On Friday, the best 18-year-old hockey players on the planet will find out to which NHL team their foreseeable futures will be tied. These are kids who've been toiling in the gym every day since they were twelve or thirteen. They've run countless miles and spent every summer in at least one hockey school. They've left their homes before they were ready and many of them have given up a real chance at an education. They've won and lost, felt triumph and despair. All of it has been funnelled into a single goal: to make the NHL.
While scouts drool over big frames and explosive speed, blistering shots and leadership qualities, they're also looking for something else. They know these kids are all committed to a career in pro hockey. Less clear are their individual reasons for wanting that career. I think there are two kinds of players: pragmatists and idealists.
The pragmatist wants to play in the NHL because he knows he's got the skill to make it in pro hockey. He wants the fame and the money, and the phrase "it's a business" isn't far from his lips. The idealist believes in the romance of the sport. For him, it's all about brotherhood and fighting the good fight. The dream of the Stanley Cup makes him smile in his sleep. It's an important distinction. The idealist is the one who'll play hurt, overcome despair and keep believing, even when his team is down three games to none in a playoff series. Maybe he's naive, but he'll win more often because he wills it.
The trick in the draft is picking the believer who's also got the skills. The Canadiens have failed at this, at least in the first round. Andrei Kostitsyn has the ability, but he's never shown an idealistic drive to win. I can't claim to know what he feels, but his play doesn't reflect a burning desire to get his name on the Cup. Kyle Chipchura had dreams and drive, but never had the skill to be more than a decent third-liner. Louis Leblanc has a lot of talent, but he's a pragmatist who carefully weighed his opportunities and went with Harvard so he'd have a backup plan in case hockey doesn't work out. That's smart, and it's a very sensible choice. It makes you wonder, though, if he's able to see possbility in a jungle of reality. Can he truly believe he's going to be an NHL champion? PK Subban can, but he's a rare personality. Sometimes, especially in the first round, a team's "best player available" has to be more than just talent. Skill gives a guy the tools he needs to succeed. Dreams give him the will to use them.
I think the Canadiens did so well in the playoffs this year because they had more idealists on the team than pragmatists. A lot of guys would have looked at facing the Caps in the first round as an insurmountable challenge. Some would shrug and say "what the hell, we're getting paid anyway." Others see only as far as the next shift and go all out, blocking shots and trying like hell every time they're on the ice because they believe in the dream. If the balance on a team tips toward the latter kind of player, that team has a chance.
In a draft of 18-year-olds, idealism abounds. Most of these kids see the dream, floating tantalizingly within reach. By the time they're 25, most of them will have lost some of that. They'll be traded, demoted, or, like Jonathan Toews this week, have to face the fact that the team makes decisions because of money, not love. Finding a player who can manage to find joy and keep dreaming even when he's seen the truth up close is a special thing.
That's what I want the Habs to bring home on Friday. Twenty-seventh overall is far from a sure-thing draft position and the team needs something at every position. So whether they pick a bruising stay-at-home defenceman, a winger with some size and hands, even a goalie to restock the organization's pipeline after the Halak trade, the player they choose will be a project. He won't make the NHL right away, and may have to struggle through some time in the minors before he gets close.
I hope they pick a player who has a chance to help the team in some capacity in a couple of years. More than that, I hope they choose a dreamer.