The thing about draft day is that most of us don’t really know what we’re talking about. You, me, even most of the guys in the newsrooms, all of us- we’re almost all relative idiots when it comes to the draft. Sure, at the deadline or UFA day, we can be pretty sharp. We watch the NHL a lot, we read about it, we know the players and the teams and the market, we can form some grounded, objective analyses. But when we talk about the draft, even smart, serious, knowledgeable hockey people are apt to talk out of their nether regions more often that not. Like goaltending, understanding the draft takes a kind of knowledge one doesn’t just pick up from zealously following the Show and catching a couple of major junior playoff games. You don’t just grow draft wisdom with age and observation. You have to make a serious study of it, and few of us have the time and patience to do so.
Because, frankly, it takes a crazy amount of time and patience. Draft studies and the related disciplines (which include scouting, prospect development, organizational depth evaluation, and probably a few other areas I haven’t thought of right now) are among the most esoteric subspecializations in hockey. Developing expertise in these fields takes years and years of concentrated attention, in-depth research, and painful personal experience- diligence which often must come at the expense knowledge about other areas of the game. Most hockey people let their focus drift from topic to topic through the year: this week we’re all interested in prospects, next week we’ll all be obsessed with general management, in a month every one of us will develop a deep fascination with labor negotiations. Drafting specialists can’t do that. They’re thinking about prospects today and they’ll be thinking about them in October and they’ll be thinking about them in March. They’re thinking about next year’s prospects and the year after that and the year after that, they’re thinking about scrawny fourteen-year-olds who are still eating dinner with their parents in suburban kitchens every night, players who are still children, whose names the rest of us won’t hear until 2015. They’re watching games and following stats from a dozen leagues and two dozen tournaments around the world every year. Understanding drafting isn’t dilettante’s work. It’s a full-time job. I imagine that most prospect specialists react to the general coverage of draft day the way Mayan archaeologists reacted to the “End of the World in 2012 stories”- thrilled that so many outsiders suddenly care so much about their field, frustrated that so few of them actually get it.
Hypothesis: most of us don’t understand drafting because most of us aren’t very good at thinking about hockey in terms of la longue durée.
La longue durée- the long-term. French historians of a certain bent use the phrase to describe the slow, subtle spans of historical time, the processes of social and economic transformation that underlie the dramatic upheavals and conflagrations on the surface of human events. Traditional narrative history writing takes place in spans of a few months or a few years- this war, that battle, this queen, that rebellion. La longue durée history writing traces an idea, a technology, a movement for centuries on either side of the short, hot moments.
Hockey is too young to have processes that go on for centuries, but it has it’s own version of la longue durée. Most of hockey time is cyclical time, the wash-rinse-repeat rotation of the season. Most of the stories we tell begin in October and end in June. But there are longer stories, less dramatic, less thrilling, harder to understand. Understanding the draft means following those kind of stories.
In fact, draft day is the momentary intersection of two such threads of long, slow narrative: the development of players and the evolution of teams. A boy may have a breakout season at seventeen, something thrilling that we all can see, but the substance of who he is as a player was being formed for ten years before that and will continue developing for another ten after. A team may have a terrible year in 2012, but much of the foundation of that year was laid in 2008 and it is itself only setting the stage for 2016. For a few teams and a few players, what happens tonight in Pittsburgh will affect their immediate destiny, but for most of us, this is just a single bright moment suspended between a past we weren’t paying attention to and a future we can’t imagine yet. Five years from now we will look back and find that most of what we thought today was wrong. We’ll lament the superstar defenseman who went three slots below our team’s first-round pick and gloat over the shockingly steady goalie we picked up in sixth. For those of us who don’t really get hockey’s longue durée, the draft will always be a mystery, and our analyses will always look foolish in the end.
Personally, I’m okay with that. When it comes to the draft, analysis should be left in the hands of the specialists, who’ve been watching, tracking, and researching these players since the cradle. For the common fan, the common media member, it’s enough to know some basic principles- take forwards high, defenseman and goalies low, don’t overestimate what you saw at the WJHC- and trust central scouting for the rest. There is no greater waste of time than trying to develop and sustain an intensely-held opinion about a field of study one barely grasps a hundredth of. If you’re not the estimable Corey Pronman, save your opinions for UFA day. When it comes to the draft, just sit back and enjoy.
Because, despite its incomprehensibility, despite its mystery, despite the fact that you know somewhere somehow something is happening Pittsburgh today that’s going to fuck your team badly four years from now, the entry draft is still the happiest day of the hockey calendar. Nobody loses on draft day. Sure, you could screw it up if you really want to, you could go up to the podium with the first overall pick and take some elephantine overage defenseman from the WHL who makes even Pierre Mcguire cringe, but few teams are ever so stupid as to do anything obviously self-destructive at the draft. For the most part, teams pick pretty close to the consensus, nobody goes too far off board, and everybody gets something good.
Everybody gets something good. How often does that happen in the NHL? How often do you have a moment where every team, no matter how great or terrible, high or low, profitable or insolvent, just gets something for free? Only on Draft Day. At the Entry Draft, there are no sellers, no tankers, no failures. Nobody gets fired, nobody quits, nobody gets destroyed. Everyone is buying, everyone is building. YOU get a new right wing and YOU get a new right wing, EVERYBODY gets a new right wing! Everything is grinning GMs and teary moms and teenagers beaming awkwardly down their sticks in promo photos, and media fluttering around with softball questions, trying to figure out who are going to be their best quote-buddies for years to come.
Some days hockey is a game and some days hockey is a business, but draft day is one of those rare, sweet moments when hockey is a family. It’s like going to your cousin’s wedding- sure, if you think about it, it’s just one single moment in the whole length of a very complicated life, something involving all sort of deep and complicated shit you could not hope to understand. But you don’t need to understand. You’re not there to understand. Just smile big, raise your glass, and celebrate the mystery.