Draft sets stage for NHL success

Last year's top pick, Nathan MacKinnon of Colorado, showed how important draft picks can be. Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Claude Loiselle didn't really hear the Detroit Red Wings call his name that June day in Montreal back in 1981.

The Windsor Spitfires star had been projected to go in the first round of the '81 draft, and when the first round ended and he didn't hear his name, Loiselle was disconsolate.

"I was thinking, 'Oh, my God, I'm never going to get drafted,'" Loiselle recalled with a laugh. So when the Red Wings announced his name with the second pick of the second round -- making him the 23rd overall pick in the then-21-team league -- Loiselle was in a bit of a daze.

"My dad had to elbow me," Loiselle said.

He would go on to play 616 NHL regular-season games and score 92 goals. He would enjoy long playoff runs with the Devils in 1988 and the New York Islanders in 1993 before going into a career in NHL management. And when Loiselle, now the vice president and assistant general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and his colleagues gather in Philadelphia for the 2014 draft, he will look over the hundreds of eager young faces in their new suits and appreciate the moment, especially for those who have to wait long into the draft.

"It breaks my heart when you see those players in the seventh round, and they're still up there with their families and they're good players," Loiselle said. "They just want to hear their names called."

In many ways, the draft represents an annual gathering of the clans. All 30 NHL teams converge on one city, with pro and amateur scouts and the directors of player personnel and general managers and assistants all gathering for what is the most important part of the season for perhaps every team.

"It is an organizational summit," Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill said.

This is when seeds are sown that for some will blossom down the road into perennial playoff teams and even champions. Not to go all "Lion King," but the draft is the circle of life in the National Hockey League, or at least the renewal of the circle of life.

Loiselle guaranteed with a laugh that every team will say at some point, "I can't believe he was there," when making a pick.

"It's a great time of hope for all the teams," Loiselle said.

Finding the hidden gems

One of my favorite draft stories came up earlier this spring when I was doing a piece on Anze Kopitar shortly before he won his second Stanley Cup championship in three years with the Los Angeles Kings.

Former scout Grant Sonier, now the general manager of the Charlottetown Islanders in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, described scouting Kopitar and how at the 2005 draft the Kings had Kopitar ranked as the No. 3 overall prospect. Los Angeles was picking 11th, though, and thought it had no shot at Kopitar.

But when the Vancouver Canucks picked Luc Bourdon with the 10th pick and Kopitar was still available, Sonier kicked fellow scout Al Murray so hard under the Kings' draft table Murray nearly fell out of his chair. The Kings got it right, of course, and everywhere this weekend scouts will be pushing for a player they believe might become their Kopitar or Henrik Zetterberg or Pavel Datsyuk.

Nill was at the Detroit draft tables when the Wings repeatedly came up with the proverbial diamonds in the rough: Datsyuk with the 171st pick in 1998; Zetterberg at 210 in 1999; Tomas Holmstrom at 257 in 1994. The Red Wings rarely drafted anywhere near the top of the first round thanks to their winning ways during that time, but the mandate was still the same, Nill said: Find good players who could help the team, no matter where the Wings were drafting.

"Those were special players. But at the time we didn't know that. You don't know it until three or four years down the road," Nill said.

This year's draft will be Nill's second as the GM of the Dallas Stars. It has been a period of evolution for someone who used to be one of the guys who put eyes on hundreds of youngsters at hundreds of games every season. Living in Detroit, he could see junior, college, AHL and NHL games all within a few hours' drive. Not so in Dallas, and his job description precludes those kinds of trips anyway.

Just as longtime Detroit GM Ken Holland had to trust Nill and his scouting staff to identify the right players for the Red Wings, Nill now has to step back and convey that trust to the Stars' staff.

"I had to hand over the reins," Nill said. "If you're going to be a manager, you're going to have to let it go."

And those who are quick to criticize (or praise) a team's GM for his work at drafting and developing should remember this: If it's working properly or not, the GM likely has far less to do with the actual selections than most people think.

Still, that doesn't change the fact that the draft is where teams are made and where they are lost. This period of time "is going to determine a big part of your season next year and moving forward for the next three or four years," Nill said.

Like Nill, Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen walked many a mile as a scout/draft guru for the St. Louis Blues and Ottawa Senators before taking over briefly as president and GM of Finnish elite league team Jokerit. Then he was asked to take on the Columbus Blue Jackets' job in February 2013. All those years putting together draft lists for other GMs taught Kekalainen one thing.

"I've got to stay out of the way," he told ESPN.com.

Kekalainen reads the reports and sees prospects at various times throughout the season, but he knows his view is only a part of the overall picture when it comes to drafting players. His staff will have a much better handle on various players' strengths and weaknesses, and that's why "I just keep my mouth shut," Kekalainen said.

"The draft was always our Stanley Cup and our time to shine," Kekalainen said. "It's a great time for the scouts and it's an exciting time for everybody as a whole," Kekalainen said.

Exciting? Sure. Easy? Not so much.

Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon -- who in 1970 was selected second overall by the Vancouver Canucks thanks to a spin of a roulette wheel that saw the Buffalo Sabres select Gilbert Perreault first overall -- likes a little rancor within his scouting staff, if not at the draft table itself then in the meetings leading up to the event.

"It's important that they [the team's scouting staff] have chemistry," Tallon told ESPN.com. "But I also want strong opinions. I don't like guys that are passive that are just looking at building consensus."

