Treasure Hunting, the Hockey Edition
By Rob Aquino
“…With our first pick in this year’s NHL draft, we are pleased to select…”
…and with those words a young draftee’s professional life is forever changed, and forever defined. A first round pick in the National Hockey League automatically brings high hopes…and high expectations. The label “first-round pick” will remain with a player throughout his career and beyond. Often that label is an albatross which becomes impossible for a player to shed if the player doesn’t reach elite status. Rarely does a fan look back at his or her favorite team’s first round picks and not utter a simple declaration of “great” or “bust.” Unfair? Of course it is – labeling an 18-year old as a potential franchise savior is often a crapshoot as there lies the very possibility that a particular player peaks at that age and never improves. For every Guy Lafleur there’s a Brian Lawton; for every Denis Potvin there’s a Greg Joly. For every Mario Lemieux there’s…well, there’s an Alexandre Daigle, billed as a Lemieux clone based on his astronomical stats in the Quebec League. Daniel Tkaczuk, Rico Fata (sorry Calgary Fans), Jason Bonsignore…the list is endless. Even to this day if you mention Morris Titanic or Jiri Dudacek to old-time Sabres fans you’ll get eyes rolling skyward. My point is this: from the moment a player is selected in the first round, they will forever be etched into that team’s history. Nobody remembers a seventh-rounder that never made it at the top level.
This week we’ll be profiling some recent first round picks who have yet to become stars or household names - it is too early to tell whether they’ll be looked back at as stars or busts as they are all still in the very early part of their careers (all are NHL rookies this year) but each one is beginning to have an impact on their respective teams. In fairness, with the expansion of the league to 30 teams, what is now a late first-round pick would – in 1969 (the advent of the modern amateur draft) – have been an early third-round pick. The counter-argument can be made that with the huge expansion of international talent it evens out. But that’s nitpicking, isn’t it?
Andrew Ladd, Winger, Carolina Hurricanes
Andrew Ladd was drafted fourth overall in 2004 by the Hurricanes, so will obviously be carrying some pretty high expectations; in fact, the Hurricanes traded up (by dealing a few lower picks to Columbus) to specifically get Ladd. He has a relatively different resume than most top prospects, with only two seasons of major junior in Canada in the Western Hockey League – he spent the two seasons before entering the WHL starring in British Columbia Junior B and A leagues. After turning professional this season with the Lowell Lock Monsters of the AHL he notched seven goals in just 15 games, then got the big call in November to join Carolina and ever since – in short time – he’s had great success. His overall numbers are impressive – six goals in his first 11 games, and that after being held off the scoresheet for his first two games. He was getting quality ice time on a top-level team, averaging nearly 16 minutes per game until he ripped up his knee in December….
Ladd was selected by the ‘Canes in 2004 after having a great rookie year with the Calgary Hitmen of the WHL in 2003-2004, when he was the leading rookie scorer in the league with 75 points – one scout compared him favorably to Rick Nash. However, in his second season he dropped off offensively to 45 points, yet his gritty play contributed to him earning 167 penalty minutes that season which attracted the Carolina brass. Ladd plays an up-tempo game and has mostly been a playmaker in his career, despite the outstanding goal scoring prowess he’s shown in his thus far very short NHL career. One impressive number is that his six goals to date have come on only 21 shots, good for a 28.6% shooting percentage.
…now back to that knee: Ladd returned on January 17th after six weeks on the shelf and played a few minutes against Phoenix. In each game since (four in total) he has seen his ice-time increase – likely a wise move to make sure he’s fully healthy. Ladd has responded very well on the scoresheet, with two goals and his first NHL assist in the last three games. In his last game against Montreal, he played mostly with Rod Brind'Amour and Justin Williams, logging over ten minutes on the ice in 17 shifts. If Ladd continues this progression, he not only could make a surprise positive addition to your fantasy team in terms of points, he could round out an already-talented Hurricanes team that has their sights realistically set on a deep playoff run.
Zach Parise, Center, New Jersey Devils
I was surprised in 2003 when Zach Parise fell all the way to the 17th pick in the first round (although that class is already shaping up to be quite strong). Parise is a unique offensive dynamo – he created quite a buzz even before his draft year in his time spent at the famous hockey factory of Shattuck-St. Mary’s prep school in Minnesota where in his senior season he scored 73 goals and 174 points in 63 games. In two years at the University of North Dakota he was a two-time Hobey Baker finalist while scoring 116 points in just 76 games. In his second season he was the most valuable player for the USA at the World Junior Championships, leading them to a gold medal by leading the tournament in scoring. That was clearly enough to convince the Devils that he was ready to turn pro, and Parise headed to Albany of the AHL last year. Even though his raw numbers weren’t at an elite level – 58 points in 73 games – he was the fifth-highest scoring rookie and was a starter on the AHL all-star team.
