Going off the board

(Gregg Forwerck, Getty Images)

With the NHL draft just a few days away, I have devoured every draft ranking available, pored over experts’ mock drafts, and perused lists of potential sleeper picks. I picked up the special Draft Preview edition of The Hockey News and read through all 60 player profiles on TSN’s draft rankings. I’m not sure that I’ve actually learned anything, aside from decided that mock drafts would be a lot more entertaining if they were accompanied by William Hung and his Hung Jury.

I simply don’t have the time to watch any of these prospects in their various junior leagues, so I have to depend on the experts. And yet, even the experts will be surprised once the 30 teams start making their picks.

Things will start off according to the script: Nail Yakupov will most likely go first overall, with the rest of the top 5 likely filled out by Filip Forsberg, Ryan Murray, Matt Dumba, and Mikhail Grigorenko. Somewhere in the top 10, however, a team will go off the board. A player who was expected to go later in the first round will find himself walking up to the stage as a top 10 draft pick.

Meanwhile, some highly regarded prospect will fall lower and lower in the first round because of some supposed defect in his game or personality. Perhaps it will be Grigorenko for being too “Russian” or one of the many top defencemen will slide down simply because there are too many of them.

Some off-the-board picks work out just fine. In 2010, the Carolina Hurricanes made Jeff Skinner the 7th overall pick in the draft, when he was ranked 34th among North American skaters by Central Scouting. Other experts and scouts had him higher in their rankings, but it was still a surprise to see him taken in the top 10 as highly-touted defencemen Cam Fowler and Brandon Gormley slipped past to 12th and 13th.

Two years later, no one is questioning picking Jeff Skinner.

The fact is that each team has their own scouting staff and own priorities. Each team has their own criteria and emphasis: some teams want players with character, while others want grit and attitude. Some look for size, other teams don’t care. Some teams will pass on a player with question marks in the defensive zone, while other team will look for high-end offensive ability and trust the defensive side of the game to come with time and good coaching.

They create their own draft lists that may not resemble those of the experts in the slightest. So while their fans and the members of the media are scratching their heads at passing by some of the players that are still available, a General Manager and his team of scouts may be rejoicing that their preferred player can still be picked. The Hurricanes had Skinner ranked above Gormley and Fowler on their own lists, despite the two defencemen being near-consensus top-five picks on everyone’s draft rankings.

Sometimes, however, the teams should stick with what the majority think. That seems to be the case with the Kings and Thomas Hickey, who was ranked as the 26th best North American skater by Central Scouting but was surprisingly named the 4th overall selection of the 2007 draft. Hickey has now played 3 full seasons in the AHL and has yet to see a single game in the NHL. Meanwhile, Vyacheslav Voynov and Alec Martinez have passed him on the depth chart and played every single game in the playoffs for the Kings’ Cup run. Even Jake Muzzin got a chance to skate with the Cup.

While it’s entirely possible that Hickey will have a successful NHL career, the Kings left bonafide NHL defencemen like Keaton Ellerby, Karl Alzner, and Ryan McDonagh on the board, despite them all being ranked higher by Central Scouting and most experts.

This is why going off the board is such a frightening proposition for a team’s fans. The best you can hope for is that your team’s scouts have seen something in a player that others have missed and that their risky move will pay off. There’s something to be said for avoiding the safe pick and swinging for the fences. But people tend to forget that the homerun swing generally leads to a lot of popups and easy outs.

Once we get past the first round, the off the board selections will become more frequent as GMs use the later rounds to take a chance on a player they like. Last year, my Vancouver Canucks went off the board in the third round, picking a player who wasn’t even ranked by Central Scouting: Alexandre Grenier. A 19-year-old who had played just one year in the QMJHL, Grenier wasn’t on anyone’s radar, sending everyone scrambling to find out who he was and why he was picked by the Canucks.

The only draft ranking I could find with Grenier on it was from Eldon MacDonald of The Next Ones, who had him ranked 98th overall, right around where he was picked at 90th. It seemed that the only people who liked Grenier were Eldon, a self-professed “hockey fan” rather than a scout, and the Canucks.

The 6’5″ late bloomer followed up his draft year by going a point-per-game for the Halifax Mooseheads as an overage player, finishing second on the team in scoring. Now, instead of going the traditional ECHL/AHL route to the NHL, he’s spending a year in Austria, signing with the Salzburg Red Bulls. It’s a nontraditional choice for a player who was an unexpected draft pick to begin with. Will he end up in the NHL and make Mike Gillis and his scouting staff look exceptionally clever or will he spend his professional career in Europe and make the Canucks wish they had made a safer choice?

On Friday and Saturday, nothing will be decided. Teams will take risks and go off the board, while others will thank their lucky stars and pick the players they pass over, but we won’t know who made the right choice for years to come.