DEFUSING THE DATSYUK/ZETTERBERG ARGUMENTNo, it's not easy drafting skill in the later rounds

“You CAN draft skill in the later rounds – look where the Red Wings got Zetterberg and Datsyuk.”

An oft-repeated Reader Comment


Respectfully, it’s time to retire that one.


The Detroit organization has been exceptional at drafting and developing talent from a wide range of sources. There’s a reason assistant GM Jim Nill is interviewed for GM jobs and a reason the Red Wings do everything to keep him.


The drafting of Pavel Datsyuk 171st overall in 1998 and Henrik Zetterberg 210th overall in 1999 was an unparalleled combination of back-to-back scouting finds. They’re so good, they will help the Red Wings be a consistent contender for over a decade.


But think about this for a moment: do you really think the Red Wings themselves had any idea Datsyuk and Zetterberg would become great NHL players?


It’s true that one of the keys of drafting is making “value picks.” For example, if you know a player has almost no chance of being drafted before the fifth round, there’s no reason to take him in the first. Every team has a few guys on their list as their little secrets. I saw first-hand at the draft table how the Islanders kept Radek Martinek in their back pocket until the 228th overall pick in 1999 (they could have had Zetterberg 18 picks earlier!)


You can bank on this. If the Red Wings scouts truly knew Datsyuk and Zetterberg were going to be perennial all-stars, they would never have waited so long to take them. They might not have used a first or even a second round pick on them, but they would not have chosen Jari Tolsa (120th overall), Andrei Maximenko (149th) and Kent McDonell (181st) with their only three draft selections before tabbing Zetterberg.


Before they finally drafted Datsyuk, they would not have used rounds 2-5 to take Ryan Barnes, Tomek Valtonen, Jake McCracken, Brent Hobday, Calle Steen and Adam DeLeeuw.


The Datsyuk and Zetterberg picks were amazing. They were the stuff of which champions and legendary scouting careers are born. But don’t think teams – even as great as Detroit – have the ability to make a habit of it. Datsyuk and Zetterberg are the only A-list NHLers the Red Wings have produced in the late rounds since 1995. Other than the since-waived Kyle Quincey and maybe Darren Helm, they haven’t drafted any B-listers in the late rounds in the last 14 years either.


The New Jersey Devils are the NHL’s other standard-bearer for drafting and development. Led by prospect guru David Conte, the Devils took Paul Martin in the second round in 2000, Brian Gionta in the third round in 1998 and Colin White in the second round in 1996. They were also smart enough to stop the insanity in 2003 and move up in the first round to…well, you know.


But do you know the last three-star NHLer the Devils drafted in the fourth round or later?


Chris Mason, in the fourth round of the 1995 draft. Twelve years and several organizations later (including multiple stops in Nashville) Mason became a No. 1 goalie with the Predators.


Of course, it’s easy to list the outstanding players picked late in the draft in the last 30 years. But if it were so easy to actually draft late-round gems, Nill and Detroit and Conte and New Jersey – widely considered the best at the draft game – would find them more often than once or twice every 15 years.