Commentary: Handicapping the Field

You can look through every Central Scouting Service (CSS) ranking. You can study for weeks, even months. But the reality in hockey is that the NHL Entry Draft could be one of the toughest events in sports to handicap.

The NHL is absent of names like LeBron James. The league takes players before and during their collegiate career, not after, like counterparts football and basketball.

Even the ranking system is borderline a mystery — ranking draft-eligible players in four different categories: North American forwards and defensemen; North American goaltenders; European forwards and defensemen; and European goaltenders. Find me simplicity in all of that and I’ll pay you to be my NHL Draft guru.

Still, with all the factors stacked against me, I’m ready to make my case for who might go where, and more importantly, why.

There are a lot of factors involved. The CSS rankings are the tip of the iceberg. Every team has a staff of pro scouts traveling from arena to arena all looking to file a report on each and every available prospect. In the process itself, there’s a gray area. What if a team never sees a prospect? Can they rest on CSS rankings alone? And moreso, every individual team’s needs factor into the crop of players they take each and every year.

Another major factor is the impact college hockey has on each organization. There are teams like Edmonton that are comprised almost in the majority of college players. But there are others, based on the GM and scouts’ beliefs that turn their nose up at college players.

In any draft analysis for collegiate players, that’s where analysis should begin.

Some of college hockey’s friendliest teams on draft day include Buffalo, Montreal, Atlanta, New York Islanders, Edmonton, New Jersey, Anaheim and San Jose. These teams have proven track records for drafting U.S. collegiate hockey players, some even in early-round impact positions.

Using these teams as potential “solid” targets for draft collegians, let’s take a look at where each team will draft come Saturday.

5. Buffalo
8. Atlanta
10. Montreal
15. NY Islanders
17. Edmonton
19. Anaheim
21. San Jose

That’s a list of seven teams that I believe have solid interest in college players. Other teams can and most likely will buck the trend. You’ll find maybe a team or two that will venture into the college space, taking their chance on potential prospects. Those teams classify as unknowns, and for my purpose, I won’t even think about them in handicapping this field.

So looking at the nine pre-determined teams, let’s take a look a which players might fit well.

Buffalo being the top team on the list could seem a lock for Minnesota’s Thomas Vanek. It was in HSBC Arena that Vanek opened many eyes, scoring the game-winning goals in each of the Gophers two Frozen Four games as Minnesota capture the national title. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the new ownership group venture out to a college prospect as its first overall. So I place Vanek number five.

Three spots lower is Atlanta with GM and former collegian Don Waddell calling the shots. He’s gone on the record in saying that he understands the value of college influence on player development. Nashville could be in perfect position to take incoming freshman Ryan Suter, placing him seventh.

Montreal will pick No. 10, having a recent history of taking college players in the early round. Last year, it was Michigan’s Mike Komisarek and prior to that, Massachusetts-Lowell’s Ron Hainsey. The Habs could easily be interested in the talent of North Dakota’s Zach Parise, making him college hockey’s third top 10 selection this season.

The Islanders could be the dark horse, as GM Mike Milbury has been known to bet the farm in the past on college players (BU’s Rick DiPietro a perfect example). Whether or not he’d opt for a player like Ohio State’s Ryan Kessler or Michigan’s Jeff Tambellini is a tough call, but for argument’s sake, I’ll say yes, with Milbury taking Kessler in the 15 slot.

Edmonton, with names like Comrie, Reasoner and York floating in the lineup, has become almost synonymous with college hockey. Head coach Craig MacTavish is a Lowell boy and could once again influence the management for a collegiate first rounder. Tambellini feels like a nice fit here in the 17th position.

Anaheim will pick 19th and San Jose 21st, and it’s my belief that one of these two Cali teams will grab defenseman Mark Stuart. Anaheim seems like a lock to snag the CC blueliner, though the Ducks could be looking toward bolstering an offense that struggled at times and was forced to rely entirely on goaltending for postseason success.

Somewhere in there, there’s a trickiness. Dartmouth’s Hugh Jessiman fits somewhere into the first round — question is exactly where. Should San Jose not have the option on Stuart, Jessiman stands a nice replacement. Though possessing a nose for the net, Jessiman has solid defensive skills that could land him with the Sharks. If not, possibly Philadelphia, certainly not considered a college-friendly team per se, could be Jessiman’s home.

Which brings us to the 25th selection and the first place that I feel compelled to make a strong argument. The Tampa Bay Lightning, in my opinion, need one thing: goaltending. Nikolai Khabibulin was and is a solid netminder, but in back of him simply is nothing. John Grahame has proven himself to be unreliable as a backup and this season becomes a restricted free agent. The Lightning’s only other hope is to sign Finnish-born Fredrik Norrena, the 213th draft pick from 2002. Without him, goaltending in the long-term could be in trouble. Which makes my point for Maine netminder Jimmy Howard. He struggled down the stretch but in essence is a solid, game-tested tender. Many place him in the second or third round, but Howard truly is my dark horse at 25.

Past that point, college hockey becomes the ultimate dark horse. Forwards like Patrick Eaves and Brian Boyle serve as potential targets, particularly for St. Louis (which has New Jersey’s 30th pick in the first round). Should either of them make the leap up the rankings, it would stand as one of the top college upsets of all time.

Even so, college hockey stands to see one of its best years yet. With the potential for 10 first-round draft choices, the college game has finally reached its grand stage — at the NHL Draft.