Several hours before the NHL Entry Draft began, San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson was saying how the trade talk leading up to the event had reached the kind of fever pitch he had never heard.
“A lot of teams are exploring,” Wilson said before adding prophetically, “but I don’t expect many of them to come to fruition.”
Too bad because big eye-popping and sometimes head-scratching deals, you know the kind Mike Milbury used to specialize in, are really what makes a first round compelling. Sure there are always one or two or maybe even three players that create the necessary pre-draft buzz because they get a lot of hype in Canada, but the reality is that there is only a small circle of experts, many of them belonging to the scouting fraternity, have actually seen them play. So whatever potential a process designed for down the road has to excite people, particularly those in the lower 48, would come from injecting some big name wheeling and dealing.
Unfortunately, that didn’t happen in Los Angeles tonight, although most of the general managers helped in another way by usually cutting to the chase and announcing their pick without any preamble. Still the way things played out wasn’t bad if you look at it from perspective of the league’s efforts to grow the game in the U.S.
It’s actually been a great season in that regard in large part because Team USA got hockey on the radar again at the Olympics and the Stanley Cup Final featured two of the league’s biggest markets in Chicago and Philadelphia. But maybe just as important, if not more so, the grassroots development of hockey in the United States took major steps this season and the process reached a new high point at the draft.
USA Hockey’s development programs had already produced gold medal teams at the World Junior Championships in both the Under-20 and Under-18 categories this season, but the story got even better when the scene shifted to Hollywood and a record 11 Americans were drafted in the first round. Two of them even came from California and one of them, Emerson Etem, actually ended up with a local team, albeit the wrong one considering the venue and the fact that he ended up with the Anaheim Ducks.
Etem went at No. 29, nine picks after the Pittsburgh Penguins picked a native of Gardenia, California, Beau Bennett. The right winger who might one day play his trade alongside Sidney Crosby, is heading to Denver University next season where he will continue to develop the skills he began honing as a kid on roller blades.
The other Americans took up the game in a more traditional way including goalie Jack Campbell of Port Huron, Michigan,, one of the Stars of Team USA’s World Junior gold team. He was the first U.S. born player taken when he went to Dallas at No. 11 and it opened the floodgates for Americans, who were chosen with 10 of the next 19 picks.
Central Scouting had eight U.S. players among the top 30 North American skaters and Campbell among the goalies,so the American windfall wasn’t much in the way of a surprise. Then again not much about this draft was enough to make anyone go ‘hmmmm.’
Taylor Hall went first overall as expected to Edmonton and Tyler Seguin was a no-brainer for Boston with the second pick, and even Erik Gudbranson wasn’t an out-of-the-blue pick by Florida. The fact that defensemen Cam Fowler and Brandon Gormley fell to 12 and 13 respectively after being projected to go in the top five raised some questions, and two first-round choices – Joey Hishon to Colorado and Kevin Hayes to Chicago – were not expected to be taken until much later in the draft.
But for the most part, most first-round projections went at or very near the slot they were expected to. And that’s not a bad thing.
Especially for U.S. players.