Monday, June 30, 2014

Draft Roulette

Michael Prapavessis is a rarity.

Oh, he may well end up being a very outstanding addition to the Engineers this coming fall. From all indications, he almost certainly will be an excellent defensive add, and a real quarterback for the RPI power play. But when I say "rarity," I'm not talking about his talent.

As a draft pick of the Dallas Stars, he's very much an oddity in the college hockey world. Why? Because Dallas just doesn't draft a lot of college-bound players. There were only two players last season who saw the ice in all of college hockey whose rights were owned by Dallas: Michigan's Alex Guptill (who signed with the Stars following the year, foregoing his senior season) and Maine's Devin Shore (who led the Black Bears in scoring last year by a country mile).

Every other team in the NHL, with the exception of Detroit (three), had at least twice the number of prospects playing in Division I last season, and most had six or more - Florida and Chicago led the way with a whopping 14 players each.

What does that mean for Prapavessis? To answer, we should first take a look at what the draft means.

The NHL draft is unique among professional sports drafts in North America in that a drafted player does not give up his amateur status in order to either be drafted or have their rights maintained. The two most followed drafts, put on by the NFL and NBA, require potential draftees with remaining collegiate eligibility to relinquish that eligibility before the draft even takes place. In baseball, drafted players may choose to sign with their team, relinquishing amateur status, or they can choose not to, in which case the drafting team loses rights to the player.

Hockey is different. As outlined very well by SB Nation last week, few pay attention to the NHL Entry Draft in part because most of the names called are years out from appearing even in the minor leagues. Teams can draft players and then allow them to continue their development in college or in major junior leagues until making a decision on signing them. When it comes to college players, they have 30 days after the player leaves school (past two years out from the draft) to sign them before losing their rights. That can, in some instances, give teams as many as five or six years to monitor a prospect's development before making a decision to offer a contract.

When it comes to draftee development, NHL teams certainly don't mind leaving a player in college or major junior for a few years. That's development that doesn't cost them a nickel. Frequently, they only come calling when they feel a player is ready for the pros, or that their development will be accelerated or enhanced in the minors.

From a college program's perspective, the NHL Draft has a number of edges. One benefit of having players drafted comes in simple prestige, but the draft, by its nature, limits a player's options. That's also potentially beneficial.

RPI fans can see this benefit illustrated in the early departures of Ryan Haggerty and Mike Zalewski. Neither player was drafted, and both players had solid seasons last year as free agents that impressed scouts enough to draw contract offers. With free agents, NHL teams have to jockey with each other in order to sign the ones they want to develop. Zalewski could have potentially had many offers on the table, or it's possible Vancouver was the first one, seeking to get in ahead of other teams to gain his services for the future.

In a world where Zalewski had been drafted, however, that dynamic doesn't exist. The only question becomes the needs and plans of the team holding his rights. If Columbus, for instance, held his rights, Vancouver wouldn't have been showing up with a contract, and the only concern is whether Columbus wants him to keep developing for free in college.

This is also well illustrated by the only drafted player on the RPI roster last season - Jason Kasdorf. There was more than a little speculation among RPI fans following Kasdorf's injury that Winnipeg could potentially sign him away, but in the bigger picture, this made little sense. Goaltending needs especially being easier to establish, one only had to look at the fact that Winnipeg had another goaltender in college hockey - UMass-Lowell's Connor Hellebuyck - who was putting up fantastic numbers.

If you were going to choose between signing a player with two outstanding seasons under his belt, including one in which he led his team to the Frozen Four (and was drafted in an earlier round), and signing one that had one outstanding season and then suffered a season-ending injury that snuffed out his second and is untested since the injury, which would you sign? You'd probably sign the same one Winnipeg signed, as Hellebuyck has left Lowell after two years, and you'd leave the other in college to see how he bounces back from his injury.

So in some ways, it's good to have NHL draft picks on your roster. It's honestly not a matter of simply having more talent and having a better team - yes, being drafted by the NHL means a player probably has more overall talent, but hockey's still a team sport. This year's national championship was won by a team with a total of one NHL draftee on their roster (beating a team with 14). A year earlier, it was a team with just four. Having few draftees isn't necessarily a hindrance, just as having many isn't a panacea.

But there are certainly drawbacks as well. The biggest of them have to do with team needs. If an NHL team is lacking at a position where your team has one of their draftees, they might be leaving sooner rather than later. More concerning can often be the preferences of front offices when it comes to development. There are some that are more likely than others to tell a prospect that they'd prefer to see them playing in major junior rather than staying in (or going to) school. Non-draftees don't have a team hovering over them giving their opinions.

That brings us back to Prapavessis. Why does Dallas have so few prospects playing college hockey? Are they shuffling players away from the NCAA?

Prapavessis is Dallas' first college-linked draft selection since 2012, when they drafted Shore in the 2nd round and Lowell defenseman Dmitry Sinitsyn in the seventh round. Shore is still with Maine after two years, Sinitsyn left Lowell after one season and played last year in the WHL.

In 2011, Dallas drafted defenseman Jamie Oleksiak of Northeastern in the first round, and he never played another game in college as he was off to the OHL the following season. In 2010, their one and only collegiate selection was Guptill, who just left Michigan after three years. They also drafted goaltender Jack Campbell in the first round, who had de-committed from Michigan the previous November and chose to play in the OHL instead.

Seeing a pattern?

(As a complete aside to the main topic of this article, Prapavessis' OHL rights are held by London, which has a reputation for being the most ruthless team in major junior when it comes to pursuing college players.)

So what about Los Angeles, you say? They drafted Alec Dillon, slated to be on campus in 2015. We've outlined here that he's a target for Edmonton in the WHL, considering that they traded for his rights. The good news is that the Kings just won their second Stanley Cup in three years with the same goaltender who came up through college (Jonathan Quick, who spent two years at UMass).

However, one of the Kings' scouts is already indicating that their "development guys" are going to be the ultimate arbiters of whether he ends up in Troy or Edmonton. We'll probably know the answer relatively soon, as he'll probably be in Edmonton for the 2014-15 season if that's the route he's going to take.

The NHL draft, as it pertains to college hockey, is a definite crap shoot on many levels. We'll have to see if this year's results ultimately carry positives or negatives for the Engineers.

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