For Blackhawks, hard work takes the guesswork out of the NHL Draft
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Sometime after lunch Saturday, the smattering of fans left in the United Center for the NHL Draft will start getting antsy. As no-name after no-name is announced in rapid-fire succession — from microphones on the team tables dotting the floor, as nobody even bothers to walk up to the lectern to announce them at that point — the die-hards will scroll through their phones. They’ll get up and walk around the concourse. Maybe they’ll wander outside to partake in the fan festival.
This isn’t the NFL, where fans are familiar with dozens, if not hundreds, of draft-eligible prospects. It’s not the NBA, where there are only two rounds and almost every name is known. It’s the NHL, where the average U.S. fan has heard of two or three of the 217 names that will be called. It’s all kids from far-flung junior leagues in Canada, from all over Europe, from under-the-radar college programs in the United States.
For fans, the draft is more about the wheeling and dealing that goes on with all 31 general managers under the same roof. But for Mark Kelley, the head of the Blackhawks’ scouting department, every pick is crucial and has his undivided attention.
The NHL Draft is one of the great crapshoots in sports, and aside from the occasional generational talent such as Patrick Kane, Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews — the general consensus is no such player exists in this draft — you never know what you’re going to get.
Or when you’re going to get it.
‘‘Those picks matter a lot,’’ Kelley said. ‘‘The value of a draft comes in the depth of it. And whether we go in with a first-round pick or not, we go in with an expectation that we’re going to come out of there with players that will play in the NHL someday.’’
Sure, the Hawks got Kane at No. 1 overall in 2007 and Jonathan Toews at No. 3 the year before that. But they also got Dustin Byfuglien in the eighth round — a round that doesn’t even exist anymore — in 2003. Troy Brouwer was a seventh-rounder in 2004. Niklas Hjalmarsson was a fifth-rounder in 2005. Ben Smith (sixth round, 2008), Marcus Kruger (fifth round, 2009) and Andrew Shaw (fifth round, 2011) all have their names on the Stanley Cup. Even Duncan Keith and Brandon Saad weren’t first-rounders, both passed over more than 40 times.
And for every hidden gem, there are countless examples of fool’s gold. The Hawks’ first three picks in the 2008 draft, including 11th overall selection Kyle Beach, have combined to play in one NHL game.
‘‘It really doesn’t matter when you’re drafted,’’ Hawks forward Vinnie Hinostroza said. ‘‘You see guys that aren’t even drafted make such a big impact sometimes. If anything, there’s less pressure when you’re drafted later. Once you’re playing pro, you don’t really think about when you were taken.’’
Hinostroza should know. He and his dad spent all day in the stands at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh in 2012, waiting to hear his name called. Despite a broken arm that kept him out of the scouting combine, Hinostroza was confident he’d get taken. But as the day wore on, he started getting anxious.
Even for a high-end prospect such as Ryan Hartman, who was told he likely would go between 15th and 30th during the 2013 draft, the wait can be agonizing.
‘‘It’s a nerve-racking day,’’ Hartman said. ‘‘It determines your entire future, where you’re going to be living the next three, four, five years. As it goes on, it’s kind of a crazy feeling. Every time a GM announces a name, your nerves start filling up. ‘Is it going to be me?’ You get that rush that you’re going to get picked with every pick. You get nervous, then it’s not you, then you drop back down and then it builds right back up again.
‘‘It’s like baseball: You get ready for every play, and then nothing happens. Then once in a blue moon, the ball comes to you.’’
For Hartman and Hinostroza, once the Hawks — their hometown team — took them at 30th and 169th overall, respectively, none of that mattered.
After he was taken, Hinostroza was whisked backstage to take some pictures with a nameless jersey and briefly met general manager Stan Bowman and Kelley. He gave them his phone number and email address, and that was pretty much it. Hinostroza and his dad drove straight home. He didn’t have to sign anything. He didn’t even meet coach Joel Quenneville.
‘‘When Chicago called my name, I was really excited,’’ Hinostroza said. ‘‘But then I just realized how much work was ahead of me to get to the NHL. You take a step back and realize how much progress you’ve made but how far you have to go.’’
A handful of players drafted next weekend will play in the NHL next season, maybe only one or two. That’s what makes the process so difficult, so involved for Kelley and his ilk. They’re drafting boys, not men. Advanced analytics don’t always translate from hyper-offensive leagues such as the OHL and WHL, so it’s about studying the players’ games, habits, skill sets and mental makeup. Projections come from countless games seen in person and on film by the vast scouting staff and from formal interviews and casual conversations with players, parents, teammates and coaches. Years of work go into making that sixth- or seventh-round pick.
In theory, Bowman has the ultimate veto power on every pick. But he and Kelley spend all season hashing out various scenarios, breaking ties and building their draft board, so there’s a well-thought-out consensus on every pick. Every now and then you get lucky, and a player you covet falls all the way to No. 39, as OHL wunderkind Alex DeBrincat did last year. Sometimes you catch wind that another team has its eye on a player you want, so you pull the trigger to package some future picks to move up a few spots.
But by the time the Hawks set up their war room in a hotel starting Tuesday — like the players in the playoffs, they’re sequestered all week to eliminate distractions — there are few surprises on draft day. It’s the next three to five years when the surprises — good and bad — happen.
‘‘We work it all year,’’ Kelley said. ‘‘And by doing that, we try to take the crapshoot out of it.’’
Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.