For the entirety of the 2014-15 season, the Nashville Predators have been perhaps the most unlikely mainstay at or near the top of the NHL standings. Few would disagree that this is in no small part due to the goaltending of Pekka Rinne, certain to be a finalist for the Vezina Trophy as the top goaltender in professional hockey.
Another undeniable fact is that the Preds’ stellar season is very much attributable to the shrewd machinations of General Manager David Poile. The third longest-standing GM in the NHL (behind only multiple Stanley Cup-winning legends Lou Lamoriello and Ken Holland), Poile has been the only general manager in the Nashville franchise’s 18-year history. Poile is known for (among other positive attributes) a proclivity for drafting and developing talent, thus giving his small-market team the ability to perennially compete in the ultra-competitive NHL. His draft resume is littered with mid-round gems, such as his coup of 2003 when Poile tabbed a pair of studs with Shea Weber and Kevin Klein in the second round, or in 2008 when he snagged Roman Josi with the eighth pick in round two. He is also known for late round steals, such as Mike Santorelli (6th round, 2004), Patric Hornqvist (7th round, 2005) and Craig Smith (4th round, 2009).
With all of that success, if any hockey analyst or pundit was asked what Poile’s most notable draft steal was, they would undeniably agree: the 2004 selection of Predators’ franchise goaltender Pekka Rinne in the 8th round, 258th overall.
The NHL victory leader in 2011-12 and a soon-to-be three-time Vezina Trophy finalist, Rinne has been the backbone of the Predators since taking over the helm as starting netminder in the 2008-09 campaign. A huge target at 6’5″ and with the athleticism of a much smaller man, Rinne is just one single victory short of 200 career wins (at the time of the writing of this column). There is little debate that he stands among the elite goaltenders in the world.
Thus, the obvious questions must be asked:
1)How were 257 players drafted ahead of Rinne in 2004?
2)How was David Poile such a genius that he was able to identify Rinne’s talent when 29 other NHL GMs passed Rinne over about seven times each?
At first glance, both of these questions seem as relevant as they are baffling. NHL GMs disperse legions of professional scouts world-wide all year long with the mission of identifying top amateur talent in preparation for the draft. These scouts are the best of the best — their livelihoods are based on their proclivity at analyzing top young talent. General Managers and scouts make or break their careers on draft day. In addition, there are several notable scouting bureaus who rank NHL draft-eligible talent. This is their business. Yet of the major scouting bureaus — the CSS, the ISS and Red Line Report — not one of them had Rinne listed among their top 200 players or their top 20 goaltenders.
Again, what did Poile catch that everyone else missed? Moreover, how is Poile such a genius that he managed to pull of one of the draft heists of the century?
In order to uncover these truths, I researched every David Poile-run draft in his 18-year Predators career. The answers I unearthed were not what many would expect.
In the 2001-02 season, Nashville finished the year with a putrid 28-41-13 record, far out of the playoff picture. They were backstopped by a pair of solid net minders in Mike Dunham and Tomas Vokoun, but neither was exactly what one would label a superstar. In the 2002 draft the ensuing June, Poile set about addressing this. In the 6th round he drafted goalie Mike McKenna and in the 9th round he took a flyer on another goalie, Matthew Davis. McKenna played in the NCAA and Davis in the QMJHL. McKenna had a cup of coffee in the NHL (38 career games), while Davis never made it to the proverbial big time.
In 2003, Poile looked to Europe. With the North American amateur hockey leagues being naturally more heavily scouted by the North American professional hockey teams, it was more difficult to unearth late-round talent at any position, especially goaltender. Yet in the early part of the 21st century, more and more European goaltenders were enjoying success in the NHL. Czech-born Dominik Hasek had already established himself as the best non-North American goalie in NHL history, while fellow Czech Roman Cechmanek was statistically one of the best goalies in the NHL over the course of the 2002-03 campaign. Meanwhile in Scandinavia, Finland was establishing itself as a new hotbed of talented young puckstoppers. Poole took his late-round chances for the second consecutive year, drafting Finnish goalie Teemu Lassie in the 4th round and Czech goalie Miroslav Hanuljak in the 7th round. Neither one of the pair ever made it to the NHL.
Of course, the next draft year was 2004, the year Poile stole Pekka Rinne with the 258th overall pick. This is commonly known information. What is not commonly known is that Rinne was the 28th goaltender taken in the 2004 draft, right after Japanese-born Yukata Fukufuji, taken by the Los Angeles Kings 20 picks prior at 238th overall.
