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Tuesday, June 22, 2004
Draft and develop still tried and true

By Jim Kelley
ESPN.com

Some years, holding the first overall pick in the NHL draft is like holding a winning lottery ticket.

Whether it turns out to be an impact player in the Ilya Kovalchuk-Rick Nash-Joe Thornton mold or a developing one like a Vincent Lecavalier, Rick DiPietro or Marc-Andre Fleury, many times the player is good enough to affect a franchise's future.

But after those kinds of players are gone, the draft often becomes simply a method of team building -- and not always a very productive one.

Of the four conference finalists during this year's Stanley Cup playoffs, only one -- the San Jose Sharks -- can lay claim to any kind of effective draft program. San Jose reached the Western Conference finals with 14 of its draftees on its roster.

The Calgary Flames, the other Western Conference finalist and the Stanley Cup runner-up, had just six draftees on its roster. The Philadelphia Flyers, an East finalist, also had six. The Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, a team seemingly built from within, had five.

"It's a myth that it's all about drafting well and developing your own," said Rick Dudley, former general manager and partial architect of the Lightning and Florida Panthers, and currently between jobs after having been unseated from both clubs in the last three years.

"If you're in a position to draft well, you have to take advantage of it," Dudley added. "But team building isn't just about getting the best young players and waiting for them to develop. You do want to put a core team together and if you are drafting top prospects for a couple of seasons, you can do that, but you have to add in. You have to supplement that core to be successful."

There was a time when the way the draft went was the way the NHL went. Certainly there were blockbuster trades along the way, but the "buy and hold" plan of developing talent through the so-called great equalizer, the common entry draft, which began in 1969, was the path teams took. If a team finished out of the playoffs a few times, it was able to acquire a stable of high-quality picks and, in time, was again a contending force in the NHL.

But then things started to change.

For starters, the league grew from 12 teams to 18, then 21, then 27 and eventually to 30 teams. That made acquiring fistfuls of talent more difficult -- the more teams there were, the less talent there was to go around.

In addition, the economics of the game changed. High draft picks became increasingly difficult to sign. Players such as Mario Lemieux, Eric Lindros and Bryan Berard balked at signing with the clubs that drafted them (Lemieux eventually did; Lindros and Berard didn't).

The high cost of development -- scouting, drafting, placing prospects in club-operated minor-league systems -- forced some teams to change. The need to win now, coupled with a loosening of free-agent restrictions, prompted some teams to move toward a blend of drafting, trading and free-agent signings.

Except for the Sharks.

Dean Lombardi, who served as GM of the Sharks for seven seasons before he was fired in March 2003, argues that the old way is still the best way.

"When I got the job, I believed that, historically, teams that win championships are teams that are built through the draft," he said. "I believed that then, I believe it now."

Lombardi added that teams that buy and sell players in an effort to move forward don't have anywhere near the success rate of teams that build from within.

"You look at past champions, teams that win or are in contention to win every year, and they are largely built through the draft," he said. "They may supplement their core group with trades and free-agent acquisitions, but the core of their teams are made up of players that are homegrown."

Lombardi pointed to the Detroit Red Wings and Colorado Avalanche as evidence. The Red Wings had 10 of their own draft picks on their 2002 Stanley Cup-winning team. The Avalanche's roots lead back to Quebec, where the Nordiques had finished out of the playoffs for five straight years and accumulated the talent -- with help from the Lindros mega-trade with Philadelphia -- that won two championships in Colorado.

The New Jersey Devils, who have won three Cups in the last nine years, and the 1999 champion Dallas Stars are also examples.

"Those teams had some big-name free agents, but the Devils are really the culmination of good drafting and development. And for a while that's the way it was with the Stars," he said. "They won their Cup based on the core of a team that was built from within."

That was Lombardi's plan of how the Sharks would compete with the top teams in the league.

"We felt those top teams were teams without a weakness and that the only way to beat them was to join them," he said. "We drafted young players and we kept and developed them, but we supplemented them with veterans who were willing to work with the kids. Each year we got better. We also got younger because we kept adding to the core until they were ready to emerge as competitive players."

Though the cost of development has caused many teams to scale back the number of players they place in the minors, Lombardi maintained that developing from within is still less expensive than buying free agents.

"The system has its flaws, but it was initially set up so that you could draft and develop," he said. "You can draft kids, and ideally you shouldn't have to deal with the concept of losing them until they turn 28 or 29. Unlike most sports, that gives you a lot of time.

"It gets harder and harder to get players to play for the jersey, but if you look at the history of sport, that's the way winners are built."

Lombardi said the Sharks, now under the hand of Doug Wilson, are just coming into their own as an NHL power.

"They are kids who grew up together, and they're just beginning to reach their potential," he said. "As a team, they have a lot of good years still ahead."

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.