As far as foot-in-mouth stories go, this was my worst. It’s late 2011, and I’m in Sarnia to oversee a photoshoot featuring Alex Galchenyuk and Nail Yakupov. Both are highly touted for 2012 draft, but Galchenyuk is hobbled by a knee injury that will keep him out of all but two games. Gamely, the youngster takes part in the shoot despite a brace on his leg. I try to make small talk with the American-Russian teen. “You must be excited about the world juniors, eh?”
A pall descends on the conversation as Galchenyuk politely reminds Idiot Ryan the knee injury will keep him from going for gold with Team USA. I apologize and do not attempt any more small talk. But here’s the positive to my anecdote: Despite the injury, Galchenyuk was drafted third overall by Montreal and, the next season, helped Team USA win gold at the WJC. In fact, Galchenyuk turned out to be one of the best players in that draft. Right up there with him would be the No. 5 pick by Toronto – Morgan Rielly. Coincidentally, Rielly also missed most of 2011-12 with a knee injury, but the Leafs still took him early. Not that Rielly was kicking back in rehab. “I was concerned,” he said. “You’re a young kid going through something you’ve never gone through before. You want to be a part of your draft year – to compete, to prove yourself.”
Which brings us to Nolan Patrick, the fantastic all-around center for the Brandon Wheat Kings. You may have heard of Patrick, the consensus top prospect for 2017, but you haven’t seen much of him lately. That’s because Patrick was laid up most of the season after sports hernia surgery in the summer, and, like Galchenyuk, Patrick will be forced to miss the World Junior Championship due to his injury. Hockey Canada announced as much on Monday, adding that no replacement has been named for the 18-year-old. And with Windsor’s Gabe Vilardi also struggling through injuries in his draft year, we’re seeing 2012 all over again.
Injuries are tricky for prospects. The main concern, as one scout told me, is whether or not the malady is chronic in nature. That was the fear with Tyler Benson last season. The Vancouver Giants pivot had a painful cyst on his back, then a lower body injury that torpedoed his campaign. One GM I spoke to at the combine pointed out Benson lost essentially a year of development and that was a strike against him. But in the end, Edmonton stepped up and grabbed Benson 32nd overall. So far, he has rewarded the Oilers with a bounce-back campaign in the WHL.
But I can’t say injuries mean nothing in drafting, because we’ve seen the flipside. Brett Connolly missed nearly his entire draft year with a hip injury but still enticed the Lightning enough for them to pick him sixth overall. Connolly did put up points in his next year of junior, but he never turned into an impact NHLer. He’s now on his third franchise in Washington. Was his development path altered by the hip problem, or did the injury obscure his ceiling? These are the questions that keep scouting directors up at night.
As of now? Patrick and Vilardi are great bets to go high in 2017. Since Patrick’s September birthday caused him to miss eligibility for the 2016 draft by mere days, he has a track record already. And Vilardi was an impact OHL rookie whose latest affliction was an appendectomy, which only happens once. “We have lots of info on Gabe and Nolan,” said one scout. “You’re talking about players you could call ‘elite’ prospects.”
And there’s plenty of hockey to be played, especially for Vilardi, who is guaranteed an extended season since Windsor gets an automatic bid for the Memorial Cup as host.
Injuries are a part of the game, and they rarely happen at good times. But if history had been different and Galchenyuk played his full season with Sarnia, would he have gone first overall, before his teammate Yakupov? These are the fateful decisions NHL teams have to live with.