With the NHL draft approaching, much of the attention surrounding the draft is being paid to those who will likely be selected in the first round, as usual, specifically the “big four” of 2014: Aaron Ekblad, Sam Bennett, Sam Reinhart, and Leon Draisaitl. While most of the high draft choices are no-brainer type picks, I’m always intrigued at the teams who are able to find and develop talent from the later rounds of the draft.
The Detroit Red Wings have arguably been the champions of successful late round picks over the last quarter century, while there are many jokes that could be made from the poor selections of the Toronto Maple Leafs, for example, in the past. But successful teams use their draft choices wisely and can turn a fourth or fifth round pick into a key piece of their team, whether that be as a superstar skater or a depth role player. Looking at the two squads who will be competing for the Stanley Cup, the New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings, we see two teams whose late round talent and undrafted free agents have been important components to their club’s run to the final.
Of course both the Kings and Rangers rely upon players that were picked in the first round (Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar, Marc Staal), or acquired via trade (Jeff Carter, Rick Nash, Marty St. Louis), but they have also seen major contributions from their later-round picks, both in the regular season and the playoffs.
The Kings “That 70’s line” has been one of the most consistent lines at both ends of the ice, with #77 Jeff Carter, along with the 30th overall pick in 2012, #70 Tanner Pearson, and 2010 2nd rounder #73 Tyler Toffoli. Pearson and Toffoli have combined for 25 points in the playoffs, not to mention a combined +13 rating, for a team that struggled with offense in the regular season.
Yet there has been another “70’s” King who has been just as impressive: 2001 4th round pick, #74 Dwight King. It may have taken King (such a fitting name) until this season to fully stick with the Kings roster, but the patience of L.A. has paid off. King is now a a skater that almost any team would desire, a 6’4, 230-pound third-liner who can chip in offensively, as well as kill penalties if need be.
On the back-end, the Kings can be thankful for late round selections Jake Muzzin and Alec Martinez. Muzzin was originally a 5th round choice of the Penguins in 2007 but was given up on, and he proceeded to bounce from tryout to tryout for many teams. But it is in L.A. where he has found a permanent home, where the Kings have slowly turned Muzzin into a budding star. When skating on the top pairing with Doughty, Muzzin looks comfortable to play his offensive game, and it has showed, as he is tied for the lead among defensemen in playoff goals with five. Martinez, with help from veterans Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene, has become a stalwart on the second pairing, meaning opposing teams have more than simply Doughty and Muzzin to worry about. Martinez is capable of munching up major minutes, easing the load off of Doughty, while contributing on the second PP unit as well, giving the Kings a continued threat from the point.
While the Rangers have been criticized for their drafting prowess in the past, they too have unearthed a few hidden gems of their own to help in guiding them to the final, most notably Carl Hagelin and Mats Zuccarello.
Hagelin was drafted in the 6th round in ’07 by NYR, and what he lacks in height and strength, he makes up for with speed and a set of nasty hands. Hagelin only managed 33 points in 72 games during the regular season, but is stepping up when it matters most, contributing 10 points in the playoffs. Plus, he’s a tough individual, and is used frequently on the Rangers PK unit, one that finished third in the regular season, and is the best among playoffs teams who advanced past the first round.
Mats Zuccarello may have been the best surprise all year for New York, leading a Rangers team, one that struggled to find their flow and identity in the regular season, in points with 59, and has chipped in with 11 more in the post-season. Like Hagelin, Zuccarello is small, standing only 5’7, but he makes up for that lack of height with blazing speed and a tremendous work ethic. It’s amazing then that a player with this much talent was never drafted.
The Rangers have another un-drafted steal in defenseman Dan Girardi. Passed over by everyone in the 2003 draft, Girardi has worked his way up from the ECHL to become a mainstay on the Rangers D-corps. His mixture of offense from the point along with steady stay-at-home play when needed has led to Girardi becoming relied upon to be on the ice at the most critical of times.
Kudos is deserved for both the Kings and Rangers for developing these later-round, or in Girardi and Zuccarello’s case, un-drafted talent. Without players such as King, Muzzin, Martinez, Hagelin, Zuccarello, and Girardi to complement their respective clubs, neither team may be in the position they are in, about to compete for Lord Stanley’s mug.
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