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Daft Draft: Remembering the many misses of the 1996 NHL draft

Ken Campbell
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Pavel Datsyuk. (Tom Pidgeon/Allsport) Author: The Hockey News

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Daft Draft: Remembering the many misses of the 1996 NHL draft

Ken Campbell
By:

Scouting is an imperfect science at best. At worst? It’s the 1996 first round, which turned out to have about as much talent in it as your local beer league

Even the man who discovered Pavel Datsyuk has no idea where ‘The Magic Man’ was playing during the 1995-96 season. That’s because Hakan Andersson never even laid eyes on Datsyuk until two years after that. If you’re ever looking for more proof that drafting young athletes is the most inexact science in the world, consider Datsyuk. Then look at the 1996 NHL draft. It’s generally regarded as one of the weakest ever. To be sure, it has its share of first-round clunkers. But its status would have been enhanced had people thought to scout a skinny 18-year-old kid in Yekaterinburg, a city on the border of Asia where Czar Nicholas II and his family were slaughtered by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

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Datsyuk was eligible for that draft 20 years ago, and if we only knew then what we know now, Ottawa would have undoubtedly taken him first overall. As it turns out, Datsyuk was taken 171st in 1998. That’s 557 picks and two years after the Senators took Chris Phillips No. 1. Nobody could have known that Datsyuk would become one of the best two-way players ever, since he was about 150 pounds at the time. Andersson, who watched him play for the first time two years later, wonders whether people in Russia even knew about Datsyuk.

“That was my biggest concern that year,” Andersson remembered. “I saw him play, and I really liked him, but I thought that if he got picked by the world juniors team, then everybody would know about him. He worked really hard at both ends, and he was good with the puck.”

The 1996 draft, meanwhile, is one a lot of teams would rather forget. Of the 26 players taken in the first round, only four met or exceeded expectations. Almost half (11) failed to play 100 games in the NHL. Two players (Jeff Brown and Craig Hillier) didn’t see a single NHL game, while three others (Alexandre Volchkov, Mario Larocque and Matthieu Descoteaux) played fewer than 10 games. The draft did, however, produce a lot of steady, workmanlike guys who played a long time in the league. But the only real star of the bunch, and the only one from the ’96 draft likely to get to the Hall of Fame, was defenseman Zdeno Chara, taken in the third round by the New York Islanders. Solid and hardworking was the way hockey had become around that time. It was the beginning of The Dead Puck Era™.

In fact, scoring in the NHL had dropped from 6.28 goals per game in 1995-96 to 5.84 goals per game the following year. Within two seasons, teams were averaging just 5.26 goals per game. That’s not the only reason for the dearth of dynamism in that draft. Scouts would have taken scorers if they had been available, but it is interesting that the first two picks were Phillips and Andrei Zyuzin, two players who turned out to be defensive defensemen.

The draft was chock full of those guys, with 13 defensemen going in the first round. Of all the players taken in the first round – or the entire draft, for that matter – the only one who turned out to be an offensive force was Daniel Briere, taken by Phoenix 24th overall. It would have been different had somebody known about the skinny little guy playing in Yekaterinburg.

Here’s how the first round looked back in 1996, accompanied with what the scouts had to say about each player in our 1996 Draft Preview.

1996 FIRST ROUND

1. CHRIS PHILLIPS, D, OTTAWA: “He’s not going to be an offensive superstar, but he’s got everything you would want in a defenseman.”

2. ANDREI ZYUZIN, D, SAN JOSE: “Better offensive upside than Phillips…he has a ton of talent.”

3. J-P DUMONT, LW, NY ISLANDERS: “He’s a tremendous passer, has a great release and a knack to score.”

4. ALEXANDRE VOLCHKOV, RW, WASHINGTON: “Better do a thorough character check on this guy.”

5. RICHARD JACKMAN, D, DALLAS: “This kid has a chance to be a really good NHL defenseman.”

6. BOYD DEVEREAUX, C, EDMONTON: “He’s just a real solid player.”

7. ERIK RASMUSSEN, C, BUFFALO: “I wonder about his hockey sense.”

8. JOHNATHAN AITKEN, D, BOSTON: “You wonder if Aitken is the next big defenseman to come out of Medicine Hat and be a disappointment.”

