6 NHL Players Who Succeeded Despite Long Odds

Steve SilvermanFeatured ColumnistJuly 27, 2012

6 NHL Players Who Succeeded Despite Long Odds

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    It was just a couple of years ago that Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin were the top picks in the draft.

    Both players were highly touted after outstanding growth in Canada's junior hockey system. The only question was whether the Edmonton Oilers would choose to use their No. 1 pick on "Taylor or Tyler."

    The Oilers eventually chose to go with the hard-charging Hall, leaving the Boston Bruins to select Tyler Seguin.

    Two years down the road, both players are still on track to become stars.

    The odds prior to draft day were that they would be successful, and they both have had tastes of success.

    Other players do not get to the NHL with such a smooth path. Any player who is not drafted in the first round overcomes significant odds to become an NHL star. Players who are taken in the later rounds often have to overcome the impressions of scouts, junior coaches and general managers to succeed in spite of the way they are viewed initially.

    Here's a look at six players who have overcome long odds to become successful. One of those players is not Tim Thomas, who has decided to take a year off in 2012-13. It remains to be seen if he will continue with his career in future seasons.

Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit Red Wings

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    Pavel Datsyuk is among the most skilled players in the NHL. He may be among the five best players in the world.

    When Datsyuk has the puck on his stick, he can make the most skilled defensemen look like children. His ability with the puck on his stick can often silence the crowd, then bring it to its feet where it roars approval of his sensational plays.

    Datsyuk has good numbers year-in and year-out, but those numbers don't do him justice. He is an excellent defensive player; he can dominate on faceoffs and his tape-to-tape passes are often the result of his superior technique. He also has a powerful shot. He scored 19 goals and 48 assists last year, but he has scored as many as 97 points in a season.

    Datsyuk came to the Wings as a sixth-round pick. He was the 171st pick in the 1998 draft. In addition to his low draft status, Datsyuk's mother died when he was 12 and his father died when he was 18 (source: Washington Post). He came to the United States on his own and made his way.

    It's been quite a journey from a hockey afterthought to one of the most skilled players in the game.

Dennis Wideman, Calgary Flames

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    Dennis Wideman was selected with the 241st pick (eighth round) in the 2002 draft.

    They don't even have eight rounds in the draft anymore.

    He was selected by the Buffalo Sabres, and he was in their minor league system but never got called up to the NHL. Eventually, he was signed by the St. Louis Blues as a free agent. The Blues traded him to the Bruins for Brad Boyes, the Bruins traded him to Florida, the Panthers subsequently traded him to Washington and the Capitals traded him to Calgary just before the start of free agency.

    Wideman eventually signed with the Flames, and he made the All-Star game this season while playing for the Capitals after a career in which he was drafted as an afterthought and almost did not make the league.

Erik Cole, Montreal Canadiens

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    Erik Cole was enjoying a solid career with the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2005-06 season. He had been picked in the third round of the 1998 draft and was called up to the Hurricanes to start the 2001-02 season.

    Cole had scored 30 goals in March of 2006 and was on his way to a stellar season with the Canes. However, when he was checked by Pittsburgh defenseman Brooks Orpik, he suffered a fractured vertebra in his neck.

    It could have been the end of his career, but he was actually able to return in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals against the Edmonton Oilers.

    A little more than a year later, Cole suffered another neck injury in which he was taken off the ice on a stretcher following a collision with Tomas Vokoun of the Florida Panthers (source: ESPN.com), but he returned from that injury.

    Cole scored 26 goals for the Hurricanes in 2010-11, and he scored 35 goals for the Canadiens last year.

Matt Moulson, New York Islanders

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    Matt Moulson has played on a struggling New York Islanders team in one of the toughest divisions in all of professional sports. Competing against the New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins has left the Islanders on the outside looking in when it comes to postseason play.

    But Moulson has found a way to succeed despite playing on the struggling team. He has scored 30 or more goals each of the last three seasons. That's not bad for a player who was the 263rd pick (ninth round) of the 2003 draft by the Pittsburgh Penguins.

    But even getting to the point where he could be drafted at that point was a major step up for Moulson. When he was 14, a teammate's mother told him he was the worst player in his league in Toronto (source: NHL.com). A year later, he was cut by his junior team.

    Moulson's father told him he still believed in him and that was the turning point. Moulson began a regimen of early morning workouts to build strength, gradually improved and played college hockey briefly before the Penguins saw enough of him to draft him. 

Ray Whitney, Dallas Stars

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    At a time when other players were starting their youth hockey career, Ray Whitney was handing out sticks to the Edmonton Oilers.

    Whitney was a stick boy for the Oilers (source: TheHockeyWriters.com), but that didn't prevent him from picking up a slew of moves and developing great skating quickness. Even though he had these skills when he was drafted in the second round by the San Jose Sharks in 1991, he was downgraded because he lacked size and strength at 5'8 and 180 pounds.

    That's why Whitney bounced around from team to team early in his career. He was recognized as a highly skilled player—he scored the Game 7 double overtime winner for the Sharks vs. the Calgary Flames in 1995—but he just didn't have the size and strength in the eyes of a number of coaches.

    But Whitney has overcome those doubters. He is coming off a 77-point season and has scored 1,003 points during his 20-year career. Whitney signed a free-agent contract with the Dallas Stars this summer.

    Not bad for a player who was too small and started his career as a stick boy.

Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins

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    Brad Marchand is known as an agitator. He hammered that point home in the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals when he fired left jabs into the face of Daniel Sedin, seemingly enjoying the mayhem he was causing.

    Along with Tim Thomas, Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara, Marchand was one of the players who was most responsible for Boston's 7-game triumph over Vancouver.

    However, those who saw Marchand play in the minor leagues never believed he had the ability to play a key role in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Few thought he could ever be more than a mere role player.

    When Marchand played for the minor league Providence Bruins, he did not have star quality. Mark Divver, the assistant sports editor of the Providence Journal, told Sports Illustrated that Marchand had gone "out of control" in a 2009 playoff series against the Worcester Sharks.

    From that point, Marchand became a player who scored five goals in the Stanley Cup Finals, helping lead the Bruins to their first Cup in 39 years.