Cox: Life without an NHL draft might be better

June 26, 2014, 2:40 PM

PHILADELPHIA — The NHL draft has always been one of my favourite events.

Went to my first one in Minnesota back 1989. The Doug Zmolek Draft. Still can’t believe the Islanders got it all wrong with Dave Chyzowski, although 126 NHL games is more than yours truly will ever skate in.

The intrigue around this year’s event, meanwhile, is as compelling as any draft in recent times, with speculation swirling about both the order in which players will be taken and the position teams will be in to draft when it comes time to actually make selections.

In Aaron Ekblad, Sam Bennett and Sam Reinhart, you’ve got three possible No. 1 selections. Florida is willing to move the top pick — it hasn’t happened since 2003, but the Panthers have done it twice in team history — and you’ve got intriguing wild card players, including Nick Ritchie, Kevin Fiala, Nik Ehlers, Thatcher Demko and Josh Ho-Sang.

My question, however, is whether this is all really necessary. Or more to the point, whether the draft is really the best way to distribute hockey talent among the NHL’s 30 member clubs.

The NHL, at its board meeting on Thursday, is also actively considering tweaks to the system, although that would have more to do with the draft lottery system.

But what if there was no draft at all?

Certainly, we’re getting a little window into what such a world might look at this week with the “interviewing” period during which NHL clubs are permitted to talk to unrestricted free agents, just not negotiate or sign them.

Agent Steve Bartlett told me this morning he’s got six or seven teams looking to discuss Tomas Vanek. Another agent, Anton Thun, is taking calls from teams on David Bolland. Dan Boyle’s agent is in town sifting through approaches from various clubs.

Nothing can happen until Tuesday, of course. But that could be one wild day, something like what happens in the U.S. on national signing day for all the NCAA football programs.

Well, couldn’t the recruitment of teenage hockey players work the same way?

Your first objection, of course, will be to say that the draft is vital to maintain competitive balance.

Sure about that?

The New York Rangers didn’t need high picks to get to the Stanley Cup final. Lots of teams, of course, could have picked Anze Kopitar ahead of of the L.A. Kings. Multiple high picks, meanwhile, don’t seem to be making the Islanders better. Or the Oilers. Or the Florida Panthers.

Good operations find ways to put good teams on the ice. Bad operations can’t be saved by the draft.

Moreover, as we see every year with U.S. college free agents, players with a choice don’t just flood to the best teams. Just as often, they are looking for opportunity, a chance to play sooner as opposed to later. Tyler Bozak signed with Toronto, not Detroit. Justin Schultz elected to become an Edmonton Oiler.

Finally, there’s a salary cap in place. Teams, particularly if they had to sign their junior-aged players rather than just draft them, would be limited to some degree in their ability to attract multiple players.

So let’s say there was no draft right now. Teams would have a week to wine and dine eligible 18-year-olds. Aaron Ekblad might well choose Buffalo or Florida. He might want to be a Leaf. He could, theoretically, choose to go to Chicago if the Blackhawks had the room, even knowing he might not be able to break into the NHL for another couple of years.

Next year, Connor McDavid could be courted. Those teams that didn’t get him might have the wherewithal to chase Jack Eichel. Might a team be able to get both? Theoretically, sure. But they’d have to do it within the confines of a rookie cap and a salary cap.

Why reward teams for being terrible with high picks? Why force talented young players to join lousy organizations?

The draft is an orderly way to distribute talent, sure, but whether it’s an effective way to distribute talent, maintain competitive integrity and motivate teams to improve their organizations is much less clear.

Plus, if you want to generate excitement about your sport, having a week to talk to eligible juniors followed by an official signing day would be an awfully good way of doing that.

It won’t happen, and as it stands, the draft is still a thoroughly entertaining exercise with a lot of history behind it.

Whether it’s the best way of doing things is another question entirely.

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