“He’s a self-made guy. He did everything he could to make himself a better player and he still does to this day.” – Scott Bonner, GM of the Western League’s Vancouver Giants
As explored last week, drafting players out of bantam for major junior is a tough task. Kids grow, get stronger and improve their games rapidly at such a young age, so a lot can change in a one- or two-year span.
A perfect and recent example of a player who flew so far under the radar he wasn’t even picked up in his bantam draft, is the popular banger from Boston, Milan Lucic.
“He was a sponge,” said Bonner, who, as a major junior GM, also acts as a scout. “From when he got here he’d do whatever you asked him. If the strength coach wanted him to work out for an hour, he’d work out for an hour-and-a-half. If (head coach) Don (Hay) wanted him to shoot extra pucks after practice he would stay out there as long as he could.”
Lacking a filled-out frame and a smooth skating stride, Lucic was deemed “awkward” and his skills unlikely to develop to WHL standards.
But Lucic’s story shows that with a little luck, a ton of dedication and a refusal to give up on the dream, there’s always a chance a scout could be in the stands watching and taking note.
Playing minor hockey in a lesser-known area of Vancouver, Lucic was an afterthought at the draft. Instead of walking away from the game or resigning himself to the fact he simply didn’t have the skills to move ahead with his hockey career, Lucic opted to join the Jr. B Delta Ice Hawks, who happened to play where the Giants’ practice rink was.
“We were out watching a kid named David Rutherford play and Lucic was in the game,” explained Bonner. “He had a fight that night and did very well for himself as a young guy. He looked like he was at least going to be a physical presence.”
The Giants got lucky and signed the 16-year-old Lucic after that game.
Lucic’s play took off early in October and he was rewarded with a promotion around Christmas to join the Jr. A Coquitlam Express of the British Columbia League and even joined the Giants for a few practices throughout the season.
“When he first came out to practice as a 16-year-old he looked like he was going to be a project player for Don,” Bonner recalled. “By the time he came up at 17, he’d come leaps and bounds; he was an everyday player. He grabbed a physical role that first year, fought anyone and everyone, but his skills kept getting better and better because he’s so eager to learn.”
After his first WHL season, the Boston Bruins selected Lucic in the second round (50th overall) of the NHL Entry Draft. He returned to Vancouver about two inches taller and with 15 more pounds of muscle.
A third-liner who put up nine goals in 62 games in his rookie season, Lucic not only returned stronger in his second season, but he “figured out the league,” as Bonner described. Lucic’s hard work paid off and he exploded with 30 goals in 70 games. He even earned a spot on Canada’s gold medal-winning world junior squad.
As Lucic proved in Vancouver and continues to show in Boston, anything is possible if you want it bad enough.
Players who are passed over in bantam rarely go on to have impactful WHL careers, let alone NHL ones, but it does happen. It takes a keen scouting eye and the willingness to take a risk on a player who was missed by everyone, but it’s often those underdogs who are driven to achieve that pay off the most.
“He’s a kid who we were fortunate to have and another kid on our team, Spencer Machacek (Atlanta’s top pick in 2007), who was the same age and came along almost the same way,” said Bonner. “Those guys played huge roles in our franchise. Neither was drafted in the bantam draft, both were scheduled to be captains of our team; when Milan made the NHL, Spencer took over the ‘C’ from him and they’re best friends.”
A Scout’s Life is a weekly look at the world of minor and pro scouting throughout North America. Each week we’ll talk to different scouts from all levels of the game, getting a first-hand perspective of the different aspects of talent evaluation.