Wednesday, December 26, 2012

No Settlement No Draft?

What happens with the NHL entry draft this summer if there’s no 2012-13 season?

“Anybody who says they have a clue, they’re lying,” said Al Murray, Tampa Bay Lightning’s head of amateur scouting who was working for the Los Angeles Kings in 2004-05 when the league shuttered its doors for the entire season.

Before the 2005 draft, the NHL imposed a lottery at a downtown Ottawa hotel, with all 30 teams taking part to see who picked first and got the big prize — Sidney Crosby.

That draft took place on July 30, about five weeks later than usual, and 17 days after the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) was finally hammered out.

But what happens this time if there’s no collective bargaining agreement and the lockout drags out into the summer? That could mean there’s no entry draft, period. The 2013 draft is scheduled for the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., on June 28-29.

“There can’t be a draft without a CBA. That’s one of the things collectively bargained,” said former NHL general manager Craig Button, now a draft guru for TSN.

“The NHL could still implement a draft regardless of having no CBA, but the NHLPA could say no and then everybody’s a free agent. That would be messy. What if they say there’s a bidding situation for the junior players? It’s far-fetched and I don’t think it would happen, but …”

Then we’d have a Justin Schultz type of scramble for players like centre Nathan MacKinnon in Halifax, defenceman Seth Jones in Portland or Finnish centre Alexander Barkov. All three are playing at the world junior championship in Ufa, Russia.

“Yeah,” said Button, laughing, when asked about the Schultz sweepstakes, which the Oilers won on June 30, 2012, when they signed the University of Wisconsin Badgers star defenceman to a two-year contract.

Schultz is playing for the Oklahoma City Barons — the Oilers’ affiliate in the American Hockey League — during the lockout. He was selected by the Anaheim Ducks in the second round (43rd overall) of the 2008 entry draft, but did not sign with the team. After he de-registered from university, he became an unrestricted free agent, which kick-started a bidding war for his services.

There’s no wondrous talent like Crosby in the 2013 draft pool of talent, but if the NHL season is scrapped next month and we do get a new CBA in by July, for example, then you would think there would be a lottery again for the draft order in 2013 as there was eight years ago. But who really knows? The teams haven’t been notified.

“You can’t just give the pick to Edmonton again. Nobody’s going to agree to that,” said Murray, who was chief scout for the Kings in 2005 when they struck gold and selected forward Anze Kopitar and then goalie Jonathan Quick later in the draft.

“But, how or what or where they would take things with a draft, nobody has an idea. From a scout’s point of view, if they cancel the season, we’d like to know by Feb. 1, so we can focus in on who you have to make a decision on.”

The Kings got the 11th overall pick in the lottery and called out the Slovenian centre Kopitar. After Crosby, he might have been the best player out of that lottery group.

“Usually in the second half of a season, you can start to zero in on players if you know you’re going to be picking early or picking late. Last time was a mess because with no league and a lottery coming up, you had to continue to look at everybody,” said Murray.

“Last time, when the league was cancelled some teams cut back their budgets for scouting. I think that’s why we got Kopitar at No. 11. Dave Taylor (then the Kings GM) and the ownership allowed us to keep scouting full-bore. We had Anze at No. 3 on our list.

“He wasn’t a surprise to us, but some teams weren’t allowed to keep going to the events. He wasn’t at the world under-20 because Slovenia didn’t qualify. He wasn’t at the A pool for the under-18 worlds because Slovenia was in B pool. There weren’t a lot of people (scouts) at the B pool. He was in a junior league in Sweden, but only had a cup of coffee in the men’s (Elite) league there.

“You had to do your homework to know he was your guy and our European scouts did a great job with Anze,” said Murray.

Button said some NHL teams have already cut back on their scouting budgets this year.

“I wouldn’t say (they) eliminated it, but limited it. Same thing happened in 1994. Lots of teams didn’t get up and running until after the CBA was settled (on July 11, 1995),” said Button. “I was working in Dallas then, and we never cut back. Financially, our owner, Norm Green, was having some difficulties, but he told us not to stop (scouting). Same with our president Jim Lites. We drafted Jarome Iginla that year … we had lots of viewings, but other teams weren’t so sure (Iginla was subsequently dealt to the Calgary Flames for Joe Nieuwendyk — the league got up and running July 20 after the lockout).”

