Well, only three weeks to go before the NHL draft hits Montreal. As usual, the best prospects in the world will paste smiles on their faces as they stride to the podium to put on the sweaters of the most hopeless franchises in the league. The good teams will once again rely on the hit-and-miss reports prepared by their scouts and hope the prospects that fall outside the "sure-thing" category will pan out, to allow them to re-stock with quality players.
I don't think the draft is fair. Bad teams and bad management get rewarded with good players who get buried in markets where hockey rates behind NASCAR, while teams in hockey cities end up with mid-range players with a high hit-or-miss quotient. The teams that keep the southern franchises afloat with revenue sharing have little to no chance of landing a real superstar in the draft. The stars instead end up on the very franchises teams like the Habs help support. It's not fair for the players either, who end up being little better than indentured servants to whatever crap team that picks them.
I've had ideas for changing the draft format before...like allowing each team to protect one player from its geographically allotted "development zone" before the draft starts, then continuing with the first round as usual. I've also thought of making the draft a lottery every year. Every team's name would go into the drum and the draft order would be randomly selected so every team has the same chance to draft a superstar. Sure, the worst team in the league wouldn't get the best player every year, and sometimes a team like Detroit would get richer. But the overall effect would be to help permanently mid-range teams get better. Without the chance to draft high, that won't happen for many franchises...like the Habs.
But lately I've been thinking, why have a draft at all? I love the stories of the "living room wars" from the forties and fifties, when scouts had to work the prospect's parents and often had to get really creative to convince a player to sign a contract. I'd like to see that come back. If a player wants to play for the Canadiens or the leafs or the Devils, why shouldn't he have the chance to do so? If a Swedish kid is undecided, but the Habs' European scout can convince his parents that Montreal is the right place for him, why can't he try to do that? I like the idea that a team can develop hometown loyalty by grooming kids in its own backyard, then sign them when they grow up.
People complain about the loss of the Canadiens' francophone identity. The draft is directly responsible for that. If the Habs had had the chance to woo Mario Lemieux or Vincent Lecavalier and sign them, does anyone think those players would have chosen to go to Pittsburgh or Tampa instead? Of course not. They would have likely signed with the hometown team that supported them through their minor league days and for which all their friends and families cheered.
There are those who'd argue that giving teams free rein to court and sign any player they can will set up a bias in favour of teams based in fertile hockey development regions. I think, so what? Why shouldn't the places that love hockey and actually play hockey get to keep their local players close to home? Why should they have to go keep the Florida Panthers afloat instead of playing hockey where it should be played? If it comes down to Toronto and Montreal for the Cup every year because the best players in the world choose to sign with their favourite teams, so be it. Maybe that's the way it should be.
So, I say, dump the draft. Abandon awarding the best players to teams that tank for years. It's not good enough and it's not fair for the cities that develop hockey players and see them play out their pro careers as a "Lightning."