Talk to NHL scouting execs and they'll tell you that getting drafted is just the beginning: it doesn't matter what number you're taken at, it matters what you do after.
Sometimes, the road to the pros takes a little longer and a player may not even end up on the team that originally drafted him. That was the case with defenseman Noel Hoefenmayer, who was taken in the fourth round of the 2017 draft by the Arizona Coyotes, but never signed to an entry-level contract. Now, he'll get his shot at the pros in Toronto, where he recently inked a two-year AHL contract with the Marlies.
Hoefenmayer is coming off a massive overage season with the OHL's Ottawa 67's, where he put up 82 points in 58 games while earning two first-place finishes in the league's coaches poll: hardest shot and best offensive defenseman in the Eastern Conference.
Of course, his 2018-19 campaign with the 67's wasn't bad either: Hoefenmayer was nearly a point-per-game player on a team that went all the way to the OHL final, winning every game in the playoffs until Game 3 of the final against Nick Suzuki and Guelph, where the Storm promptly turned the tables and smothered the 67's in four straight. That summer, Ottawa assumed the talented blueliner was gone.
"We didn't have him pencilled in for this season," said GM James Boyd. "We thought he would get some sort of pro opportunity. So it was surprising when he returned, but he obviously made a huge difference for our team. We had guys who made big leaps forward and Hoefenmayer was one of them."
Indeed, the 67's were actually even better this year than they were the season prior and that was a pretty high bar. Ottawa finished first overall in the OHL last year with a 50-12-6 record, good for a .779 points percentage. This season, the 67's had an .815 points percentage at the time the campaign was cancelled.
So why didn't Arizona want this kid? When Hoefenmayer's draft rights expired last year, the Coyotes had a lot of blueliners already in their system that they liked. The blueliner also kept improving his game after the snub.
"He had the offensive flair, but his whole game rounded out and became a really capable defender," Boyd said. "And he developed his shot over the years, to the point where this year it was a real weapon for us and the main reason our power play was as successful as it was."
As I noted yesterday in my blog about Toronto's signing of Bobby McMann, the Maple Leafs are at a point in their development cycle where they needed to replenish without having the luxury of having a plethora of picks, especially first-rounders. Hoefenmayer's big challenge next season will be making the jump from being the oldest guy in a league full of teenagers to being one of the youngest guys in a league full of men - and in the AHL, those men are all trying to get to the NHL before he does. But the talented defenseman has gone through the ups and downs of junior and persevered, something that was obvious to the 67's.
"He continuously improved," Boyd said. "The fact Arizona drafted him shows that people saw potential in him early. He had the explosion this year to lead the league in scoring by a defenseman on a team that is one of the stingiest defensively; that speaks to his progression."