Jay Bouwmeester was the third overall selection in 2002 and immediately started playing in the NHL. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
In advance of the NHL’s draft this weekend, I talked to a team scout about some of the players expected to go early Friday and just what it takes for 18-year-old kids to make an NHL squad these days.
A number of factors come into play: Skill and smarts are obviously important, luck of the draw definitely plays a roll, but, ultimately, money is the deciding factor.
“Our first round pick last year ended up playing in the league,” he said, “but we never expected him to when we picked him. Part of it was the fact he came into camp and looked real good and part of it was that we just had injuries.”
Most teams keep kids in junior at least one year after being drafted and would prefer further seasoning in the American League so they can play in all situations and work on being “The Man.”
But more and more now, teams must balance development with the economics of a salary cap and franchise growth.
With unrestricted free agency now attainable after seven NHL seasons or at 27 years of age, accelerating kids to the show is about more than simply their ability to play; it’s about planning for the future. Think about Jay Bouwmeester this summer. He’s just 25 and has been in the NHL since he was 18. Florida is likely to lose him for nothing come July 1.
“It depends,” said the scout when asked about losing a year or two of service by playing teenagers, “if you’re going to be able to give them ice time on your roster, then that’s fine.”
Because in a salary cap world, quick development is king with young players – it’s imperative to get them and their relatively cheap salaries to the big league rather than having to sign more expensive veterans. However, that comes with the provision that the green player must be developing.
“If you’re going to have an 18-, 19-year-old kid on your roster, he’s going to make mistakes no matter what,” the scout said. “But (it’s important) that he’s not either watching from the press box or getting one to two shifts per period, he’s not going to develop.
“It’s just weird with the salary cap now, you know?”
As for the top candidates from this week’s draft to hit NHL ice next October, the scout expects both John Tavares and Victor Hedman to play in the league in 2009-10, because the teams likely to pick them – the Islanders and Lightning – need players now.
But as for the order they’re picked, he sees Tavares going No. 1 – just not for the reasons some might think.
“That was my thought exactly,” the scout replied when asked whether the financially floundering Islanders basically have to pick Tavares because his name can create buzz and help move merchandise. “You almost can’t go by that guy. You know, all of those external factors.
“(But) if you look at the way the two guys play, I think Hedman would be our first pick, No. 1 overall. I think a lot of teams would (take Hedman), but it’s tough to go past the consensus No. 1 without people shaking their heads…Put a face on the franchise.”
So while in the NHL development usually trumps economics, at least one pick Friday will be all about the Benjamins.
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