A thing I like to keep in mind during draft week, when we're at our worst tending to read a whole lot into the murky world of projecting the careers of 18-year-olds:
Emerging Blackhawks power forward Dustin Byfuglien was drafted in the 8th round. A round that doesn't exist anymore.
If you woke up from a coma last month and only saw his playoff performance, (11 goals in 22 games, instrumental in eliminating Vancouver, San Jose and Philadelphia), you'd wonder how 29 NHL teams could be so stupid. Alternatively, if you watched him play since his rookie year, you'd know instantly both why a team "took a chance" on him and why he was selected so late: Tantalizingly big body, but a project to be sure. Even this season, when at age 24 he notched 17 goals in 82 games, his inconsistency drove enough Hawks fans nuts to get them wondering if they'd be rid of him.
I mention this not to make the age-old point that, "Well, 29 other teams passed on Player X, too." No, I'm talking about a feature of the draft I rarely see mentioned, perhaps because it is by definition an elusive kernel to uncover: We don't know if 29 teams passed on him, because we don't know how many teams wagered this wing-and-a-prayer prospect would still be around in the 9th round.
Just to take an Islanders-centric example, Garth Snow traded up with the Campoli pick not once but twice last summer to make sure he got Calvin De Haan. Snow held on Day 2's first pick to draft Mikko Koskinen at 31 because he thought he'd be gone before the next round. Necessary moves to get those guys? We'll never know.
The draft is not just the culmination of years of scouting and note-taking. It's not just a poker game among GM's trying to move up or down in the first round. It's also the culmination of your organization's word--of-mouth intelligence, hunches your scouts have because they saw a scout from Team Y scouting that same obscure Player Z. It's separating rumor from outright fiction, distilling misdirection out of good-ol-fashioned shop talk over a beer. Figuring out who are your friends in the game you can trust, and who are friends who curiously only check in when they need something.
Maybe a lot of teams were eyeing Byfuglien with their 9th-round pick that year. Maybe the teams selecting behind Chicago decided to pass on Byfuglien in the 7th round because they just knew he'd be there in the 8th. Maybe the Islanders, who selected 6-foot LW Igor Volkov at 246, didn't expect the Hawks would take Byfuglien at 245. Two rounds prior, the Isles selected Bruno Gervais at 182, one slot before the Bruins took Nate Thompson. Gervais over Byfuglien? Are you kidding me?! As recently as two-three years ago, that still didn't sound crazy at all.
In truth, when you get down to the late rounds that no longer exist (they stop at round 7 these days), teams often have a pool of longshots or Euro prospects they choose from, and any seriously desired pet projects are taken before then. But the fact is we just never know. And often, neither do they.
Because in the draft, teams are not only betting on a player, they're betting on their best guess of when he'll still be available. Sometimes they err too soon. Sometimes they err too late.
So "how could they not pick that guy?!" we ask? Maybe they -- and a few of their peers -- fully intended to. In the next round.