Draft difficult to predict after top picks

From Montreal to Minnesota, from the lofty to the lowly, it'll be business as usual at this weekend's annual NHL entry draft in Raleigh, N.C., the ultimate exercise in whistling past the labor graveyard.

With current NHL players already making plans to play abroad or run in marathons or look after the kids when the 2004-05 season is put on ice in mid-September, the draft weekend will offer starkly different images of the state of the game -- the promise of the future in the form of almost 300 young men whose lifelong dreams will be realized when their names are called through nine rounds on Saturday and Sunday, against the backdrop of a future that is uncertain at best and bleak at worst.

Considered in isolation, this draft stands to vary little form others in form and content. There will be backroom politicking and last-minute deals, perhaps including a blockbuster deal for one of the top two picks. Teams will leave satisfied they have stocked the organizational pond as well as circumstances allowed and there will be inconsolable young men in wrinkled suits on Sunday afternoon whose names will never be called.

"The draft for us has been the lifeline," Nashville Predators general manager David Poile said. "And it will continue to be until you show me something different."

Added John Ferguson Jr. who will be presiding over his first draft as general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs: "It's an exciting day. There's great hope and optimism. Make no mistake, it's a critical, critical weekend."

There is debate about the depth of a class of youngsters that promises two "can't-miss" Russian stars at the top, a handful of top-flight goaltenders, three of whom could go in the top 15, and a whole lot of "what ifs" and "maybes" in the middle.

"The top two Russians are certainly big talents and they've certainly separated themselves," said Vaughn Karpan, director of amateur scouting and the point man at the Phoenix Coyotes' draft table.

"They stand in a class of their own," added Carolina general manager Jim Rutherford.

Already there is intrigue about the respective destinations of Alexander Ovechkin, a stunning talent at 6-foot-2 from Moscow Dynamo who, at 18, was named to Russia's World Cup of Hockey squad, and countryman Evgeni Malkin.

Ovechkin's coming has been foretold for the better part of two years, yet in recent days the Washington Capitals, owners of the coveted No. 1 pick, have surprised some by suggesting Malkin, a 6-foot-3 center may have shot past Ovechkin in their estimation.

Other scouts across the NHL share a similar view.

The Chicago Blackhawks, who own the No. 3 pick and seemed destined to select Medicine Hat defenseman Cam Barker, have made noise that they'd like to move up, perhaps continuing the recent tradition of top picks being flip-flopped on the eve of the draft.

Stay tuned.

Then there are the goaltenders.

Top-ranked North American goaltender Al Montoya will continue his path towards becoming the first Cuban-born player to play in the NHL with a top-10 selection. However, he may well be the second goaltender called to the podium Saturday if, as scouts predict, Czech netminding phenom Marek Schwarz can convince GMs he does in fact possess some of countryman Dominik Hasek's unorthodox gift for puck-stopping. Canadian Devan Dubnyk is the dark horse of the goaltending sweepstakes. The 6-6 Kamloops Blazers linchpin was the Western Hockey League's netminder of the year and is expected to be Canada's keeper at this year's World Junior Championships.

Given this kind of depth, even teams that seem to be well stocked at goal may take a chance on one of the top-notch netminding prospects available, arming themselves for future, more lucrative deals.

"If Montoya's still there at 10, that's a pretty appealing pick regardless," said Atlanta general manager Don Waddell, who already has arguably the top goaltending prospect in the game in Kari Lehtonen.

After that, who knows?

The balance of the first round and beyond includes long lists of players with terrific up sides but with faults big and small that have kept scouts guessing all season long.

"It doesn't mean those players aren't going to play," Karpan said.

But there hasn't been the traditional separation of groups of players -- i.e. a discernible top 15 or the group making up the last third of the first round and so on -- which in turn has made it more difficult to come to a consensus on a predraft list both from team to team and overall.

Given this wide variance in assessment, it's quite possible a player listed at No. 10 by the Thrashers may be 20th on the list of the team at the next table or higher, depending on when scouts law saw the player and whether he was seen as a player whose stock was on the rise in the second half of the season. Regardless, the dynamics are in place to spark a flurry of in-draft deals.

"I expect there will be movement. There is every year," Ferguson Jr. said.

Whether the Leafs are in the midst of that movement will depend on the complicated relationship between economics and available talent, all considered against a backdrop of uncertainty.

"If there is a deal to be made," for the here and now and for the future, that deal will be made, Ferguson said, repeating the mantra of every NHL general manager.

Whether that means trying to re-stock Toronto's badly depleted pool of prospects and draft picks or bona fide NHL players, "we're going to consider everything," Ferguson said.

Still, all of the debate over potential seems somehow presumptuous, at the very least surreal, given the league appears poised to embark on a labor stoppage that will put the game at risk on a host of levels, from the number of franchises to its presence in the United States. Some general managers predict teams looking to shed payroll in advance of the new CBA -- teams like the Dallas Stars, St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche and Detroit Red Wings -- will be looking to move players they know they aren't likely to tender qualify offers. Waddell suggested teams might end up moving a proven third- or fourth-line NHLer for a deep draft pick just to create economic room on their roster.

"You're going to see some bizarre deals," Waddell said.

The irony is that teams that appear to have positioned themselves judiciously, assuming some sort of salary cap (the owners' vision) or luxury tax (the players' preferred poison), are the ones that traditionally have been sellers in this kind of market. Now, they may find themselves looking to take advantage of the mistakes of their more bloated neighbors.

"We're buyers in that market for sure," Waddell said.

Other GMs, like Detroit's Ken Holland, expect draft weekend to be quiet in terms of movement of NHL-ready players.

"Personally, I expect quiet. One or two or three moves to me is quiet," he said.

Regardless of what lies ahead, the Raleigh draft is really about what has been done in the past. Hundreds of scouts have scoured damp arenas, swallowed bad coffee and ate lukewarm hotdogs in every corner of the hockey globe, in order to produce reams of data that has be assessed and collated and tabulated and hammered into lists at 30 different draft tables.

"This year's draft work is already done, based on this year's results," said Karpan.

For these men, though, there is also uncertainty. Even if the NHL game grinds to a halt, the games will continue in those same drafty, often remote, arenas in Trencin and Saratov and Windsor and Salmon Arm. While many NHL teams already are laying off employees, planning to reduce costs wherever possible, the rest of the hockey world will continue to turn.

"What happens to the pool of players we're scouting now?" asked Karpan. "Is there going to be a draft (next June)?"

Will the next draft be in the summer of 2006 and be two classes deep?

If the anticipated lockout drags through the middle of next season it's expected most teams will try and reduce travel costs thus altering established scouting patterns. Holland, whose scouting staff has uncovered late-round gems like Pavel Datsyuk (171 in 1998) and Henrik Zetterberg (210th in 1999), said the initial plan is to keep the entire scouting staff in tact. Still, for a team with an $80-million payroll that yielded a second straight short and disappointing playoff run nothing is certain.

"I don't think you can talk to a man on the planet that can give you a game plan," Holland said.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.