Steals of the Draft

The purpose of the NHL Entry Draft is to give clubs the opportunity to restock the organizational cupboard with a new crop of available talent. And, of course, the teams that finish lowest in the standings the previous season gain a critical advantage, getting to choose before their more successful competitors.

In some years, there is a universal understanding of the value of the available players, with the likes of Alexander Ovechkin (2004) and Sidney Crosby (2005) the undisputed top prospects in their respective drafts. But when the field is as wide-open as this past weekend’s draft in Columbus, questionable approaches taken by certain teams can lead to an incredibly inefficient marketplace. And as a result, when all is said and done, a good number of the teams picking earlier end up squandering what could have been a critical edge.

During the first round on Friday night, two very skilled prospects saw their stock drop precipitously a la Cleveland Browns quarterback Brady Quinn. Russian forward Alexei Cherepanov fell all the way to number 17, where the Rangers scooped him up in the steal of the draft, while Angelo Esposito was improbably still available when the Penguins stepped to the podium at number 20. And in both cases, the players’ fallen status was largely beyond their control.

For Esposito, it was simply a matter of the departure of highly skilled linemate Alexander Radulov. With the Quebec Remparts in 2005-06, Esposito and Radulov were a dynamic tandem, Radulov scoring a Crosby-like 152 points in 62 games to help lead the Remparts to a Memorial Cup championship. Radulov left for the Nashville Predators this past season, and Esposito’s production predictably dropped (from 98 points in 57 games to 79 points in 60 games).

Meanwhile, the same experts who downgraded Esposito also saw fit to widely agree that both Patrick Kane (Chicago Blackhawks, first overall) and Sam Gagner (Edmonton Oilers, sixth overall) were bona fide top ten picks. However, Kane and Gagner played together this past season for the London Knights, along with Montreal Canadiens prospect Sergei Kostitsyn, on what was quite probably the finest forward line in Canadian junior hockey.

Needless to say, separating that trio would have severely diminished their production, making it fair to wonder whether Esposito’s precipitous drop was all that deserved. Now, he will get to play alongside top-tier talents like Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal, and it’s quite likely that the supremely talented Esposito will make his naysayers regret snubbing him.

Even more mind-boggling was the situation surrounding Cherepanov, quite possibly the finest player available in the draft, period. He was absolutely brilliant for Team Russia during the World Junior Championships in January, emerging as the finest forward particating in that tournament. And while playing for Omsk in the Russian Super League—a boy competing amongst men—he broke Pavel Bure’s rookie goal-scoring record. But because Russia has opted not to include itself in the NHL’s transfer agreement with the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), a number of teams were clearly scared by the prospect of trying to get Cherepanov under contract.

In reality, Cherepanov’s situation isn’t all that complicated. He has two years remaining on his contract with Omsk, but is planning to leave after just one more season. As Russia’s labor laws are currently written, he needs only to provide his team with two weeks’ notice and he’ll be free to depart for North America at any time. And even on the off chance that the law changes, a creative marketing agreement between Omsk and the NHL team holding his rights would likely have been enough to facilitate Cherepanov’s early departure (imagine, if you will, Omsk jerseys emblazoned with Cherepanov’s name and number available for purchase in the Rangers’ team store).

Now, to be fair, certain NHL clubs lack the prestige and fiscal resources needed to successfully complete such a deal. And while Cherepanov might well have been the best player available at this draft, it’s certainly fair to say that top three selections Kane, James Van Riemsdyk (Philadelphia Flyers), and Kyle Turris (Phoenix Coyotes) are all in the same ballpark, and that the lack of a transfer deal with Russia was enough to justifiably sway those teams in a different direction.

But when the well-heeled Los Angeles Kings stepped to the podium and selected defenseman Thomas Hickey with the fourth overall pick, it set the entire marketplace out of whack. Ranked 26th amongst all North American skaters by Central Scouting Services, Hickey would probably have still been available 20 spots later, which means that the Kings unnecessarily wasted an incredibly valuable asset.

Put bluntly, the Kings are in desperate need of the star power that Cherepanov could have provided them. Even if they felt they absolutely needed to shore up their blue line, at least five other defense prospects would have been better choices. And if they were certain that Hickey was their man, they should have traded down 15-20 spots, either to acquire a prospect, a roster player, or some additional picks later in the draft. Even if Hickey does turn out to be a solid NHLer, picking him so early demonstrated a complete lack of understanding of the marketplace.

And so Cherepanov slipped, past the Boston Bruins at number eight, the Montreal Canadiens at number 12, the Colorado Avalanche at number 14, and all the way down to the Rangers at number 17. GM Glen Sather and his entourage could barely hide their Cheshire grins, for Cherepanov is poised to become a huge star on Broadway. And if he has a sense of humor about things, he’ll wear #17 with the Rangers. Not only would it remind the 16 GMs who passed on him what they’ve missed out on, but it’d serve as additional and constant motivation for Cherepanov as he works to develop into a top-tier NHLer.

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