This year Parise made the jump to New Jersey, but immediately faced a big depth problem - Parise has played in 48 of the Devils’ 49 games this year but with the Devils’ other centers including Scott Gomez, John Madden, and Erik Rasmussen, quality ice time was limited. The Devils seemed to bring him along slowly this season as he saw inconsistent ice time throughout most of the first half of the season. Yet almost exactly coinciding with the “changing of the guard” behind the bench from Larry Robinson to Lou Lamoriello, Parise has seen his ice time increase, never dipping below ten minutes and often now playing in the 15 minute range, and just as important he’s been getting roughly 20 shifts every night.
Parise has been playing on a line with Sergei Brylin and Victor Kozlov. His status as a center will make him a little less valuable and only worthwhile this year in deep leagues – but there is no denying his great offensive talent (see last Saturday’s shootout winner vs. the Islanders). Watch him and if he continues to impress his new coach he should see more and more offensive (read: power play) opportunities. Zach Parise is on track to be a star in the NHL within the next few years and if you are in a keeper league, he is worth stowing away.
Patrick Eaves, Winger, Ottawa Senators
Another talent coming out of Shattuck in Minnesota, Patrick Eaves took his game to the east coast and the strong NCAA program at Boston College in 2002. Patrick’s freshman campaign was sadly marked by a terrible collision with an opposing goaltender (Merrimack’s Joe Exter) which left the goalie in a coma and Eaves with a concussion. His tough year seemingly came at a tough time in his draft year but the Ottawa Senators knew his talent and took him with their first pick in the first round in 2003, at #29 overall. Eaves went on to two more full seasons at BC, scoring at well over a point-a-game pace with 87 in 70 games.
This year, being Eaves’ first pro season, has seen him bounce between Binghamton of the AHL and Ottawa no less than five times already. Ottawa went through a string of injuries in the past few months and Eaves was called on to fill in as the team got healthy. If he continues to play at his current rate, he may not see central New York for a while. Eaves has been one of the Senators crucial players over the past few weeks as they’ve battled through their first adversity of the season – in his last seven games Eaves has six points and has been a fantastic +7.
Eaves has the offensive skills to be a top-six forward in the league – he’ll eventually get a chance to play on a line with other premier talents but with the Senators boasting a loaded offense, Eaves is learning the finer points of the NHL game on Ottawa’s third line with Chris Kelly and Vaclav Varada and has quietly totaled 10 goals through his first 24 NHL games. Eaves bears watching: if one of Ottawa’s top forwards again suffers an injury, Eaves would be a good bet to step up on one of their top lines.
Kari Lehtonen, Goaltender, Atlanta Thrashers
Kari Lehtonen is the highest-drafted of our profiles this week, having gone second overall in 2002 to Atlanta (behind Rick Nash and ahead of the highly-touted Jay Bouwmeester). The NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau (seen as the standard authority for objective player rankings for NHL teams) had him ranked as the highest-ranked European prospect, but it was still seen as risky or cutting-edge to take a goalie so high in the draft. Nevertheless, the Thrashers took the chance that Lehtonen could be the cornerstone for their franchise for the next decade along with Ilya Kovalchuk. At the time, Lehtonen became the second-highest drafted goalie to date (Rick DiPietro, Islanders’ #1 overall, 2000 – since then Marc-Andre Fleury was taken first in 2003 by Pittsburgh). Lehtonen was seen as a “can’t-miss prospect” in many circles – twice he was awarded as outstanding goalie of the professional Finnish elite league SM-Liiga while playing for Jokerit (he became their starting goalie at age 18) and twice he was named Hockey News’ top prospect.
The Thrashers had high hopes for this season with Lehtonen in goal but he suffered a terrible groin injury in his first game of the season and Atlanta struggled for consistency for two months, going through a parade of goaltenders and trying to stay afloat in the Eastern Conference. He finally returned to the team just before the end of December, and if there was any question as to how effective he’d be, Lehtonen won five in a row in early January to help put the Thrashers firmly into the playoff discussion in the East. In limited time (12 games through Wednesday) he’s put up a 2.57 goals-against average and a .906 save percentage, and has given up three or less goals in each of his last six games. It certainly appears that health is no longer an issue for him.
Despite a recent slump by the team, look for Lehtonen to get virtually all the work between the pipes for Atlanta from here on out as he and players like Kovalchuk, Marc Savard, Marian Hossa and Slava Kozlov try and help push this team to their first playoff birth. If for some reason Lehtonen has been overlooked in your league due to his late start to the season, pick him up immediately.
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