He recalled his first draft as an NHL executive with the Chicago Blackhawks back in 1999, the year then-Vancouver GM Brian Burke managed to select twins Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin in the draft. Tallon recalls heated discussions at that draft about how the Blackhawks were going to pick.

"We had some stubborn guys that fought hard for their guys," he said. "There were a lot of different opinions on a lot of different guys."

"I was like, 'Wow, is this going to be the way it is every year?'"

A year ago, Tallon's Panthers faced a hard decision with the second overall pick, and there was debate until shortly before the staff left for the draft itself about what the Panthers would do.

The Colorado Avalanche took Nathan MacKinnon with the No. 1 pick, as expected, and Florida took big center Aleksander Barkov ahead of Jonathan Drouin and defenseman Seth Jones, who had the pedigree and skill set to go at No. 1 overall.

Tallon has his hands full again this year: Should he keep or trade the top overall pick? Do the Panthers use it and take one of a group of three or four good, but not necessarily franchise-altering, players? Or trade it for a player or players who are more NHL-ready? As has been his pattern since becoming a GM, Tallon will try to stay out of the way and let director of scouting Scott Luce lead the proceedings.

Florida's scouts have a list of 130 players, and each scout has been asked to come up with a plan for moving down and to identify which players he'd take in that scenario.

"We've got all of the scenarios covered," Tallon said.

Now they just have to make sure they make the right choices no matter the scenario.

Tom Fitzgerald, recently promoted to assistant general manager after working in player development and as an assistant to former Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero, agrees with the team-within-a-team philosophy at the draft table, even though the Penguins are in a very different place than the Panthers at this point.

"That's exactly what it is," Fitzgerald told ESPN.com. "But in a different locker room."

Every time a Pittsburgh scout goes on the road, there is an element of competition: Does a certain player fit the team's criteria for being a Penguin? Then, at the draft, "you watch [scouts] battle and they compete for their guy," Fitzgerald explained.

It would seem self-evident, but anyone who doesn't think the draft is crucial to a team's evolution didn't watch closely enough this spring as the Kings won their second Cup in three years.

Yes, Kopitar led all players with 26 points and Jonathan Quick -- another Kings prospect turned star -- again made huge saves at crucial moments. But the contributions of other homegrown players such as Alec Martinez, who scored the Cup-winning goal in double overtime, Jake Muzzin (a Penguins draft pick originally but developed by the Kings), Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson were every bit as important and speak to a team that is built for the long haul.

The fresh memories of the Kings' Stanley Cup parade underscore the importance of this weekend's draft and the excitement and pressure that will grip each of the 30 tables on the floor of the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.

Pressure on scouts

According to Kekalainen, it's quite simple: The only way to get impact players in the NHL is through the draft. Other teams aren't going to "donate" them, Kekalainen told ESPN.com this week. Throw in the basic math of the draft, and you begin to understand the pressure teams feel to get it right, and the consequences if they don't.

Let's say a team has five or six picks in a given draft, and the reasonable expectation is that maybe two or three of them will become viable NHL players. That means the hundreds of games and many hundreds of players seen by scouts around the world must be boiled down to those five or six picks, and only a couple will end up being bona fide NHLers.

"It doesn't sound like much, maybe, to the people out there," Nill noted.

This isn't to say that the scouts are autonomous agents operating in far-flung lands a la the CIA. No, scouts are tethered to their teams in NHL cities, and it's up to management to ensure that even though the front office may not see the scouts for months at a time, the team's identity is being reflected in the players they're targeting for the draft.

"You have to communicate to the scouts what kinds of NHL game is being played because it's changing all the time," said Loiselle, who has worked as a scout with the Anaheim Ducks, was part of the Tampa Bay Lightning's management team, and also worked for the league before taking on his current post with the Leafs.

By the time draft day arrives, GMs have to be careful that they aren't unduly influencing the proceedings because they've seen a player a handful of times, perhaps at the World Junior Championship or in the NCAA tournament, events that may not reflect how the prospect has played all season. That's why the player profile that's been built all season is so important, Loiselle said.

From the scout's perspective, the more picks the better. They are emotionally invested in these players, and when teams trade picks -- like when the Leafs acquired Dave Bolland at last year's draft in return for a second-round pick and two fourth-round picks -- there is a letdown.

"In the past, we've traded away picks and your scouts are going, 'Damn.' You hate doing it to your scouts, but they understand why you're doing it," Loiselle said.

Although the Leafs have traditionally been flayed for their poor drafting and development of players, the current team in Toronto is a reflection of a significant change in that regard despite the disappointment of falling out of the playoff race late last season.

The Leafs' American Hockey League affiliate, the Toronto Marlies, are coming off a couple of strong seasons, and this year the Marlies lost in the conference finals to the eventual Calder Cup winner the Texas Stars. And the lineup is dotted with promising homegrown talent.

Back in Pittsburgh, someone recently sent Fitzgerald a picture from the day the New York Islanders took him 17th overall in the 1986 draft, with Fitzgerald standing next to legendary Islanders GM Bill Torrey. Fitzgerald would enjoy a long relationship with Torrey through their shared years with the Islanders, and then in Florida.

Last year Fitzgerald sat in the stands in New Jersey with his own family, waiting to hear his son's name called by an NHL team. It happened when the Boston Bruins made Ryan Fitzgerald the 120th overall pick.

"Now I know how my parents felt," Fitzgerald said. "It's your day. That's your day. That's your family's day."

It's the circle of life, hockey style, for the teams gathered on the floor as they try to create a new future, and for the boys and their families in the stands who hope to be a part of that future.