It is like the other professional drafts, with teams choosing amateur players who break into wide smiles when their names are called, even if — rather than being from U.C.L.A. or Tennessee — they come from the Peterborough Petes, MODO Hockey Ornskoldsvik or the University of North Dakota.
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The N.H.L. entry draft Friday and Saturday in St. Paul looks a lot like the N.F.L. and N.B.A. drafts. In a practical sense, however, it is closer to the baseball draft in that most players need several seasons of ripening at the amateur level or in the minor leagues. As a result, teams generally draft the best players available rather than picking with an eye toward filling a need.
Still, as in football and basketball, the top draft picks are often expected to make an immediate impact. In recent years high first-rounders have stepped right into the lineup, which is good news for Edmonton, which chooses first this year, followed by Colorado, Florida, the Devils and the Islanders.
“If you’re drafting high, why shouldn’t you expect a player to be ready right away?” said David Conte, the Devils’ scouting director for 17 of his 26 years with the club. “These are talented young guys. But then again, the one thing I’ve learned is that history doesn’t repeat itself. You never know what’s going to happen in a draft until you’re actually there.”
The league’s 30 clubs will run through seven rounds of picks, selecting the top previously undrafted 18- to 20-year-olds from Canadian junior teams, American colleges and European leagues. Most will never play in the N.H.L., and only a tiny minority will make it by next season, a feat achieved by only 21 draftees since 2005.
But the top choices are a different story. Among last year’s 30 first-rounders, Taylor Hall of Edmonton at No. 1, Tyler Seguin of Boston (No. 2), Jeff Skinner of Carolina (No. 7), Alexander Burmistrov of Atlanta (No. 8) and Cam Fowler of Anaheim (No. 12) became N.H.L. regulars. Skinner was named rookie of the year Wednesday.
In 2009, the first-rounders who made it immediately were John Tavares of the Islanders (No. 1), Victor Hedman of Tampa Bay (No. 2), Matt Duchene of Colorado (No. 3) and Evander Kane of Atlanta (No. 4).
Will the top five players drafted Friday — projected to be forwards Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Gabriel Landeskog and Jonathan Huberdeau, and defensemen Adam Larsson and Dougie Hamilton — make an immediate impact?
To help identify future stars, the N.H.L. runs a scouting combine in early June to evaluate 101 players. This year, Chicoutimi goalie Christopher Gibson scored the highest on hand-eye coordination and the 5-foot-6 Team USA forward Rocco Grimaldi had the lowest percentage of body fat. Prince Albert defenseman Mark McNeill had the strongest right-hand grip and second strongest left-hand grip, meaning it is hard to knock the stick out of his hands.
The combine was the culmination of two years of tracking by N.H.L. Central Scouting, the league bureau that has issued periodic rankings of draft-eligible players since 1975. There is no equivalent in the N.F.L., N.B.A. or Major League Baseball.
This year, Central Scouting ranked 390 players, based on evaluations from 29 scouts in North America and Europe. It ranked Nugent-Hopkins first among North Americans and Larsson first among Europeans.
But that is only the beginning. Each N.H.L. club has a scouting staff that conducts its own research.
“Scouting is still an eyes-on kind of thing, so we’ll go to hundreds of games, because you have to be there to make an evaluation,” said Fred Bandel of the Florida Panthers, who has also worked for Toronto and Montreal in 18 years as an N.H.L. scout. “We want to know about a prospect’s character, so we’ll watch his body language and comportment, and we’ll talk to a lot of people about him: coaches, housing parents and so on.”
What is the biggest change Bandel has seen?
“With the new rules since the lockout, small, skilled boys like Grimaldi can get drafted now,” he said. “That’s different than when I was with Montreal, and they told me don’t even look at anyone under 6 feet unless you’re sure he’s going to be a superstar.”
With Nugent-Hopkins expected to go either No. 1 or 2, the Islanders and the Devils are expected to end up with Landeskog, Larsson, Huberdeau or Hamilton. Sean Couturier, a star forward in the Quebec league, and Nathan Beaulieu, a Quebec league defenseman, are also in the mix.
The Rangers, meanwhile, have already pulled off a draft-choice coup, obtaining the highly touted 20-year-old Swedish defenseman Tim Erixon from the Calgary Flames in exchange for the Czech prospect Roman Horak and two second-round picks.
The Flames chose Erixon in the first round in 2009, No. 23 over all, but were unable to sign him. He would have gone back into the draft if still unsigned on June 1, so Calgary traded him.
“We wanted to make sure we turned that pick into an asset,” said Jay Feaster, the Flames’ general manager.
In exchange the Rangers got a player whose stock has only risen since 2009. Erixon is the son of the former Rangers forward Jan Erixon and spent the first five years of his life in Port Chester, N.Y. He starred in three world junior tournaments and has played three full seasons with Skelleftea in Sweden’s top league, the Elitserien. Last season, as a top-pair defenseman, he played alongside Larsson, the top blue liner available in this year’s draft, as Skelleftea finished third in the Elitserien and reached the finals in the playoffs.
And then there is always the possibility that a gem will be found in the lower rounds. Detroit had the savvy to pick Henrik Zetterberg 210th over all in 1999, and Chicago picked Dustin Byfuglien 245th in 2003.
“Anything could happen at any point in any year’s draft,” Conte said. “There’s no point in comparing them from year to year. Every one is special, so we’ll see what happens on Friday.”