I will admit, I do not know every player who was drafted in Vancouver this past June. I know, I know – how can this be? While I pride myself on knowing the prospect world pretty well, the fact of the matter is that 31 NHL teams have differing opinions and a whole lot more staff than I do personally, and I’ve made peace with that.
What does become fascinating on the draft floor is when, inevitably, selections come in that make me say, “Who is that guy?” In Vancouver, it began in earnest in the fourth round, which Ottawa kicked off by selecting 20-year-old Swedish center Viktor Lodin, who tallied five points in 41 games for Orebro. The fun continued a few picks later when Columbus – with its first pick of the draft – selected Eric Hjorth, a big defenseman who missed almost the entire year with a knee injury. Neither Lodin nor Hjorth were ranked by NHL Central Scouting.
I wasn’t caught unaware that this would happen, however. In fact, before the draft, a player agent predicted the latter half of the draft would be filled with Europeans and college-bound North Americans, because NHL teams get to hold onto their rights longer. For him, this was a bit of an affront to major-junior players.
The pragmatism of drafting an 18-year-old from a European team is obvious: NHL teams get to hold their rights for four years versus two for a major-junior prospect. Meanwhile, a player heading to an NCAA program cannot sign a contract until his college time is finished – which could also be four years. And yes, sometimes a player will walk away, causing an outpouring of frothing from folks who don’t understand that major-junior players do the same thing after two years instead of four – or have it done to them when an NHL team doesn’t sign them.
So now we are left to wonder if the gambit is worth it. Right off the hop, you wonder if Europe’s shorter game schedule would hinder the sample size in getting a read on kids. But of course, this is why NHL teams have scouts based in Europe who know the lay of the land and how a kid today compares to one from three years ago.
With college-bound kids, you’re looking for upside. Some of them are coming from high-school leagues that aren’t even in the same stratosphere as major junior. But if the kid’s a rocket skater or has a lanky 6-foot-5 frame, you can forecast what a few years in a college weight room will reap.
To get a sense of how these later gambles work out, I took a look at the 2015 draft – just long enough ago that nearly all the prospects would be in the pro ranks by now. And wouldn’t you know it? One of the most successful players is Finnish defenseman Markus Nutivaara, who was taken with little fanfare by Columbus in the seventh round. Nutivaara ranks 12th among the 2015 draft class in games played with 207 and has tallied more points than first-rounders such as Lawson Crouse or Zach Senyshyn. Pittsburgh fifth-rounder Dominik Simon is another 2015 diamond in the rough who has outshone some of the first-rounders.
So far, there are four seventh-rounders from 2015 who have played at least one game in the NHL: Nutivaara, Sami Niku, Matt Roy and Joey Daccord. The first two are Finnish. The latter two went the college route. Move up to the sixth round, and four more come up – but only one, Calgary’s Andrew Mangiapane, came from major junior.
Once a team exhausts its draft list, the brain trust will tab regional scouts to make a pick or ask for options on a need (say, a big left winger). This can often be where European scouts make their voices heard.
It has been a long time since players such as Henrik Zetterberg and Pekka Rinne were plucked in the latter rounds, because scouting is getting more competitive and sophisticated. But don’t worry if your favorite team drafts a player that some pundits haven’t heard of: there was definitely a well-informed scout with long-term vision making the pitch.