Brassard, Michael Frolik, and/or Jiri Tlutsty), the draft is seen as being wide-open. It could produce some decent role players, but it’s seen as one of the weaker crops in recent years.

How Early and Often Will Teams Go Off the Board?
Very. In fact, I’m confident that at least one of the teams picking in the top 10 will go off the board and make a selection that baffles everyone but the relevant front office; it’s an annual tradition, really. By about the 20th pick, nothing will make sense. Picking 25th, New Jersey will probably take some kid from the Saskatchewan Junior League (who’s committed to the University of North Dakota for next fall) that the CSS had ranked outside of its Top 100. That will actually be the least surprising development of the latter half of the first round.

Will I Recognize Some of These Names?
Jordan Staal is the younger brother of Eric; Nick Foligno is the son of former NHLer Mike Foligno; Blake Geoffrion is Boom Boom’s grandson, and Viktor Tikhonov is the grandson of the legendary Russian coach. Thanks to HockeyBrain for this info.

What’s The Deal With European Players?
In the past, a team could draft a player from a European league, and retain their rights for 5 years. That has been changed to 2 years now, which brings them in line with players from the Canadian Hockey League. Compounding this problem is the transfer fee that clubs will have to pay to bring them over – which is especially steep for players coming from the Russian Federation. As a result, teams are going to be reluctant to draft Europeans unless they receive a guarantee that they are willing to come over. Kyle Woodlief of the Red Line Report has estimated that this could mean that as few as 30 Europeans will be selected this year, which is down from an average of closer to 100 in recent drafts. Whether or not this affects the Detroit Red Wings’ annual tradition of picking a blue-chipper out of Sweden in the middle rounds, or the Dallas Stars’ routine of picking 3-4 Fins remains to be seen.

It’s my opinion that this is going to work to the advantage of wealthier clubs, who can afford the buyouts, and those clubs who have a significant European presence amongst their players (a handful of countrymen as teammates could be enticing). It also means that European players can attempt to arrange which team will select them, by telling teams that they don’t plan on coming over in an effort to deter them from selecting you.

Will Any Established NHL Players Get Moved This Weekend?
Short answer, yes. Long answer, we’re not sure who. The favorite right now seems to be Roberto Luongo, who is being shopped around, with the Los Angeles Kings emerging as the front-runner (Mirtle also has an excellent piece on this topic). There have been rumors that Todd Bertuzzi is on the block, but I haven’t heard any possible destinations.

Where Else Can I Go For Coverage?
Here is, as best as I could find, a comprehensive list of sites:

Red Line Report (subscription)
USA Today , whose coverage is courtesy of Red Line Report’s Kyle Woodlief.
Hockeys Future, which has been my source for draft information since 1999.
NHLDraftNet, which I just discovered via Abel to Yzerman not too long ago.
The Hockey News
McKeen’s Hockey
International Scouting Services
Young Guns Hockey
Inside College Hockey, which provides decent coverage (unlike the rest of the website)

The Main Event
Here’s my mock draft for the first ten picks.

1 – St. Louis Blues – Erik Johnson, D, US National Team Development Program
They could use a bit of everything (though they have a couple of really good prospects in goal), and Johnson is the best player in this draft, Franchise defenseman are hard to come by; he holds the promise of becoming one a few years down the road. I watched him at the World Juniors this year, and he was the best player on the ice for a talented American squad. I can’t see him being any worse than a 3rd or 4th defenseman in this league (think Bret Hedican or Sean Hill), which also makes him the safe choice here.

2 – Pittsburgh Penguins – Possible trade to Colorado or Ottawa – Jonathan Toews, C, University of North Dakota, WCHA
Normally, I advocate picking the best player on the board, rather than addressing needs. However, the three best players on the board are centers, and with Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin in the system, the Pens do not need another player at that position. Furthermore, the aforementioned duo (along with goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury) gives the Pens a good young nucleus. What they need to do now is surround them with top talent. The free agent route flopped this past off-season, but the Pens would be well served to target a player just entering, or currently in his prime. Their best bet is to find a team that’s close to capping out, and needing to trade or cut ties with some of their top talent. A couple of options might be to see if the Ottawa Senators will consider shopping Martin Havlat, or if Colorado might trade Alex Tanguay or Milan Hejduk. No matter who ends up in this slot, I’m calling the pick as Toews, a better-rounded player than Phil Kessel, his college counterpart who also merits consideration.

