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The Building Blocks of Success

Tuesday, 09.11.2007 / 11:27 AM CT / Features
By Kevin Wilson  - Nashville Predators
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The Building Blocks of Success
- To win in the NHL, teams are relying more and more on effective drafting, especially in the later rounds. -

It all started in Year One – building a competitive team year in and year out involved successfully drafting a wide array of players. Not only from the first two rounds, where the majority of NHL players come from, but with each subsequent selection from round three and beyond.

Steve Sullivan during his rookie season of 1996-97 with the New Jersey Devils.
Of the 17 2005-06 Nashville regulars who are coming back to the squad this season, eight were drafted beyond the second round, and another two were originally signed as undrafted free agents. Most notably coming from the waning rounds are Chris Mason (fifth-round pick of New Jersey), Marek Zidlicky (sixth-round pick of N.Y. Rangers), and Steve Sullivan, selected 233rd overall (ninth round) by the Devils in 1994.

Inside the organization, the Preds have uncovered a number of late-round impact players, led by Martin Erat. The Trebic, Czech Republic native, who was tabbed in the seventh round, 191st overall in 1999, has had 106 points over the past two seasons. Others over the years include Denis Arkhipov, a 20-goal scorer from 2001-02, taken in the third round of the 1998 draft, and gritty, stay-at-home defenseman Karlis Skrastins, taken 230th (ninth round) the same year. In 2006-07 Skrastins set the record for most consecutive games by a defenseman with 487 straight. That streak started with the Preds back on Nov. 30, 1999.

Even more emphasis has been put on developing homegrown talent since the implementation of the salary cap prior to the 2005-06 season, putting the pressure on for scouts and team personnel at the draft table each June.  The due diligence by Nashville in this process is evident as one scans the 2007 training camp roster. Out of the 52 players under contract (three are free-agent invites) or in the organization attending camp, 17 (33 percent) were picked by Nashville in the third round or lower from 1999-2007. Twelve of these 17 are under contract and are expected to play for the Preds, or their AHL affiliate in Milwaukee.

Fenton (left) has been with the Predators organization since the inaugural 1998-99 season.
Around since the very beginning, and now leading the charge is Assistant General Manager Paul Fenton, who previously served as the team’s Director of Player Development. Fenton, a free-agent signee out of Boston University, where he was a student-athlete for four years. He went on to play professionally from 1982-92. When speaking about affective scouting paying off, he looks no further than Erat’s situation in the franchise’s infant years.

The 5-11, 188-pound forward was virtually invisible in his draft-eligible year of 1998-99, suffering a badly broken leg playing for the Zlin ZPS junior club in his homeland, and was written off by many teams because of the injury.

“Both (western amateur scout) Rick Knickle and I identified Martin Erat as a hard-working kid that we thought could step it up,” Fenton said. “We liked what we saw of him at the World Under-18 Championships, so we took a chance on him.”

The pick paid off. Upon being drafted sixth overall in the 1999 Canadian Hockey League (major junior) Import Draft, Erat picked up his play considerably since arriving in North America. He played the 1999-00 and the 2000-01 seasons with Saskatoon and Red Deer of the Western Hockey League, and has blossomed into a dangerous playmaker for the Preds, scoring 20 goals in 2005-06 and a career-high 57 points in 2006-07.
Martin Erat has played in 331 games for the Preds since 2001. He was a 1999 seventh-round pick.

Like in Erat’s case, much of the late-round success involves a bit of luck. Patric Hornqvist, who recently signed with the team but will play next season in Sweden, didn’t gain much exposure in his draft-eligible season because of an injured knee. Nashville picked him with the final selection of the 2005 draft, 230th overall, and he has since gone on to break scoring records in the Swedish Elite League. In 2006-07, the Sollentuna, Sweden native tallied 23 goals in 49 games for Djurgardens IF, eclipsing the previous junior-player scoring record for the SEL held by Peter Forsberg.

Fenton credits European scout Lucas Bergman for evaluating Hornqvist’s upside and urging Nashville to select him. Likewise with Finland-based evaluator Janne Kekalainen who felt strongly about Pekka Rinne, a big, athletic goaltender the Predators selected 258th overall in 2004. Rinne has since developed into a high-end prospect, putting up numbers that earned him a spot on the American Hockey League All-Star Team as a member of the Milwaukee Admirals in 2005-06. He is expected to compete for the backup role behind Chris Mason this year.

“It is all about having confidence in your regional scouts, and having faith that they have discovered some guys that they really think have a special quality to them,” Fenton said. “We rely on the scouts to tell us about these guys from the beginning of the year to present, and evaluate them. Then, we weigh everything we are given, put it into order, with everyone having input, and we make our decision from there.”

