The path from worst to first in the National Hockey League has seen its share of traffic in recent years. It’s not necessarily an expressway, but there is growing evidence that it is one of the more direct routes.
Consider that last year’s Stanley Cup champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins, capitalized on the fact that they drafted first or second overall in four consecutive years (2003-06). That’s how they got goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and forwards Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal — all critical performers in their 2009 championship run.
Two of the top three teams in the just-completed regular season, Washington and Chicago, had the first overall picks in 2004 (Alexander Ovechkin to Washington) and 2007 (Patrick Kane to Chicago). Kane, in fact, was the Blackhawks’ third pick among the top three during a four-year stretch.
Tampa won the Stanley Cup in 2004 behind Vincent Lecavalier, the player it drafted first overall five years earlier.
On the other hand, the Nashville Predators, who enter the playoffs this week, have been good enough that they have picked in the top five only once in their history and in the top 10 one time in the past six years. It is the fifth time in six seasons they have made the playoffs. They’ve never won a postseason series.
“Are you asking me would I rather make the playoffs or have the first pick in the draft?” General Manager David Poile said. “I don’t think having the first pick in the draft is good for your job security over a long period of time.”
Sure enough, the general manager and coach of the Penguins, whose names are now engraved on the Stanley Cup, did not have those jobs when Crosby, Malkin and Fleury were drafted. Washington is on its second coach since Ovechkin came into the league. Chicago has changed its coach and GM since it got Kane.
“You want to be competitive,” Poile said. “Going early in the draft means something didn’t go right. … Our goal after we built this team up after what I felt were the expansion years is to be competitive every year. We’ve played well and done that.”
By the final week of the regular season, Nashville had won at least 40 games for the fifth straight time. No more than six other franchises had the opportunity to do the same over that period.
Being consistently bad does not guarantee a team will get good.
Atlanta picked Patrik Stefan, Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk first, second and first overall, respectively, in successive years beginning in 1999. Stefan never measured up to expectations, Heatley has been a consistent point producer but has been traded twice, and Kovalchuk was shipped out a little more than a month ago after he and the team could not agree on a contract extension.
The Thrashers made the playoffs just once in their first decade.
“You find players all through the draft,” Poile said. “To get Ovechkin or Crosby, you need to be the worst. … You have to finish last to get those. That’s not where we’ve been. That’s not where we want to go.
“We’re going to have to win by drafting well, hopefully up the middle or at the high end of the draft. That always would be my desire.”
The Nashville roster at the end of this regular season included 13 players originally drafted by the franchise. That group included four first-rounders as well as one fourth-, one fifth-, two seventh- and one eighth-rounder.
Here’s a look at what the current first-round picks have meant to the team and their potential value for the future:
David Legwand, center (Second overall, 1998)
The fact that he is the franchise’s all-time leader in goals, assists and points is secondary in the minds of most to the fact that he is considered an offensive underachiever.
He scored 20 or more goals just twice. He finished among the team’s top three in points twice as well, although he was the leading scorer in 2002-03.
Always respectable in plus-minus (his worst is a minus-6) and much better on faceoffs than he was his first three years in the league, his legacy seems destined to be that of a reliable and productive player, not a spectacular one.
Dan Hamhuis, defense (12th overall, 2001)
He does not have the size of Shea Weber or the pedigree of Ryan Suter, but he is durable and dependable.
Prior to this season, he never missed more than two games in a single season (he missed four in 2009-10), and his point totals and penalty minutes have been remarkably consistent from year-to-year. At times, he has committed confounding turnovers in the defensive end, but at others he has incited the crowd with memorable, well-executed hip checks.
Scheduled for unrestricted free agency following this season, he might be in his final days with the franchise.
Ryan Suter, defense (Seventh overall, 2003)
He was a bigger star for the United States Olympic team in February than he ever has been for the Predators.
Quietly, though, his point total increased annually from his first through fourth season in the league. The same was true of his ice time, a clear indication of the trust bestowed upon him by the coaching staff as he developed.
At this point, he seems inextricably linked to Weber as one-half of Nashville’s top defense pairing, one that will stay together for years.
Colin Wilson, center/wing (Seventh overall, 2008)
Slowed by a hamstring injury in his first training camp, he spent most of the first half of this season in the AHL. Once recalled, he quickly developed into a productive power forward and late in the season routinely played on the team’s top line.
The only comparable first-rounder in franchise history was Scott Hartnell, who had two goals in 75 games as a rookie. Wilson had that many in the first five games following the Olympic break.
The decision to take him two years ago was critical to an overall organizational philosophy to get bigger and stronger at forward. Early indications are that it was the right way to go.