Why the Draft Is More Important Than Ever in the NHL

Steve Silverman@@profootballboyFeatured ColumnistSeptember 10, 2013

No. 1 NHL draft pick Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche.
No. 1 NHL draft pick Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche.Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

You cannot afford to miss in the draft.

Building a roster through the draft has always been important in the NHL, but it has taken on even greater importance now in this era of the reduced salary cap. 

That's one of the consequences of last season's lockout. When the NHL and the NHL Players Association finally put an end to its painful lockout last January, the two sides agreed that the salary cap would be reduced from $70.2 million to $64.3 million.

That reduction meant that NHL teams would have to change the way they were built. Superstar players are still highly valued commodities who are going to get rewarded by their original teams or through free agency.

Young players who have signed entry-level contracts or are not yet eligible for free agency are also highly valued. Those players don't make as much money as they will in the future, yet they may be key contributors on the ice. They provide value for the teams that are paying them.

The players who are hurt the most under the new constraints are the non-superstar, veteran players. As their years in the league increase and they remain productive, those players cost their employers more in salary and bonuses. When the salary cap gets reduced and a team finds itself getting close to the spending limit, these are the players who have the best chance of getting chopped from the roster. 

It's the same in the NFL, which also operates under a salary cap, albeit a much higher one than the NHL. Major League Baseball uses a luxury tax to penalize big spenders and that means that its player draft has taken on a greater importance than ever before.

Failing to draft well means that a team is wasting its assets to try to stay competitive. It means a team must spend more money on free agents or it must trade valuable players if it wants to make a playoff run.

That may be acceptable over the short run, but it cannot work in the long run. It is very expensive to win that way and no team can afford to waste its assets like that.

Boston Bruins' surprising step

By nearly all measures, the Boston Bruins are one of the most successful teams in the NHL. They have been to two of the last three Stanley Cup Final series, beating the Vancouver Canucks in 2011 and losing to the Chicago Blackhawks last spring.

The roster is noted for its talent and character in players like Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara and Tuukka Rask. The immediate future looks good for the Boston Bruins.

Despite their elite status, general manager Peter Chiarelli fired director of amateur scouting Wayne Smith and replaced him with Keith Gretzky. 

Here's why:

The Bruins' recent draft classes have been listless. The last time they hit home runs in the draft was 2006, when they selected Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand and Phil Kessel.

Since then, they have not helped themselves very often. Their 2007 class was a painful failure and 2008 wasn't much better. The only solid prospect from that draft was Joe Colborne, who was traded to Toronto in a deal that brought them defenseman Tomas Kaberle in 2011.

Jordan Caron was selected in 2009, and he has failed to stick with the team despite numerous opportunities. The Bruins had the No. 2 pick in 2010 and selected Tyler Seguin, and while he may eventually develop into a superstar, he was traded to Dallas this summer for the hard-working Loui Eriksson.

They are still waiting on Ryan Spooner and Jared Knight to fully develop into NHL forwards, and they may or may not get there. Other prospects who still have a chance to develop include Alexander Khokhlachev, Zach Trotman, and Malcolm Subban.

None of those players are guaranteed to become productive NHL players.

While the Bruins have used trades and free agency to build the majority of their team, Chiarelli knows that route is not going to get things done in the future, and that's why he brought in a new scouting director to change the team's success ratio in the draft.

Player development is vital

In the pre-salary cap days, players were drafted and most would continue their careers in junior hockey, play at the college level or go to the minor leagues.

If the players improved enough, they were brought up to the NHL level. If they didn't, the team would move on to the next prospect.

Now, teams cannot afford to miss on the prospects, and there's much more effort put into developing these prospects.

Kevin Lowe, the Edmonton Oilers' president of hockey operations, says that teams must make sure the players they draft get every chance to produce in the NHL. That means lower-level coaches must do more teaching and instructing than they have done in the past.

"Development in the salary-cap world is so critical," Lowe told The Canadian Press (via The Hockey News). "You're trying to find pieces that fit within the organization. But every player that you have, whether through the draft or a free-agent signing, they're all valuable assets, and you want to develop them as best you can."

Even if that player is not going to be brought up to the parent club, continued development is crucial because another team may desire that prospect and trade to get him.

Scouting talent

Developing players may be vital, but even the best coaches cannot do it unless the talent level and work ethic are sufficient. Scouting is essential, and the teams that are successful identify the traits that make a player successful at the major league level and then look for those kind of players.

Vancouver Canucks scout Dave Babych says that it's fairly easy to identify top prospects through research and technology, via The Canadian Press' report. But the only way to tell if a player is worth bringing into an organization is by watching him perform over an extended period of time so that scouts have a better idea about the player's work ethic and character.

One of the factors that is essential in scouting a player is his coachability. High first-round draft picks may be able to make an NHL roster soon after they are drafted. The large majority, however, need two to three years to develop their talent. That means they need to listen to their coaches and implement their coaching suggestions.

In many ways, the scout's job has remained the same as it has been for years. The difference is that the accountability factor has been raised. The reduction in the salary cap means that teams cannot afford to miss on their top draft picks—at least not very often.

Scouting and drafting players has never been more important than it is right now. Over the long run, it's the key factor that will assure success—or failure—for every NHL team.