For fans across the world of sports, draft day is a time of excitement, anticipation and hope that your team will finally snag that missing piece who will turn your below-.500 season into a playoff run.
In professional sports like basketball and football, that elite guard or elusive quarterback your team picked up in the first round is expected to make an immediate impact the following season. This idea of one player coming in to turn your team around instantly is attractive to any sports fan, and is in part the reason why the NHL draft goes unnoticed to sports fans across the world.
Like most, the NHL Entry Draft has multiple rounds with the team order depending on previous season standings. It even has a system nearly identical to the NBA with the 15 teams who didn’t make the playoffs being entered into a weighted lottery to decide the first three picks in the draft.
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Where the discrepancy and sometimes confusion comes in is in that middle word “entry.”
North American players between the ages of 18 and 20, and European players of any age are eligible to enter the NHL draft. Once an eligible player is selected by a team in the NHL Entry Draft, that team holds the rights to that player until a decision by the team or athlete is made to pursue a contract.
This decision depends on both the player and the organization, but relies hugely on their performance with their respective collegiate, European or junior team.
Unlike football and basketball where athletes play at the collegiate level and then enter the draft in hopes of joining a professional team the next year, hockey players are often drafted before they even step onto their respective campus.
For example, 21-year-old Nova Scotia-native Nathan Mackinnon was selected No. 1 overall in the 2013 draft by the Colorado Avalanche following a successful stint with the Halifax Mooseheads, a Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) team. Mackinnon became the youngest Avalanche player to dress in a professional game at just 18 years old.
In the same draft, the Anaheim Ducks picked Wisconsin senior Grant Besse as the 147th pick overall. Besse recently finished his fourth and final year with the Badgers, and now hopes to sign with the Ducks for the upcoming season.
The Minnesota Wild officially signed sophomore star Luke Kunin after selecting him 15th overall in the 2016 draft. After playing his sophomore season and leading the Badgers to a Big Ten Championship appearance, Kunin decided to forgo his final two years at Wisconsin to join the team who selected him the year before.
The NHL draft can be complex, with unlimited outcomes, when it comes to selecting a player and getting them with the club.
The 18 to 20 age restriction for North American players makes most of the players drafted either recent high school graduates or freshman or sophomores in college. When a player that is, say, a junior or senior in college and is no longer eligible for the NHL draft, they have the opportunity to enter the league as an unrestricted free agent.
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For example, Wisconsin senior Corbin McGuire went undrafted during his years of eligibility but would have the option to enter the free agency market in hopes of being picked up by a professional team.
This draft format provides teams with a way to develop drafted players at zero cost to the organization, giving them the option as to when they want to sign the athlete.
Outside of Besse and Kunin the Badgers feature a host of drafted players.
- Boston Bruins selected junior Cameron Hughes with the 165th overall pick in the sixth round of the 2015 draft
- Toronto Maple Leafs selected freshman J.D. Greenway with the 72nd overall pick in the third round of the 2016 draft
- Arizona Coyotes selected senior Jed Soleway with the 193rd overall pick in the seventh round of the 2013 draft
- Boston Bruins selected freshman Trent Frederic with the 29th overall pick in the first round of the 2016 draft
- Winnipeg Jets selected junior Matt Ustaski with the 192nd overall pick in the seventh round of the 2014 draft
- Carolina Hurricanes selected freshman Max Zimmer with the 104th overall pick in the fourth round of the 2016 draft
As of now, these players will remain Badgers for the upcoming year in hopes of proving they’re worth an entry-level contract to their respective professional team.
So what does this mean for Wiscosin hockey? It means the team is filled with pro-level talent, but, like Kunin, that talent can be onto the next level in a blink of an eye.
There’s no doubt when it comes to professional hockey the drafting process can get a little messy. With so many leagues and so many possibilities it can be hard to know when your team will finally secure that first-round pick from two years ago, or pick up a seasoned college-aged free agent.
With Wisconsin hockey on the rise and a bright future ahead, Badger fans can only hope that their stars will stick around Madison for years to come.