For the Edmonton Oilers and Buffalo Sabres, Friday’s first round of the NHL Draft in Sunrise, Fla., will be both easy and monumental. Edmonton will draft Connor McDavid. Buffalo will draft Jack Eichel. And both probably will have generational talents around which to rebuild their moribund franchises.
The Blackhawks have been there before, the course of their history altered by taking Jonathan Toews third overall in 2006 and Patrick Kane first overall in 2007. And they hope to never be there again.
“We’re hopefully never going to be picking in the top 10,” Hawks general manager Stan Bowman told the Sun-Times. “So we have to be prepared to find value on the outside.”
It’s been a hallmark of the Hawks’ success, building through the draft. Sure, Toews and Kane were game-changers. But the Hawks’ depth has come through savvy picks and player development. The NHL draft is a crapshoot; aside from the top few picks, very few players are locks. It’s more like baseball, where you’re picking 18-year-olds and projecting how they’ll play and look and act years in the future. And the Hawks have had great success in finding hidden gems.
They landed Brandon Saad (2011), Duncan Keith (2002), Corey Crawford (2003) and Bryan Bickell (2004) in the second round. They nabbed Niklas Hjalmarsson (2005) in the fourth round. They got Marcus Kruger (2009) and Andrew Shaw (2011) in the fifth round. Brandon Pirri (2009) was a late second-rounder. Ben Smith (2008) was a sixth-rounder. Dustin Byfuglien was an eighth-rounder in 2003; the draft is only seven rounds now.
“There’s no lack of depth on that hockey club,” said Montreal defenseman P.K. Subban, a superstar himself who was taken 43rd overall in 2007. “But you look at a lot of their players, it’s come through the draft. And they’ve drafted very, very well. The draft is interesting. You need a little bit of luck, as well. It’s not always about knowing, having all the knowledge about every player. Sometimes it is luck, and picking a guy that maybe you don’t think is going to be the player that everybody thinks he’s going to be, and it turns out to be a steal, right? So that happens. You need some luck and some good bounces, and they’ve had that.”
There were plenty of misses, too, from the first round on down — Kyle Beach, anyone? But nearly every season, the Hawks have had players from deep in past drafts step to the forefront and contribute. So while the Hawks don’t have a first-round pick among their seven selections this weekend — though a potential Patrick Sharp trade possibly could remedy that — that doesn’t mean they can’t find an impact player. Even if it takes a few years for that impact to be made.
Besides, beyond the top handful of guys, a dozen teams might give you a dozen wildly different draft boards. So while the Hawks dealt away their first-round pick for Antoine Vermette and their second-round pick for Kimmo Timonen (they have another second-round pick as compensation for losing Kevin Hayes to the Rangers last summer), it’s hardly the end of the world.
“It makes a difference,” director of amateur scouting Mark Kelley said. “But probably less significant of a difference than going from [No.] 20 to 40 than people would think.”
It’s a long game, particularly for stacked, contending teams like the Hawks. Keith and Hjalmarsson each spent two years in the AHL. Crawford spent five. Kruger spent two years in Sweden after being drafted. So when the Hawks pick based on need, it’s based on organizational needs. Not NHL needs.
It’s a luxury that teams in the top 10 — a spot Bowman never wants to see again —don’t have.
“After that, you’ve got a large group of guys, and you can get a guy at 40 that’s as good as a guy at 18 or 20 some years,” Bowman said. “That’s if you do a good job, which I think our scouts have done.”