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Top Shelf: High picks not enough to reach higher ground

If the Sens surrounded their supreme talents in Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley with a quality supporting cast they might not be struggling to stay afloat. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)

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If the Sens surrounded their supreme talents in Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley with a quality supporting cast they might not be struggling to stay afloat. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)

Tear it down. Blow ’em up. Cut it to the wood.

All of the above are popular refrains of the disenfranchised fan who believes the best path to glory for their favorite franchise is through a handful of can’t-miss, top-of-the-class draft picks.

But the more you look around the league, the more you realize the folly of this sentiment. High picks are to NHL GMs what miracle diets are to the lumpy couch potato; sure, they can give you an immediate jolt, but if you want sustainable results, you have to hit the gym.

In the case of NHL GMs, you need your scouts to scour gyms, arenas and any other place you’d expect to find a burgeoning hockey player who has yet to be spotted or has, at the very least, been underrated. That way, your ability to select impact players isn’t restricted to the 20 minutes immediately following the chorus of boos Gary Bettman receives right after saying, “Welcome to the NHL draft.”

Want three examples of why you don’t need famine in order to feast in the NHL? Start with Detroit, San Jose and Boston, also known as the three best teams in the league.

The highest any of those clubs have chosen since 2000 is No. 5, which is where the Bruins got Phil Kessel in 2006. Boston has selected in the top 10 on two other occasions over that time frame, while San Jose has three top-10 picks, the highest coming at No. 6 (Milan Michalek). Detroit, as you’d expect, has none.

All of those teams got to the top – and can expect to stay there – because they’ve done an exceptional job of drafting in the mid-to-late first round and beyond.

To provide a little contrast, examine the plight of the Ottawa Senators, a team with many supporters who want to sink the ship and start again.

Once upon a time, the Sens were among the NHL’s best at unearthing draft gems. In 1997, they nabbed Marian Hossa with the 12th overall pick. Two years later, with the 26th selection, they grabbed Martin Havlat.

But Ottawa’s depth has been undermined by its inability to continue finding players of that quality.

In the virtually idiot-proof first round of 2003, Ottawa drafted Patrick Eaves 29th overall. Boston took Patrice Bergeron with the 45th pick and Nashville hit a home run with Shea Weber four slots later at No. 49.

The year before that, in 2002, Ottawa took Jakub Klepis No. 16 overall. Oops.

(Warning: If you’re not a Red Wings fan, you might not want to read the next paragraph.)

Detroit, meanwhile, has drafted Niklas Kronwall, Jiri Hudler, Tomas Fleischmann, Valtteri Filppula, Johan Franzen and Kyle Quincey since 2000. The highest pick of that group was Kronwall, who went 29th in 2000.

San Jose can’t boast a resume like that, but it is getting great mileage from the likes of Ryane Clowe, Christian Ehrhoff, Joe Pavelski and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, none of whom went before the second round in their draft years. And when they had a higher pick in 2005, the Sharks made it count by calling Devin Setoguchi’s name at No. 8.

In Boston, Milan Lucic and David Krejci – two recent second-rounders – are at the heart of the Bruins’ resurgence.

I’m not bringing this up to spray a snow shower in the face of downtrodden Sens fans. No team scans the results of past drafts without the occasional, violent palm-to-forehead motion. I’m simply saying if you believe a series of high picks is a surefire way to build a winner, think again.

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Ottawa is an especially unique case because unlike other NHL clubs currently serving as doormats, it has got three elite-level players in Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza and captain Daniel Alfredsson. Had the Sens drafted three or four players with the ilk of Lucic, Vlasic or Franzen over the past few years, we’d still be talking about them as Cup contenders right now.

I completely understand why bottom-feeders like the Islanders, Atlanta, St. Louis and Toronto are drooling at the prospect of drafting a John Tavares or Victor Hedman. Those teams are, to some degree, devoid of talent and need a new cornerstone around which to build.

But being bad and picking very high for a number of years does have its perils.

First of all, the boom only comes after a bust and who knows how many fans a prolonged down cycle alienates if you’re not in a market where hockey is the undisputed No. 1 sport.

Secondly, at some point you’re going to be paying out a huge amount of salary to a small portion of your team. For example, the Chicago Blackhawks will have to pony up for both Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews after next season when their entry-level deals both expire.

With Brian Campbell already raking in about $7.1 million per season, how much money are the Hawks going to have left under what’s sure to be a falling cap in 2010-11 when they have to fork out huge dough for their top two forwards? Those three players plus Cristobal Huet will essentially eat up half of Chicago’s cap space. That puts a lot of pressure on management to provide the supporting cast at a reasonable cost.

Want further proof a series of high picks doesn’t guarantee results? The Pittsburgh Penguins are playing with two No. 1 picks (Sidney Crosby and Marc-Andre Fleury), two No. 2 selections (Jordan Staal and Evgeni Malkin) and one No. 5 pick in Ryan Whitney in their lineup.

Pittsburgh did make the final last year, but lost to a Wings team that was deeper than the Pens because of their incredible tendency to find quality players from all over the world. Then, one of the Pens’ best players, Marian Hossa, left town for Detroit because of the Wings’ ability to perennially contend. Guess how they do that.

Now Pittsburgh is in a life-and-death battle to make the playoffs, partly because it hasn’t drafted any natural 25-goal scorers in the later rounds who would be 35-goal scorers if they were playing beside Crosby.

Fans of struggling teams can cry for a complete rebuild if they want, but a steady diet of top picks can leave you with nothing more than a bloated salary cap if you’re not supplementing it with a nice dose of hidden gems.

Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears Fridays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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