How great players get overlooked

Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk lasted until the sixth round in the 1998 NHL draft. Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images

For obvious reasons, this space usually focuses on the bluest of blue-chip prospects, the projected lottery picks identified as future NHL superstars by scouts and media types across the globe.

But with the 2012 draft now just three months away, it's important to remember that this spring's Stanley Cup playoffs will be littered with household names who were overlooked initially, were chosen in the late rounds, or who, in some cases, weren't taken at all.

Perhaps no team in the NHL has been better at turning lumps of coal into diamonds than the Detroit Red Wings.

By now it's part of draft lore that Pavel Datsyuk went in the sixth round in 1998, or that 209 players were selected before Henrik Zetterberg was called to the podium a year later. (Zetterberg, not expecting to be drafted, was actually back home in Sweden when the choice was announced.) Heck, even the great Nicklas Lidstrom slipped to the third round in 1989.

It begs the question: What did Detroit see in those players that others didn't? And if they had even the slightest inkling that any of those players would develop into perennial All-Stars, wouldn't they have grabbed them a lot earlier?

"The big thing is when you're dealing with 17-year-old kids, you just don't know what the end result is going to be by the time they're 23," said Mark Leach, an amateur scout for Detroit in 1994. "Every year you have late bloomers, guys who all of a sudden grow an inch or two at 19."

Leach remembers being huddled in the club's war room when his colleague, Detroit's now-legendary director of European scouting, Hakan Andersson, made the case for Zetterbeg and Datsyuk.

"They had excellent skill, but at that point in time they weren't big or strong because they were young," Leach says. "Hakan knew that they could play in Europe another four or five years, play for their national team, and then at 22-23 -- if they were big enough and strong enough -- they would have a chance to come over and play."

The Red Wings' scouting staff has remained mostly intact since being constructed in the early 1990s by general manager Ken Holland and assistant GM Jim Nill. They swap notes on players constantly, Leach says, and trust one another's opinion so much that if one passionately believes the organization should draft a particular player, it usually does.
From there, patience is the key.

"The percentages are low -- more often than not, the kids [drafted late] don't succeed," Leach says. "But you don't give up on a kid. You take an interest in him, follow him, and let him learn how to play at the various levels. Some kids need lots of time; maybe they don't develop until their second or third year of pro hockey."

That's exactly what happened with former fourth-rounder Ryan Callahan, now captain of the New York Rangers -- another club that has found great success with late picks in recent years.

"The problem," says Rangers director of player personnel Gordie Clark, "is the scout has to make the call in a player's draft year, which might not be a very good year for him."

It wasn't for Callahan, who didn't get picked the first year he was eligible. The Blueshirts took Callahan the following summer, in 2004, with the 127th overall pick. "But it wasn't until his third year in junior that he had a huge season," Clark says.

An even bigger coup for the Rangers was getting Henrik Lundqvist in the seventh round in 2000. Defenseman Dan Girardi, a candidate for the Norris Trophy this season, was never drafted at all.

"It isn't that everybody missed him -- he matured late," says Clark. "You just never know how these guys will turn out."

Something to keep in mind in June.