The first ever draft pick of the Nashville Predators was still paying dividends almost 20 years later when the club reached the Stanley Cup final for the first time.
If there is a model for the Vegas Golden Knights to follow as the NHL’s 31st team enters its first draft Friday in Chicago, it might just be the Preds, an expansion squad in 1998 that built itself into annual playoff contender and eventual Stanley Cup finalist through years of shrewd drafting and player development.
David Legwand, that famed first Predators pick in 1998, was traded to Detroit in 2014 in a package that netted the club then-Swedish prospect Calle Jarnkrok, who became a helpful contributor during the Predators unlikely run to the final — which ended in a six-game defeat to the back-to-back champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
David Poile is ultimately responsible for the larger strategy of the Preds, guiding the team since day one following a lengthy tenure with the Washington Capitals where he was replaced by George McPhee, now the first GM of the Golden Knights.
McPhee molded the Capitals into yearly Stanley Cup threats over 17 years there through similarly effective manoeuvring at the draft and has already hinted at a similar path for the Knights — scooping up extra prospects and picks from the expansion draft process.
The Knights will make their first selection with the sixth-overall pick in Chicago in a draft said to be lacking in the slam-dunk superstars of recent years.
Qualifying for the playoffs in 10 of the past 13 seasons, the Preds have found stars where few expect them.
Consider 2008, when the club sent the 46th and 76th picks to Phoenix to pick Roman Josi in 38th overall. Nashville found Josi, a two-time all star who led all players in minutes during the 2017 post-season, in Switzerland of all places.
Only four Swiss-born defenders in NHL history, including Josi, have played over 100 games.
Nashville has been rightly lauded for drafting high-end defensive talent in later rounds.
Top-10 picks are thought to be essential to landing elite forces on the back-end, but Josi was a second rounder and so was Shea Weber, the three-time Norris trophy finalist now playing in Montreal. Mattias Ekholm, the sneaky emerging Swede, was a fourth round selection — 102nd overall in 2009.
Poile credits assistant GM Paul Fenton, who’s been with the club from the very beginning, and chief amateur scout Jeff Kealty, set to run his ninth draft, for such successes.
Pekka Rinne, the long-time Predators goaltender and another unearthed gem at the draft, said that "as long as I’ve been there, our (defencemen), they’ve been the core of our team."
Rinne, too, was a find — the 258th pick of 291 players selected in 2004.
A year after Rinne, the Preds found Patric Hornqvist with the final pick of the draft — 230th overall.
Lucas Bergman, one of the club’s European scouts, is credited with "banging the drum really hard" for Hornqvist, who had injury and skating issues to overcome.
"He got his way, thank goodness," Poile said of Bergman. "Patric was a great draft for us."
Hornqvist didn’t end up helping the Preds directly in their run to the Cup, but did net them James Neal, who’s scored 77 goals over three seasons in Nashville — adding six more en route to the final.
Collecting quality prospects over the years has helped the club net assets that way.
Weber fetched P.K. Subban in a blockbuster last summer; Martin Erat, a seventh rounder in 1999, returned Filip Forsberg, the high-rising Swedish winger who potted nine goals and 16 points in the playoffs. Seth Jones helped Nashville find a top-notch first line centre in Ryan Johansen, who starred for the club this year before going down with a thigh injury.
Jones was one of only two top-10 overall picks that Nashville has had since 2005.
The Preds, in a trend the Knights can only hope to follow, have found at least one future contributor in (nearly) every draft. A sampling of their more recent track record:
2014: Kevin Fiala (11th overall), Viktor Arvidsson (112th)
2013: Seth Jones (fourth), Juuse Saros (99th)
2012: Pontus Aberg (37th), Colton Sissons (50th), Jimmy Vesey (66th)
2010: Auston Watson (18th), Anthony Bitetto (168th)
2009: Ryan Ellis (11th), Taylor Beck (70th), Michael Latta (72nd), Craig Smith (98th), Ekholm (102nd), Gabriel Bourque (132nd)
2008: Colin Wilson (seventh), Josi (38th)