So, Poile is a genius, right?
Well, what if we told you that Rinne was not even the first goaltender that Nashville drafted in 2004? Three rounds and 119 picks earlier, Poile’s Predators drafted Kyle Moir of the Swift Current Broncos, a rangy 6’3″ goalie who was considered one of the top puckstoppers in the Western Hockey League. Moir not only never made it to the NHL, he never even made it to the AHL. Moir’s highest level of professional hockey was his one career game for the ECHL’s Utah Grizzlies in 2010, in which he allowed six goals, took the loss, and never played another game of professional hockey.
If Poile was so all-knowing, why did he clearly think so much higher of Moir’s upside over Rinne’s that he drafted him so much earlier? Following the Moir pick, Poile had five more picks before his 258th overall selection of Rinne. He drafted three defensemen and a pair of centers. Poole also had two 8th round picks. His first was 243rd overall, which he used on defenseman Denis Kulyash. Again, Kulyash never made it to the NHL. If Poile was so all-knowing about Rinne’s bright future, why did he not even take the young Finnish goaltending prospect with his first pick of eighth round?
Perhaps Poile’s draft genius was not so much genius as blind luck?
Think about it — the litany of NHL stars picked in late rounds. We like to think of NHL GM’s as sage pillars of wisdom, as hockey geniuses of the highest order. Pavel Datsyuk in 6th round, 1998. Henrik Lundqvist in the 7th round, 2000. Joe Pavelski in the 7th round, 2003. Most recently, Johnny Gaudreau in the 4th round, 2011. Yet the obvious, glaring, blatant fact remains that all of these players were passed up multiple times by the teams that drafted them before the teams that drafted them actually drafted them. As for Rinne, he wasn’t even the top late-round goalie the Predators took with their 10th draft pick in the 2004 draft. Rinne clearly was not priority numero uno.
Let’s skip ahead. After drafting a remarkable six goalies in three years, Nashville laid off the position in the 2005 draft. In 2006 they were back at it, however, taking Colgate University’s Mark Dekanich (one career NHL game) in the 5th round. In 2007, Poile went higher than usual, drafting American Jeremy Smith in the 2nd round (never made NHL) and another Finnish net minder, Atte Engren, in the 7th round (also never made NHL).
Even after Rinne was a Predators’ prospect for three years, Poile clearly did not foresee him as a franchise goaltender. Otherwise, why would he keep drafting them, in higher and higher rounds? In 2006 the Predators used an invaluable first-round draft pick (18th overall) on highly touted WHL goaltender Chet Pickard, who the hockey media immediately ordained as the Predators goalie of the future. Just in case, Poile also used a 7th round pick on Swedish netminder Anders Lindback. Picard has yet to make the NHL, while Lindback is a fringe-backup at the professional level, nearing 100 games of NHL experience.
As stated, by the 2009-10 campaign, Rinne had firmly established himself as the Predators starting goalie. Regardless of this, Poile used the Predators first draft pick (38th overall) on Swedish net minder Magnus Hellberg just one year later in the 2011 draft. Rinne followed with his best career year in 2011-12, but in that June’s draft he used his last pick on Czech puckstopper Marc Mazanec. The next year Poile drafted yet another pair of Finnish goalies, Juuse Saros (4th round) and Janne Juvonen (7th round).
There are only so many spots for goalies on a National Hockey League team. Whereas each team dresses 12 forwards and 6 defensemen per game, there is only room for two goaltenders. Since the start of the century in 2000, Poile has drafted more goalies than any other GM (16). He has also drafted more European goalies than any other GM (10) during the same time span, and more Finnish goalies (6) than any other GM.
Upon analyzing the Nashville Predators’ draft history under David Poile, what became clear to me was this: Poile is not a genius, and Poile is a genius.
This sounds preposterous, but it is not. My point is that, quite frankly, when Poile drafted Rinne he had no idea that Rinne would be this good at the NHL level.
What was Poile doing?
He was throwing darts with a blindfold on.
This, of course, sounds far from what we like to think of as genius. My argument is that he did not hit the bullseye with Pekka Rinne by blind luck. No, David Poile had a good idea of the direction he needed to throw his darts in, reared back, and fired away repeatedly until he hit his target.
Essentially, Poile narrowed down a few salient facts, and developed a philosophy around it.
