A Look Back Before Looking Ahead
The NHL Entry Draft is an event ripe with optimism and potential for all 30 teams, as well as many armchair GMs. The 2007 installment (beginning on Friday night, June 22nd, in Columbus) has extra intrigue since there is no consensus number-one overall pick. Interestingly, the Chicago Blackhawks hold the first pick – an organization not known historically for its good choices. Rather than look ahead to this year’s draft, let’s review the 2006 version and its impact.
Two players from last year’s draft – Jordan Staal of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Phil Kessel of the Boston Bruins – appeared in the NHL last season.
Jordan, the third of the Staal brothers (Marc hasn’t yet appeared in the NHL and spent last season honing his craft in Sudbury of the OHL while oldest brother Eric defended his Stanley Cup championship in Carolina), was taken second overall and not expected to make the Penguins out of training camp. Not only did the 18-year-old center make the team and have an impact, he ended up being a finalist for the Calder Trophy. Staal scored 29 goals (tied for second among all rookies) and led the entire league with seven shorthanded goals. Additionally, he provided excellent defense and penalty killing as part of the Penguins’ magical 47-point improvement in the standings.
On the other end of the rookie spectrum was Kessel, taken fifth overall. The talented 19-year-old had an uneven start to his NHL career, accumulating just nine points in his first 27 games. Kessel’s hockey career became the least of his worries when he and his family shocked the sports world in early December by announcing he required surgery for testicular cancer. Thankfully the surgery was successful and Kessel returned to the Bruins lineup in early January with a clean bill of health. He went on to score 20 points in 43 games while also netting three shootout goals, all game winners. For the season, he finished in a six-way tie for second-place overall in the league with four shootout game winners.
The remaining three of last year’s top five picks are now under contract and certain to make their mark in the NHL. Last year’s number-one overall pick, Erik Johnson, opted to leave the University of Minnesota after one season to man the blue line in St. Louis. The 6’4’’ hulking defenseman will play a major role in the Blues rebuilding process. Third-overall pick, Jonathan Toews, decided to sign with the Blackhawks after showing the world in the IIHF World Championships last month that he could not only play with men, but contribute as well – scoring seven points in nine games playing alongside the likes of Rick Nash while helping Team Canada win gold. Toews instantly will help a Chicago team greatly lacking down the middle. The same can be said for Nicklas Backstrom (taken fourth overall) in Washington. The Caps have been salivating to line up the talented Swede at center with the dynamic Alexander Ovechkin after Backstrom has led his Swedish Elite League team in scoring the past two seasons.
It’s unlikely any of this year’s top picks will have a season quite like Staal enjoyed in Pittsburgh. Diminutive winger Patrick Kane (ranked second among North American skaters by Central Scouting) likely is the only player who could step into an NHL lineup this fall. Kane’s 5’10’’, 160-pound body may not yet be ready to withstand the beating of a full NHL season quite like Staal, who stands at 6’4’’ and 215 pounds. Of course, no one expected Staal to play a full season in Pittsburgh last season, so what do I know? Only four more months until we begin to find out…