How many times have you flipped on a sporting event — hockey, football, baseball, basketball ... anything! — and heard an athlete's name and thought, "Who?"
Even for the most avid American hockey fan, it may happen more often when watching an NHL game than any other major sport. Between European imports, the AHL — arguably the most competitive and talented minor league sports league in the world — and the number of players suited up each night in the NHL, it becomes hard to keep track of who's who from game to game.
While it's difficult to follow Canada's major junior hockey league's in the U.S., there is a way to learn about many of the up-and-coming players years before they grace the ice in an NHL arena: the entry draft.There was a time when the NHL Entry Draft was nearly as difficult to follow as the 50-round Major League Baseball Draft. Information on the CHL was sparse, and prospective European players were practically unknown to everyone except scouts. The digital age has altered that. While it's still difficult to watch a lot of junior hockey here in the United States, information is readily available on a daily basis for those willing to seek it out. The shortening of the draft to seven rounds — at one point it was 12 — also thins out the pool of prospective draft picks.
By the holidays, determining who the top prospects are becomes clearer, and the World Junior Championships allows a glimpse at the best of the best from not only North America, but all over the world. Players often begin separating themselves from the pack at the WJCs. Scouting services likethe NHL-run Central Scouting and independant International Scouting Services (ISS) use performance at the World Juniors as a big measuring stick as they move closer and closer to producing their final draft rankings.
The last chance for many of us to see the draft-eligible players is during the Memorial Cup. The NHL Network has broadcast the May tournament the past couple seasons, showcasing top-flight talents like 2010 picks Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin and Jeff Skinner.
Once the Memorial Cup wraps up, focus moves to the draft. As the NHL playoffs churn through June, speculation about which player each team will select grows, specifically in cities where the NHL team failed to make the postseason and holds a high draft pick. TSN's Bob McKenzie, The Hockey News, ISS, Central Scouting, Red Line Report, McKeen's Hockey and countless others begin to weigh in with how they think the draft will unfold.
Sometimes things go as expected, and other times — like when the Hurricanes selected Skinner at No. 7 overall — the scouts show off their savvy by going off the board a little and landing a gem.
Armed with the information learned by following the draft, you'll find that, more and more, you recognize the names being called up and sent down in the transactions blotter. Or when your team makes a trade, like when Carolina landed Bobby Sanguinetti from the Rangers and Riley Nash from Edmonton, you'll not only recognize the name, but know that those players were former first round picks.
It won't be long before you know that the two players squaring off in a fight played together in Mississauga, and which players were, once upon a time, trade deadline acquisitions for a Memorial Cup championship team.