How do you judge the success of a high draft pick? The Penguins are certainly happy they tabbed goalie Marc-Andre Fleury with the first pick back in 2003, while the Maple Leafs love defenseman Luke Schenn for his physical game, knowing he’ll likely never quarterback a power play.
But when it comes to forwards, it’s always about points, isn’t it? Looking at past issues of THN’s Draft Preview, it’s easy to claim we should have ranked Bobby Ryan higher than Benoit Pouliot or Devin Setoguchi ahead of Ryan O’Marra (and the results of the draft back that up), but what about valuable players with intangibles?
Phoenix Coyotes center Martin Hanzal is the perfect example. In his third NHL campaign, the Czech pivot is once again on pace to tally 30-40 points on the year. Horrible, right? Not so fast. Hanzal is using his 6-foot-5, 218-pound frame to keep the opposition off the scoreboard and his plus-minus has improved each season, so who cares if he’s not putting up the big numbers he did as a junior in the Western League?
It’s all well and good that Hanzal posted 85 points in 60 games with the Red Deer Rebels in 2006-07, but a lot of youngsters can score in junior; not many of them become valuable shutdown centers in just their third NHL campaign. In fact, most of them don’t even make it to The Show. While Hanzal scored his 85 points the season after he was drafted in 2005, Alex Bourret and Marek Zagrapan tallied similar numbers the year prior. Both were selected ahead of Hanzal; neither has played an NHL game to date.
I think Phoenix is pretty happy with their decision right now.
Maybe part of the problem is the definition of “best player available;” that innocuous phrase that often dominates draft talk. It was well established before the 2008 draft that Vancouver Giants center James Wright was a premier shutdown pivot in the WHL – I had mentioned him on The Hot List, so if I knew it, all 30 NHL GMs certainly knew it, too.
But with 36 points in 60 games, Wright wasn’t an offensive wizard in his draft year. In Draft Preview, one scout was quoted as saying, “he’s a big, solid player, but not very dynamic.” We had Wright ranked 48th overall; Tampa Bay took him with the 117th pick that year.
Now, of course, Wright is a teenager in the NHL. Earlier this season, he was charged with trying to get Vincent Lecavalier on track – yep, not the other way around – the coaches thought Wright could help Lecavalier.
The youngster has two goals and four points in 15 games, but more importantly is plus-3 on a team where accomplished veterans such as Lecavalier, Martin St-Louis and Stephane Veilleux are all minuses. Wright staked his claim to a roster spot early in Tampa and is rooming on the road with fellow mature-beyond-his-age rookie Victor Hedman, clearly indicating the Bolts brass didn’t think either player needed a babysitter.
If you went by stats alone, neither Wright nor Hanzal would be considered successes at the NHL level. But ask the fans and coaches of those teams what they think of the youngsters and I’m sure they’ll take the pair over many in their peer group any day of the week.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Monday and Wednesday, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his prospect feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.
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