9. RUSLAN SALEI, D, ANAHEIM: “He may be the most ready to play right now.”

10. LANCE WARD, D, NEW JERSEY: “He does a good job without any fanfare.”

11. DAN FOCHT, D, PHOENIX: “He’s so mobile and so bleepin’ big, how can you not be drawn to him?”

12. JOSH HOLDEN, C, VANCOUVER: “He’s a feisty, competitive kid with excellent offensive skills.”

13. DEREK MORRIS, D, CALGARY: (Not projected in top two rounds, wasn’t profiled.)

14. MARTY REASONER, C, ST. LOUIS: “He is a very good player. His talent is undisputable.”

15. DAINIUS ZUBRUS, RW, PHILADELPHIA: “This kid has presence and charisma and talent oozing from every pore.”

16. MARIO LAROCQUE, D, TAMPA BAY: “He’s physically immature.”

17. JAROSLAV SVEJKOVSKY, RW, WASHINGTON: “He’s just a fabulous goal scorer. He scores all types of goals.”

18. MATT HIGGINS, C, MONTREAL: “He has the best hockey sense (in the draft). You go to war with this kid.”

19. MATTHIEU DESCOTEAUX, D, EDMONTON: “A poor man’s Chris Hajt.”

20. MARCUS NILSON, LW, FLORIDA: “You don’t have to beat me over the head with a stick to sit up and take notice of this guy.”

21. MARCO STURM, C, SAN JOSE: “He’s really quite aggressive.”

22. JEFF BROWN, D, NEW YORK RANGERS: “What he offers isn’t bad at all.”

23. CRAIG HILLIER, G, PITTSBURGH: “He’s the best goalie in the draft. He has no major weaknesses.”

24. DANIEL BRIERE, C, PHOENIX: “What’s going to happen when he hits the NHL level and every player is big and strong?”

25. PETER RATCHUK, D, COLORADO: “He’s a fast, highly skilled defenseman who is still physically immature.”

26. JESSE WALLIN, D, DETROIT: “He really impressed with his consistency through most of the season.”

1996 FIRST ROUND REVISIONIST HISTORY

1. PAVEL DATSYUK, C (171st overall by Detroit in 1998)

2. ZDENO CHARA, D (56th by NY Islanders)

3. DANIEL BRIERE, C (24th by Phoenix)

4. TOMAS KABERLE, D (204th by Toronto)

5. PAVEL KUBINA, D (179th by Tampa Bay)

6. DEREK MORRIS, D (13th by Calgary)

7. MARCO STURM, C (21st by San Jose)

8. CHRIS PHILLIPS, D (1st by Ottawa)

9. DAINIUS ZUBRUS, RW (15th by Philadelphia)

10. SAMUEL PAHLSSON, C (176th by Colorado)

11. MICHAL ROZSIVAL, D (105th by Pittsburgh)

12. MATT CULLEN, C (35th by Anaheim)

13. MATT COOKE, C (144th by Vancouver in 1997)

14. J-P DUMONT, LW (3rd by NY Islanders)

15. CORY SARICH, D (27th by Buffalo)

16. WILLIE MITCHELL, D (199th by New Jersey)

17. SAMI SALO, D (239th by Ottawa)

18. MARK PARRISH, RW (79th by Colorado)

19. TONI LYDMAN, D (89th by Calgary)

20. RUSLAN SALEI, D (9th by Anaheim)

21. TOM POTI, D (59th by Edmonton)

22. ERIC BELANGER, C (96th by Los Angeles)

23. MARTY REASONER, C (14th by St. Louis)

24. CRAIG ADAMS, RW (223rd by Hartford)

25. MATHIEU GARON, G (44th by Montreal)

26. BOYD DEVEREAUX, C (6th by Edmonton)

This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the Draft Preview edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.

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Daft Draft: Remembering the many misses of the 1996 NHL draft