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NHL Draft: A Cautionary Note about High Schoolers

The SBN Mock Draft is rolling down a river much like the song by Tina Turner, and while the draft has not hit the final third, two U.S. high school prospects have already been selected: Zach Budish by Minnesota's Hockey Wilderness and Chris Kreider by St. Louis', uh, St. Louis Game TimeSt. Louis Game Time has a profile and a rationale for selecting Kreider; Die by the Blade also has a profile on him as well.  As for Budish, Matchsticks and Gasoline has a profile on the kind of player he is.

While the two players are raved for their skill sets - physical, mental, and technical - the common concern is the level of hockey they played at.   Yes, they destroyed everything at a high school level, but how good is that really?  Yes, prospects who do well in junior or college or in Europe don't always meet expectations.  Yet, the players from those junior, college, or European teams are also facing strong competition - other prospects, soon-to-be-prospects, already-drafted prospects, and players who are not and will not be NHL propsects, but are definitely good at that level.  And for most first round picks, they tend to be involved playing internationally at some level or will be selected by their nation to represent abroad in hockey.

High school players normally don't get that experience, especially on the international level.  Budish could have been an exception, though.  Budish represented the US at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in 2008, but based on this article at, USA Hockey doesn't send their best young players to this tournament. Budish was a "B" squad player and did very well on paper with 3 goals and 2 assists in 4 games, but he was not considered for any other tourney possibly due to his injury.  Regardless, his amount of experience is largely limited to being awesome in high school.

Let me break it down from a Devils perspective. Since 1994, David Conte's first NHL draft as Devils' director of scouting, the Devils have selected players from all over the place.   Out of 144 picks, they selected only 5 players right out of high school.  You, however, will most likely only recognize one of them, Paul Martin, selected 62nd overall in 2000 from Elk River. (Aside, Martin also played football at Elk River, as best documented by IPB and pictures of their TV.You could argue that Martin is a special case in that he was at least named the best high school hockey player, Mr. Hockey, in all of Minnesota in 2000.  Given that hockey in Minnesota is massive akin to lacrosse on Long Island, basketball in Indiana, or football in various states in the US, that's a pretty big accomplishment. (Aside: Erik Rasmussen, Trent Klatt, Jeff Taffe, and Tom Chorske also won it, so it is perhaps not indicative of any success later on)  Even then, he wasn't even close to be considered as a first round pick.

The other four?  Mark Fayne (155th overall in 2005), Justin Dziama (242nd overall in 1999), Ryan Smart (134th overall in 1994), and Mike Hanson (269th in 1994).  Who? Exactly.  And note that none of them have been first round selections.

Let me offer a more appropriate cautionary example, someone Islanders fans would be more than familiar with: Mike Rupp.  You see, Mike Rupp does have a place in Devils lore with his game winning goal in Game 7 of the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals.  Rupp is a NHL regular player, albiet as a physical, fourth line winger.   However, did you know that Rupp was drafted right out of high school?  Indeed, back in 1998, buzz was building over some 6'5", 218 lbs. kid from Ohio who could, get this, skate really well for someone that size.  Rupp dominated at St. Edwards in Cleveland with 50 points in 20 games.  (UPDATE: I got it wrong, Rupp was in the OHL when drafted after being dominant in high school - but he did very little in the OHL to justify his buzz, much of it was explained away by his lack of experience which came from, you guessed it, playing high school hockey.) OK, I see the appeal - there aren't many huge men who can glide real well, but he was definitely a project at best.   As described at Isles Info (who called the '98 draft a "disaster" for the Islanders), Isles GM Mike Milbury and his scouting staff felt the potential for him becoming the next John LeClair was enough to take him 9th overall.

Yet, the moment Rupp jumped to the next level, the OHL in his case, the production dropped to middling for a first round NHL draft pick (100 points in 121 games over 3 years, but that didn't stop the Islanders), his skills didn't develop nearly as much both on offense and on defense, and when it came to decide whether to sign Rupp, the Islanders had no issue with not signing him.  Needless to say, the project did not yield the expected results. Rupp re-entered the draft and was selected 76th overall in 2000 by New Jersey, by which time, there were no allusions that he could become a goal scoring power forward.

My point is that a lot of what got him considered to be a first round pick - and eventually drafted so high by the Islanders - was based on a lot of projection.  You have to do some sort of projection when selecting anyone in the NHL Draft (or in any draft, for that matter).  But it's much more of a reach for high school players because the level of competition is so weak and the experience by the player is so limited. 

I'm not saying players drafted from high school are bad choices to make it into the NHL.  Rupp eventually did it, Martin made it, and, more recently, Blake Wheeler is making it happen in Boston.  Just that they are very risky picks. All prospects in a way are risks, but it's moreso for high school players as I've described. 

Therefore, I would be very surprised and a little concerned if the Devils draft either Budish or Kreider with the 23rd overall pick - I would prefer they would consider a prospect who has excelled against tougher competition.    Both could turn out to be great players and I could turn out to be dead wrong (something I'm used to, admittedly).  CSS does rank both of them fairly highly (e.g. Kreider at 14th overall ahead of Nazem Kadri, Kyle Palmieri, etc.), after all.  I  feel the projection could be a massive reach and teams may end up with another Rupp-like situation.