You know what's frustrating? I was reading the NHL's Central Scouting ranking of the best young prospects for the coming draft, and while I was salivating over the potential of some of these guys, I was also irritated to know the Habs won't get any of them. The young players who'll be ready to jump straight from junior to the NHL because they're that talented won't be in Montreal unless they fall down the rankings for some reason or join the Habs after their indentured servitude in Florida ends. Worse is knowing that it's often pointless for those players to go to those remote outposts of the hockey world. The teams that get them won't build up enough to be contenders. They'll just continue to be poor teams with a few good players in exile.
Look at Atlanta for example: They drafted Dany Heatley second overall in 2000. He wasn't happy in Atlanta, so the Thrashers traded him to Ottawa for Marian Hossa. Hossa wasn't happy in Atlanta, so they traded him for a package of non-stars to Pittsburgh, just to avoid having him bolt with no return at all. Now the one-two punch of Hossa/Kovalchuk has become just Kovalchuck, and guess what? There's talk that Ilya's not happy in Atlanta. He's consistently the subject of trade talk, because the perception across the league is that he'll bail as quickly as he can the minute he's a free agent in 2011. Atlanta's the worst team in the east again this year, so they'll get another top-five draft pick. What's the point? The franchise is disarray, with only one playoff appearance (and no wins) in its history.
Founded in 1999, the Thrashers picked either first or second overall in their first four entry drafts. Of those players (Heatley, Kari Lehtonen, Kovalchuk and Patrick Stefan), only Kovalchuk and Lehtonen remain with the organization, although Lehtonen was placed on waivers last week. The others were traded before they made a difference in the organization, and the players the Thrashers got in return did little to help turn the franchise into a winner. The number eight-overall pick in 2003, Braydon Coburn, is now anchoring the Flyers' defence in Philadelphia. The Thrashers got Alexei Zhitnik in exchange, and have since bought out his contract.
Most of the high picks awarded to the Thrashers have managed to escape from Georgia after years of futility. But again, what's the point? Why are players of such high ability forced to languish in obscurity, waiting for an ill-advised trade or free agency? The answer, of course, is because Gary Bettman wants these pointless franchises to survive, and the draft system as it is allows the worst teams to pick the best players. It rewards lousy GMs with pick after pick in the top five, most of whom go to waste, mired in defeat on useless teams. Good GMs, like Bob Gainey, get the mid-to-late round picks that may or may not pan out. The only time the Canadiens got to pick in the top-five in recent years was the post-lockout draft, when they got Carey Price at number five. Can you imagine the damage the Habs and Trevor Timmins could do with a couple of high picks? You can be guaranteed they wouldn't be traded away for the likes of Alexei Zhitnik.
I think the first round of the draft should be lottery all the way. Luck of the draw. It's still a crap-shoot in some ways, because even having a top-five pick doesn't mean you'll choose a guaranteed star. But, if a team like Detroit, that, with careful management and wise drafting, has produced a perennial contender, gets the first overall pick...good for them. Or if a consistently late-round team gets it...it could be the difference between always finishing eighth or becoming a contender. Better take the chance of having a great team get stronger than hand the best prospects over to the likes of the Atlanta Thrashers to misuse and disillusion every single year.
Making the first round a lottery would also help eliminate the Tampa Bay Syndrome. A team, like Pittsburgh or Atlanta, who chooses in the top five every year...especially if it's a real blue-chip year...could end up with three or four budding superstars who all have big contracts coming due at the same time. They end up keeping them all, and shelling out a fortune to do so, which leaves them with little to fill the rest of the roster. Picking draft positions by lottery means the superstars are spread around the league and the salary on each team more evenly distributed.
I just want to see good, prudent general managers have a real chance to draft a star without tanking. That's particularly important for the Habs, where the pressure to draft hometown boys is enormous. Unfortunately, the Q often tends to turn out big stars or good pluggers with little in between. Imagine if the draft lottery allowed the Canadiens to pick Vincent Lecavalier? With the jury still out on Price's long-term impact, it's been a long, long time since the Habs have been in the position to add a real franchise player without mortgaging their future in a trade.
The current draft system is supposed to encourage parity, by allowing poor teams to improve themselves by adding young talent. What it really does is keep middle-of-the-pack teams stuck in the middle. And that's really frustrating.