The NHL draft is all about futures. Just about every team comes away from the event, looks at its list and can imagine that help is on the way. But when that help arrives is another matter entirely.
Not all prospects start to pay dividends at the same time and sometimes the best players in the long run don't get it together as quickly as a middle-ranked prospect. The example that comes to mind is Mike Fisher -- he was Ottawa's second-rounder (44th overall) in 1998 and Brad Richards who was Tampa Bay's third-rounder (66th overall). Fisher surprised a lot of people by skating right into the playoff-bound Senators' lineup at 18 (something that No. 2 overall Jason Spezza wasn't able to do in 2001). Richards seemed to have an easier task cracking the also-ran Lightning lineup but didn't. He was sent back to Rimouski after his first pro camp.
I like Fisher but I think I'm in the majority outside the Fisher-Underwood household in believing that Richards went on to be a much better player.
Simon Gagne was Philly's first choice in the same draft and he was sent back to junior at 18 also -- his career has been compromised by injury somewhat but he was a two-time 40-goal scorer and stands about 100 career goals ahead of Fisher. Fisher, at 18, was much closer to the top of his projection than either Richards and Gagne were. Some players arrive at the draft ready to play the following fall, others need a season or two more work in junior or college, and others will need a year or two of minor-pro beyond that.
The point of that preamble is so when you read our list of ETAs for this year's draft class, you don't read them as a judgment about the players' eventual upside. NHL readiness and long-term potential are related to a degree, but still separate and distinct. That said, here's when you can expect to see this year's first-round picks suit up in the NHL for the first time.
Can Play Tomorrow
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton Oilers
Gabriel Landeskog, Colorado Avalanche
Adam Larsson, New Jersey Devils
Mika Zibanejad, Ottawa Senators
Sean Couturier, Philadelphia Flyers
This quintet is ready to go, but even here there are subdivisions. There are those who can play in the NHL this season and those who must make the big league club or risk stalling their development. In that latter group you're looking at late birthdays (in this case late '92s). Larsson has no reason to go back to the Swedish Elite League. He has played against pros in the second-best league in the world and he needs to start getting a handle on the North American game. Couturier seemed to stall this year, his third season in the QMJHL, and a fourth would put him on a treadmill. Landeskog is a late birthday too and even though he has only two seasons in North America, he has a pro's body and temperament.
You couldn't say that Nugent-Hopkins has a pro body but scouts I talked to at the draft suggest that his uncanny hockey sense and elusiveness will serve him well. Yeah, it would be safer perhaps to have him put in another season in Red Deer but the Oilers can make that read after a couple of weeks when they have a nine-game window to return him to junior. Zibanejad could go back to Sweden but he has a physical package along the lines of Fisher at 18 and a nastiness that will buy him room.
One Season Away
Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers
Ryan Strome, New York Islanders
Ryan Murphy, Carolina Hurricanes
Sven Baertschi, Calgary Flames
Joel Armia, Buffalo Sabres
Oscar Klefbom, Edmonton Oilers
Obviously with the first four names on the list, readiness has nothing much to do with skill -- you could make a case that they're more skilled than everybody on the first list with the exception of RN-H. It comes down to physical maturity. Huberdeau is a spindle. So many draftees end up with injuries coming straight out of junior, even physical studs such as Rick Nash and Ilya Kovalchuk. You don't want to run the risk of a catastrophic injury before he has finished growing. Strome will probably get a shot at sticking from the Islanders -- he might be more ready than Josh Bailey was when GM Garth Snow rushed him into the lineup. But I'm going with what should happen, not what might occur on a GM's whim. Murphy, as frequently documented, needs to add strength to play at the next level. Baertschi has a shot -- his hockey sense would serve him well. Still, unless you're comprehensively qualified I'm playing it safe with these prospects. A few scouts suggested that Armia might be on the first list and his size and game augurs well for that. But Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Erik Karlsson and Tyler Myers are probably the instructive models for Klefbom.
Two Seasons Away
Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets
Dougie Hamilton, Boston Bruins
Jonas Brodin, Minnesota Wild
Duncan Siemens, Colorado
Mark McNeill, Chicago Blackhawks
Jamieson Oleksiak, Dallas Stars
Nathan Beaulieu, Montrea Canadiensl
Stefan Noesen, Ottawa
Tyler Biggs, Toronto Maple Leafs
Matt Puempel, Ottawa
Vladislav Namestnikov, Tampa Bay Lightning
Zack Phillips, Minnesota
This is a large group, as you can see. Scheifele would be well-served by having a chance to excel and succeed at the major junior level before going to the pros. Hamilton might have been a contender to land in the NHL this fall in another organization, and there are those who would have tried to force it -- patience is easier when you own a Cup and a solid blueline.
Of this group here I might be inclined to bump McNeill up a year because of his physical maturity but that wouldn't be consistent with the Blackhawks' modus operandi. Brodin's skill set is great but I think putting him on the same track with Ekman-Larsson is a tough go. Beaulieu could probably mirror the development of P.K. Subban -- a year in junior and most of a year in the AHL before prime time. I wouldn't argue with you if you said Noesen, Puempel and Biggs are three seasons away, but I sense their organizations will want to push the envelope a little and those players might be up to it.
Three Seasons or More
Jonathan Miller, New York Rangers
Connor Murphy, Phoenix Coyotes
Joe Morrow, Pittsburgh Penguins
Stuart Percy, Toronto
Phillip Danault, Chicago
Rickard Rakell, Anaheim Ducks
Nicklas Jensen, Vancouver Canucks
I see Miller and Murphy as putting in two years of college and at least part of one in minor pros. (With Murphy's injury history, caution seems not just reasonable but mandatory.) Morrow and Percy won't have a real shot at full-time NHL status until 2013 at the earliest but more likely 2014. Danault is very slight and, again, Chicago likes to work their guys into their system in the AHL -- he's also looking at a logjam ahead of him. Rakell is physically ready but I think he needs to succeed a little more at the junior level, play a more prominent role with the Swedish team in the world juniors and put in a pro apprenticeship in the AHL.
There's every shot that someone from the second round can move ahead of many of these guys in ETA. I'd bet on it. Someone from outside the first round might even join the first group. It sounds unlikely but that's what Fisher and Patrice Bergeron did. At the end of day, though, it's not a question of how soon the train leaves the station but rather how far the track extends in front of it.