By Manny Budinger, Featured Columnist
Franchises in the NHL have 7 rounds to draft to what will hopefully become career players. The Entry Draft in essence gives teams the right to players who will be 18 by September 15 and no older than 20 by December 31.
The “right” is a term that varies for each player. For players competing in junior leagues (USHL, WHL, CHL, OHL, etc.), an NHL team has the sole right to sign them within two years of the draft date. Players that choose to play in the NCAA can be signed by the team that drafted them within six years of the draft date.
Late bloomers become free-agents, and fair game for any team after the age of 20 if undrafted or unsigned (unless still in college).
Each of the 30 teams is entitled to a pick in every round. The picks can be traded at any time, and like the NBA Draft, the Lottery picks hold a significantly higher value than the ones to follow.
Lotteries in the NHL are unlike the NBA Draft in the fact that there is only one winner (ironically just like a real lottery). Teams that did not qualifier for the Stanley Cup Playoffs (14) are ordered top to bottom based on the number of points earned in the previous year. The one team that wins the Lottery is only entitled to move up 4 spots, a safeguard against any one team throwing the season to get the top spot.
Maybe more so than any other professional sport, the top pick is coveted. In the last decade, Fleury, Ovechkin, Crosby, Kane, and Stamkos have gone number one.
Even the most recent draft picks are poised to staple their name to the game. John Tavares, 2009 number one, is nicknamed the “Next One” (also given to Eric Lindros and Sidney Crosby). Tavares has started the season with 7 goals and 11 points through 9 games.
The most recent number one, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has recorded 5 goals and 9 points through 10 games.
Career players are hard to come by after the first round. That’s not to say the later rounds are without any diamonds in the rough. Both Tim Thomas (Boston Bruins, G) and Tomáš Vokoun (Capitals, G) were drafted in the ninth round of the 1994 Draft, just nine picks apart.
Thomas won a Stanley Cup and the Conn Smythe Trophy last season. As the Capitals continue to contend, Vokoun has the potential to carry the torch for that legendary ninth round and do the same.
Every season, front offices around the league are forced to make a decision on their rookie draft picks.
NHL franchises have to weigh the benefits of keeping a player on the roster and losing a year towards their restricted/unrestricted free agency, or sending them down for more development.
If a draft pick plays 10 or more games, it counts as a year towards their restricted free agency, 40 games, and it counts towards their unrestricted free agency.
The NHL has an agreement to keep signed players that do not make the club in the CHL, as long as they still have junior eligibility status.
Rookies chasing the Calder Memorial Trophy this season will have to beat out the number one pick, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Edmonton). The player who has been the most proficient in his first year of competition in the NHL has been the first overall pick twice in the last six years.
Part of sustaining enough success to be coined the “Rookie of the Year” rests the shoulders of a prospect’s teammates. Not many expected Edmonton to contend this year, but their fast start has the team in first place in the North West. Ryan’s 9 points and 5 goals through 10 games is a bit serendipitous.
Nugent is a great puck handler, and his defensive awareness has helped the team maintain the lowest Goals Against Average in the League thus far. He has great vision, but the Oilers often have a tough time finding the net. If they can pick up their offensive production his assists will certainly benefit.
While the Oilers might not maintain this level of play all year, RNH has displayed that he can. Many believe RNH and last year’s number one, Taylor Hall, will soon become a Prime-Time center-wing combo.
Rookies who find themselves on teams that have a difficult time competing will naturally have troubles showcasing their skills.
Ryan Johansen will probably not be sent back down to juniors this year because he doesn’t have much to gain developmentally. However, the Blue Jackets slow as molasses 2-9-1 start certainly isn’t going to help Johansen’s cause.
With veterans Jeff Carter and Antoine Vermette playing center for the Jackets, Johansen will struggle to even find the time on the ice.
What defines a rookie season is having played at least 26 games in one campaign, or the second season in which a player has at least 6 appearances. Luke Adam is one of those guys you need to look up the rules just to make sure.
The Sabres center has worked his way onto the first line. A 2008 Draft Pick, Adam played just 19 games for Buffalo last season. While he has kind of a Will Ferrell “Old School” vibe, Adam has found tremendous chemistry with his line as a “rookie”. He’s already tallied 9 points while dishing out 6 dimes.
He’s certainly a dark horse in the Calder Race, but a candidate none the less.
Gabriel Landeskog is a name to remember. Scouts say he’s physically ready for the NHL, more so than anyone in his class. The 2nd Overall pick in 2011 has found the net four times in this young season, mostly because he’s taken an obscene amount of shots (2nd in the NHL thus far).
Described as a character guy, Landeskog is the type of player that makes his teammates better. He’s willing to get down into the dirty areas on the ice. One day he’ll be a captain, but for now his effort has helped the Avs to wins in six of the last seven road contests.
Gabriel has already played 10 games this season so he’s here to stay. Mentally tough and focused, losing won’t hurt his psyche. Keep an eye on him as the Avs try to avoid another season in the back of the pack.
Two years of college hockey in Madison did well to prepare center Craig Smith. The former Wisconsin Badger was drafted in the 4th round back in 2009 by the Predators.
He’s moving the puck well; five assists and three goals are good for 8 points on the season. He’s earned a spot on the team with his play, not his presence. Smith is another guy with 10 games under his belt that should be around this season. He’s currently working on the second line.
The Predators are a playoff team and that will certainly help Smith’s rookie’s campaign.
A pair of rookies are still on the ice in Philadelphia. They took different routes to the City of Brotherly Love, but Sean Couturier (8th overall, 2011) and Matt Read (by way of Bemidji State) are staying in the league for now. With 4 and 7 points respectively, the pair are being productive. Couturier is +5, Read +3.
The pair would be wise to learn all they can from the veteran Jaromír Jágr while he’s in Philly. The Flyers 39 year old right winger has two Stanley Cups, an MVP, and seven first team All-Star appearances.
Colin Greening (OTT), Raphael Diaz (MTL), Jake Gardiner (TOR), and Jonathan Blum (NSH) are other rookies seeing significant time on the ice this season. While these guys and more have the rest of the year to blaze their own trail, I believe 2012 is the year of the double-barreled last name. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is my pick for the Calder.