3 – Chicago Blackhawks – Phil Kessel, C, University of Minnesota, WCHA
This is a high-risk/high-reward selection by the Hawks. Kessel is the offensive dynamo amidst a group of centers at the top of the draft board who play solid two-way games. After years of stocking up on defenseman, and sound, two-way forwards, the Hawks can afford to swing for the fences. Kessel underperformed compared to expectations this year (especially at the WJC), but he’s still a phenomenal talent. The Hawks really need a franchise forward, and more than anyone else in this draft, he has the potential to become that. I think Kessel has suffered from the weight of expectations – that tends to happen on draft day to players who have been hyped since they were 15 or 16 (see Spezza, Jason). He’ll go on to have a fine career in the NHL.

4 – Washington Capitals – Jordan Staal, C, Peterborough, OHL
Eric’s younger brother is a big centerman who will be an anchor of Washington’s offense for years to come. He’s one of the youngest players in the draft, so it may take him a year or two to contribute, but in time he should turn into a solid top 6 forward for the Caps.

5 – Boston Bruins – Peter Mueller, C, Everett, WHL
He doesn’t have the most offensive upside, but this two-way forward has great character, and could be a future captain in Beantown. Incoming GM Peter Chiarelli comes from Ottawa, where in the past few drafts, they have gone after North Americans with a well-rounded game and top-notch character. Mueller fits that description to a t.

6 – Columbus Blue Jackets – Derrick Brassard, C, Drummondville, QMJHL
Brassard has a ton of offensive upside, and is exactly the type of small, skilled forward that the new NHL rules are designed to benefit. The Jackets already have a cupboard full of young offensive talent, but there’s no other direction to go if they want value with their pick. Brassard is also more of a scorer than Gilbert Brule or Danny Fritsche, the other two young talented centerman in their organization.

7 – NY Islanders – Nicklas Backstrom, W, Brynas, Sweden
He’s the most talented player left on the board, and could be ready to step in immediately. New Head Coach Ted Nolan would probably push for Brassard if he’s available (he’s familiar with him from the Q), but Backstrom is a good piece to get the rebuilding project going in Long Island.

8 – Phoenix Coyotes – David Fischer, D, Apple Valley, USHSW
Minnesota’s Mr. Hockey gets tabbed here, at least 15 picks before most people figured he would. In a weak draft year, it makes sense to go off the board for a player with great potential. After doing it in 2004 to take another Minnesota kid, Blake Wheeler, 5th overall, Phoenix won’t be afraid to do it again here. They also have enough kids in the system that they can afford to wait on him for a few years.

9 – Minnesota Wild – Kyle Okposo, F, Des Moines, USHL
This local product is a solid two-way forward who fits well into Coach Jacques Lemaire’s system. With the best players off the board, he’s also a good value here.

10 – Florida Panthers – Chris Summers, D, USNTDP
Summers is a big, physical defenseman. In short, he’s exactly the type of player that GM Mike Keenan likes to have on his team.

Bonus Picks…the first selection of each Canadian team:

13 – Toronto Maple Leafs – Bryan Little, C, OHL
This 5'10 offensive dynamo (with an unusually expository last name) has the first line potential that the other forward prospects in the Leafs system so desperately lack.

14 – Vancouver Canucks – Jonathan Bernier, G, Lewiston, QMJHL
I’m not basing this on anything, it just feels right.

16 – Montreal Canadiens – James Sheppard, C, Cape Breton, QMJHL
The Habs go for a local-ish product who could center one of their top two lines.

26 – Calgary Flames – Ryan White, C, Calgary Hitmen, WHL
Kyle Woodlief called this pick, and as soon as I saw that he plays for the Calgary Hitmen, and is described as gritty, I had to agree.

28 – Ottawa Senators – Ty Wishart, D, Prince George, WHL
I still think they should/could move into the #2 spot and pick Jonathan Toews. In any case, whether this is their first or second pick of the day, Wishart is good value, and adds depth to a Senators defense that is about to lose Zdeno Chara.

45 – Edmonton Oilers – Carl Sneep, D, Brainerd, USHSW
The Oil tend to go for American (college) players, and Sneep’s CSS ranking leads me to believe that he could be on the board here. Let’s make it happen.

That does it for our preview. I’m in Cowtown this weekend, so I won’t be watching live (interestingly, this is the second time in three years that a trip to Calgary has precluded my watching the draft live). I also likely won’t be commenting on the developments until Sunday night or Monday, so in the meantime, enjoy!


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