Evaluation process is not a given for the early rounds either

Fenton said that even for the selection of the high-profile, first-rounders that are coveted by all 30 teams, it is the scouts, driving to small towns in the dead of winter to watch them play, who put in the grunt work. While teams expect these prospects to make the big team and develop into stars, it doesn’t always work out that way. Six of the franchise’s eight first-round picks played significant roles for the team in 2005-06, with only one, David Legwand in 1998, coming in the top five selections. Few teams can boast that type of early-round success.

“It certainly comes down to the best player,” Fenton said of the process. “We, unlike a lot of teams, have not had a lot of picks high in the round. A lot of times, teams have to go through a lot of pain through their own NHL seasons in order to rebuild with high picks. We haven’t had that luxury which is why I really believe a lot of the credit for how well we have been able to do goes to our scouts for the job they have done in the trenches to get quality players.”

Fenton said finding players that have been passed up or overlooked is one of the most gratifying parts of draft day in retrospect, but it pales in comparison to his most memorable draft moment.

Drafts create memories

Paul Fenton with 2003 first-round pick Ryan Suter.
“The 2003 Draft in Nashville was such a high; going up there in the first round and being welcomed by the hometown fans was incredible, especially since it was the first time I had run an amateur draft,” Fenton said. “It was both nerve-wracking and fulfilling because we made our mark in the scouting world that year by drafting the players we were able to.”

Fenton characterizes that draft as a “once in a blue moon” draft because of both the caliber of players and the depth that was available. Signing defensemen Richard Stehlik (76th overall) and Alexander Sulzer (98th overall) after the 2006-07 season meant six of the first seven selections in the Nashville Draft were signed by the team, while others have turned down contracts to stay closer to home in Europe. The Class of 2003 includes both Ryan Suter (seventh overall) and Shea Weber (49th overall) who are both budding superstars in the NHL, and are establishing themselves in international competition, representing their respective countries at the 2007 World Championships in May.

“Most teams are satisfied with two guys out of a given draft, but
The 2003 Entry Draft floor in Nashville.
realistically, we think we have at least seven NHL players out of there,” Fenton said. “That is an incredible ratio for your scouts to turn NHL players and prospects out at. If you can do that, then your organization benefits from it tremendously. You have to give our scouts a lot of credit for what they did that year.”

The 2003 Nashville Entry Draft is not only remembered for its unheard of crop of talent though. Fenton said to this day every time he asks someone what their favorite draft to attend was the answer is always the same.

“Every hockey person I have ever talked to has said Nashville was their favorite draft because of the hospitality we had, in addition to the preparation and professionalism of the organization,” Fenton said. “It doesn’t hurt that the downtown area is so fun and encompassing for people to come and take in.”

Training Camp Attendees Drafted in the third round or later:
Position Round Year
*Pekka Rinne


*Richard Stehlik
*Alexander Sulzer
*Janne Niskala
*Cody Franson
Teemu Laakso
Robert Dietrich


*Martin Erat
*Oliver Setzinger
*Jordin Tootoo
*Mike Santorelli
Patric Hornqvist
*Ryan Maki
*Cal O’Reilly
Victor Sjodin
Mark Santorelli
*Patrick Thuresson


* - Indicates player is expected to play in the NHL/AHL for the 2007-08 season.




1 z - DAL 82 50 23 9 267 230 109
2 x - STL 82 49 24 9 224 201 107
3 x - CHI 82 47 26 9 235 209 103
4 y - ANA 82 46 25 11 218 192 103
5 x - LAK 82 48 28 6 225 195 102
6 x - SJS 82 46 30 6 241 210 98
7 x - NSH 82 41 27 14 228 215 96
8 x - MIN 82 38 33 11 216 206 87
9 COL 82 39 39 4 216 240 82
10 ARI 82 35 39 8 209 245 78
11 WPG 82 35 39 8 215 239 78
12 CGY 82 35 40 7 231 260 77
13 VAN 82 31 38 13 191 243 75
14 EDM 82 31 43 8 203 245 70


F. Forsberg 82 33 31 1 64
R. Josi 81 14 47 -3 61
J. Neal 82 31 27 27 58
S. Weber 78 20 31 -7 51
M. Ribeiro 81 7 43 11 50
C. Smith 82 21 16 4 37
M. Ekholm 82 8 27 14 35
R. Johansen 42 8 26 10 34
R. Ellis 79 10 22 13 32
C. Jarnkrok 81 16 14 1 30
P. Rinne 34 21 10 .908 2.48
C. Hutton 7 5 4 .918 2.33