It took fewer than two weeks for Seth Jones, the fourth overall pick in this year’s NHL draft, to sign his first contract with the Nashville Predators.
It took Matt Hendricks, a fifth-round selection in 2000, more than 13 years.
For an organization that always has viewed the draft as an essential tool in its efforts to build the roster, Hendricks is the rare player who never got a chance. Then he proved the Predators wrong.
General manager David Poile, coach Barry Trotz and the rest effectively admitted their mistake when they signed Hendricks to a four-year, $7.4 million contract on July 5, the first day of the current free agent signing period.
“I think back, there’s a lot of times I was in the minors and I was upset about not getting a chance in Nashville, not signing a contract with them,” Hendricks said. “I wanted that opportunity, and I did use that as motivation. For it to go full circle and me to be back in the organization right now, I couldn’t be happier.”
The 2000 draft rates as one of the more disappointing in franchise history. With 14 picks (there were nine rounds at the time), including four in the first three rounds, the Predators had a chance to fortify their organization in just their third season of competition.
They hit with Scott Hartnell in the first round. He still is the only pick in franchise history to make the jump directly from the draft to the NHL and spend the entire season in the league, although the plan is for Jones to join that exclusive club this winter.
After that, the draft provided next-to-nothing for the NHL roster.
When Hendricks plays his second game for Nashville he will trail only Hartnell (436 games) for appearances by members of that group. Left wing Libor Pivko, a third-round choice, spent three seasons in North America, played one game for the Predators in 2003-04 but has played in Europe (the Czech Republic and Russia) since 2006-07.
“You look back, different players take time to get to the NHL,” Trotz said. “They take different routes. At the time, we didn’t see [Hendricks] being able to do that and he sort of took the long route.
“You have to, sometimes, make quick decisions. But we knew the character. That was a key.”
Hendricks’ path included four years at St. Cloud State beginning in 2000. When his college career ended, he played one game for Milwaukee on a professional tryout contract then spent all of the next four seasons with other minor league franchises, including 54 games in the East Coast Hockey League in 2004-05.
He made his NHL debut in 2008-09 with Colorado and played 56 games for the Avalanche the following season. He spent the last three years with the Washington Capitals and appeared in all but nine games.
“As he grew as a player and grew as a player, obviously we recognized that,” Trotz said. “He’s getting an opportunity and he’s joining us now as a more veteran player. He’s gone through that, and I think he’ll be a great example for a lot of our guys.”
A new group of draft choices and prospects was in town last week for the team’s annual development camp.
Franchise executives, spectators and others on hand looked for the next Hartnell, Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, David Legwand or Pekka Rinne throughout the event, which concluded Saturday.
Chances are, no one wondered which guy would get overlooked, play for seven different minor league teams and two NHL franchises before be finally got a chance to play for the team that drafted him.
“I never really got a chance to work with the organization after I went on to a four-year career at St. Cloud State and things didn’t work out between Nashville and myself,” Hendricks said. “… I moved on and they moved on, and I couldn’t be happier to get a chance to come back and play for the Preds.”