In 2005, after the owners and the players ended their battle, every team started with three balls in the Crosby lottery, but lost one or two based on playoff appearances over the preceding four years and the number of times teams got the first overall draft pick. The Pittsburgh Penguins, Columbus Blue Jackets, New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres had three balls. The Blue Jackets wound up with the sixth pick, the Rangers with No. 16 and Buffalo No. 13. The Oilers had two lottery balls and wound up with the No. 25 pick, taking Andrew Cogliano.

The NHL would not go on last season’s points finish to determine the draft order this time around, however, which would give Columbus first pick as the 30th-place team in 2011-12 and the Oilers second choice as the 29th-place club.

The Oilers have had the first pick three years in a row and selected forwards Taylor Hall (2010), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (2011) and Nail Yakupov in June 2012. They won the lottery of out-of-the-playoff teams last year to leapfrog Columbus.

Edmonton hasn’t made the playoffs in any of the previous four years, but they’ve had first picks at least twice so they will be down to one ball in the hopper. Some people figure they should have none after getting Hall, Nugent-Hopkins and Yakupov.

“If they go on the same format for the lottery, Columbus would have five balls, three of their own and they’ve also got L.A.’s pick (for Jeff Carter) and the Rangers (for Rick Nash). They would be the overwhelming favourite,” said Button.

The Flames, Minnesota Wild, Dallas Stars, Carolina Hurricanes, Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets will have the best odds with three balls.

“The difference is Sidney Crosby was a significant prize in 2005. There’s a kid from Coal Harbour (MacKinnon), but there’s no Crosby,” said Button.

Murray said this year’s top 10 could be a 50-50 split, North Americans vs. Europeans. Going into the season, it was a two-horse race with MacKinnon and defenceman Seth Jones, the son of former NBA forward Popeye Jones, but Finnish centre Barkov, who plays for Tappara, has wedged his way into the picture.

“The last two years were really good drafts ... heavy on defencemen last year, and forwards before that. Lots of talent in the top 10, then I think it slips. It’s got depth, but not high-end depth,” said Murray, who left the Kings to become Hockey Canada’s chief scout before Kevin Prendergast got his job.

“There’s Barkov and another Finnish kid, a defenceman Rasmus Ristolainen (Turku), Swede Elias Lindholm (Brynas) and MacKinnon and his linemate Jonathan Drouin in Halifax and Jones in the top six,” said Murray. “There’s been tournaments where Ristolainen has outplayed Jones and they’re both late 1994 birthdays and Drouin is the only two-points-a-game player in the CHL right now. MacKinnon is a dynamic guy and Lindholm has talent and plays physical.”

Button feels there’s plenty of good young talent.

“I look at this draft like 2003. It’s not one of those ‘oh my God we didn’t get the first pick’ drafts. (Zach) Parise went 17th, Dion Phaneuf ninth in ’03, Ryan Suter seventh. Marc-Andre Fleury was first that year, Eric Staal second,” said Button.

MacKinnon made Canada’s world junior team at age 17 and Jones is a six-foot-three, 210-pounder on the back end, but Barkov may be just as good.

“Unbelievable hockey sense. He reminds me of Dale Hawerchuk. Dale could score or pass,” Button said of Barkov.

In most draft years, one player separates himself from the rest of the pack. But last June there was great debate among Oilers scouts on whether to pick the flashy Yakupov or go with the Wade Redden-type Ryan Murray, who could be a top-two NHL defender for the next 10 to 15 years. The Blue Jackets made Murray the second overall pick last June.

Back in 2004, most everybody thought Alex Ovechkin was a shade better than Evgeni Malkin, so he went first and Malkin was No. 2.

“Ovechkin was first on just about everybody’s list, but if you looked at it properly you should have been able to make a case for Malkin, instead. You knew that Malkin would get bigger and stronger and he’s a centre, so he would make the players around him better and Ovechkin is more of a one-man band,” said Murray.

Who’s going first in the draft is always a fun debate. But first there has to be a draft.

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