Teams, prospects could lose out in draft chaos

Philadelphia Flyers general manager Bob Clarke called it "a potential nightmare for a lot of clubs."

Agent Mark Guy said it could be "a real logjam" and "probably won't look like anything that has happened before."

Said one scout about juggling all his reports: "Everybody's job is getting more complicated, so ours had to, I guess."

They're all talking about the NHL draft.

You'd be tempted to say "the 2005 NHL draft," but no one can say with any certainty that it will even take place this year. In March, the league canceled the festivities slated for June in Ottawa but has yet to announce a contingency plan. League officials have gone on the record with a guarantee that an entry draft will take place prior to taking the padlocks off NHL locker rooms, but in the absence of collective agreement, who knows?

"It could and should be this year," Clarke says. "But could it be canceled completely and not happen until [June 2006]? I don't think that you can rule anything out at this point."

While nobody knows exactly what the league will look like when it reopens for business, team executives, agents and players have some idea of what they're up against with the next draft – and it ain't pretty.

Selection order is a contentious issue, thanks to major junior phenom Sidney Crosby's status as the prize. A few league sources said the current working model borrows equally from the bingo hall and the MIT math department – every team in the league would get at least one ping-pong ball in the tumbler, while the number of balls each team receives would be determined by a complicated formula that would factor in results over the last several seasons.

Another prickly issue is the 2003 draft. That's right, 2003. Under the last collective agreement, junior players drafted at age 18 but not signed by June 1 of the second year following their selection reentered the draft. Now, with the NHL prohibiting teams from signing any players during the lockout, more quality prospects than ever could be available in the next go-around.

"In a normal year, there'd be 10, maybe 15, reentries of any real significance," Guy says. "But this year, right now, with the NHL embargo on signing players, there are less than 60 players signed out of the 2003 draft. Even if there's a window for teams to sign the 2003 draftees before the next draft, you could be looking at dozens of players reentering."

The first four players selected in 2003 already are locked up and have put in time in the NHL: goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and forwards Eric Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes, Nathan Horton of the Florida Panthers and Nikolai Zherdev of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Some other prominent juniors also signed with their draft clubs before the embargo, including Red Deer Rebels defenseman Dion Phaneuf (Calgary Flames).

But other well-known juniors remain unsigned, including Minnesota Wild draftee Patrick O'Sullivan, a center with the Mississauga Ice Dogs of the Ontario Hockey League and the U.S. under-20 team, and Edmonton Oilers first-rounder Marc-Antoine Pouliot, Crosby's linemate with the Rimouski Oceanic.

Two of the most prominent names among the unsigned 2003 draftees are unlikely to reenter: forwards Jeff Carter and Mike Richards.

Both players were selected by the Flyers in the first round, Carter was picked 11th, Richards 24th. Both players are two-time members of Canada's world junior team. In Grand Forks, N.D., in January, Carter made the tournament's first all-star team and Richards captained the squad to the gold medal.

After their junior teams were eliminated in the Ontario Hockey League playoffs last month, Carter and Richards signed American Hockey League contracts and joined the Philadelphia Phantoms, the Flyers' affiliate. The Phantoms advanced to the conference finals with Carter as their leading postseason scorer. The consensus among scouts is that Carter and Richards both could have stepped into the NHL if arenas hadn't gone dark last fall.

Clarke says there's no way he'll allow his organization's two best prospects to fall back into the draft.

"They're both high priorities for us," Clarke said. "I think that they want to play for us and we definitely want them. They're going to get the cap – whatever the next [collective agreement] allows for – and there won't be that many details to iron out."

But Clarke says things will not be so clear-cut for other organizations and their 2003 draftees.

"Whenever we [get] back to business, every GM is going to have a lot of paper on his desk and a lot of contracts to do – veterans and juniors," he says. "How many of [the 2003 draftees] can get signed really depends on how much time the teams have and how much the GMs have to work with.

"Nobody knows how that's going to play out. I don't know that we won't have one draft next year [2006] that would include all the kids who'd normally be drafted from two [draft classes] plus the unsigned kids from 2003 [and 2004]. All I know is that even if we're just dealing with the reentering kids and the ones who'd be eligible [as 18-year-olds] in 2005, there are going to be so many players that some good ones will fall through the cracks and get left behind."

Another Eastern Conference GM described a "four-in-one" draft in 2006 as "unlikely." The GM did admit, however, that a hastily pieced-together draft before the NHL relaunch would be "a train wreck."

"We're going to be on the clock and up all night with our calculators just to get our veterans signed up," the GM said. "The last thing we'll get around to is kids from a previous draft. If [negotiations] aren't done quickly, a lot of teams will probably just let players re-enter and be subject to the terms of the next collective agreement."

One particularly contentious scenario would have a 2003 draftee, without a draft to re-enter, challenging the expired CBA clause in court in order to be declared a free agent.

Said one agent: "There aren't any rumbles out there now about who might do that, but it's not likely to be one of the first or second-rounders [from 2003]. If there's a challenge, it would be more likely to come from the later rounds, [from] a player who probably played better than projected ... and would be hurt most by a crowded draft."

One player who fits that profile is Brad Richardson, a forward with the Owen Sound Attack of the OHL and a fifth-round draft choice (163rd overall) by the Colorado Avalanche in 2003.

"Richardson played like a first-rounder this year," one Western Conference scout said. "He might be hurt in the draft by the numbers of players re-entering – if he's not taken as high up, that would hurt him as far as a bonus and salary and it would affect what he could make for a good chunk of his career. I'm not saying that [Richardson] would go to court but he's the type of player who'd really be hurt with the scenario we're looking at."

Gare Joyce is a Toronto-based freelance journalist and a regular contributor to ESPN The Magazine.