Fact One: Goaltending is the most important position in the sport of hockey.
Any hockey expert will tell you this. Without good goaltending, it is virtually impossible for a team to reach the playoffs much less do any damage in them.
Fact Two: Goaltending is the most difficult position to project the talent ceiling for at the amateur level.
If you asked the average hockey fan to name three elite centers, what names would you hear? Sidney Crosby? Steven Stamkos? Jonathan Toews? Evgeni Malkin?
What these players all have in common is that they were all drafted in the top three picks of the NHL draft. What about asking the same question with top wingers? Alex Ovechkin was a first overall pick. So was Patrick Kane, as was Rick Nash. It gets a bit more murky on defense where, although Drew Doughty was taken second overall, Shea Weber and Duncan Keith were both second round picks and Zdeno Chara was taken in the third.
When it comes to goaltending, all those patterns go out the window. Sure, Carey Price was a sixth-overall selection. But the other three names you’re most likely to hear? Jonathan Quick was a third rounder. Henrik Lundqvist was a seventh-round pick. And, as I have quite monotonously drilled into your head for the duration of this column, Pekka Rinne was an eighth rounder.
What does this tell you? Simply that the development of a forward is easier to predict at the amateur level than the development of a defenseman, while the development of a netminder is the most difficult of all to forecast. The conclusion of this hypothesis is that it is probably wiser to take a chance on a high-upside goalie in the late rounds of the draft than it is to take a chance on a high-upside center.
Fact Three: European goaltenders are gaining in prominence in the NHL, while Finland is the fastest-growing developer of goalies in the world.
In 2004, when Poile drafted Rinne, the Finnish goaltender with the most games played in the NHL was the Atlanta Thrashers’ Pasi Nurminen, not exactly a household name by any standards. Yet, at that time, many of their amateur goaltenders were soaring through the ranks giving them a national reputation as the next “goalie factory”. Skip a decade ahead into the present and time proved those whispers to be true.
Among prominent NHL goaltenders, we have Finland natives Rinne, Tukka Rask, Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi. There are also a great deal more European starters than at any other time in the history of the NHL: Russians Sergei Bobrovsky and Semyon Varlamov and Henrik Lundqvist is from Sweden. Frederik Andersen hails from Denmark. Slovakia produced Jaroslav Halak and Ondrej Pavelec, while Jonas Hiller is from Switzerland. More than one-third of the NHL starters are no longer North American.
How is Poile not a genius?
The facts speak loudly: he had little idea of how good Pekka Rinne would become as an NHL goaltender. Otherwise, he would have taken Rinne before Kevin Moir. Otherwise, he would not have taken five more goalies in the ensuing four drafts, using a valuable second-round pick on Jeremy Smith in 2007 and an extremely valuable first-round pick on Chet Pickard in 2008. David Poile was throwing darts, hoping to his a target he could not even see.
Then, how is Poile in fact a genius?
He did his homework enough to know the direction in which to throw his darts. Poile developed a draft philosophy, to continue drafting goalies (especially big, athletic ones from Europe) in the entry draft (especially in the late rounds) in the not-random, but rather empirically proven hopes of landing a future franchise backstopper.
Analyze any successful franchise, and what they all have in common is a clear draft strategy which they religiously adhere to. The Detroit Red Wings’ GM Ken Holland has consistently found gems in the draft by using mid- and late-round picks on high-upside European forwards, a philosophy which has garnered them such players Johan Franzen, Gustav Nyqvist, Tomas Tatar and Teemu Pulkkinen. Holland’s acolyte, Steve Yzerman, took over the reins in Tampa Bay and employed a similar strategy, resulting in mid-to-late-round gems Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat and Radko Gudas.
Conversely, unsuccessful franchises seem to have no philosophy. For example, take the Edmonton Oilers, who have struggled for years despite a litany of high draft positions. How many players drafted outside of the top 20 overall have they had attain any success at the NHL level in the past decade? The answer is only two: Jeff Petry (45th overall, 2006) and Jordan Eberle (22nd overall, 2008).
In essence, the surest way to succeed as an NHL general manager is to succeed in the NHL draft. And the surest way to succeed in the NHL draft is to make the draft a science, to study the tendencies and the histories and the empirical data to give oneself the greatest chance to succeed. Nashville Predators’ General Manager David Poile has done precisely this with his knowledge of the value of the goaltending position, and his diligence at continually drafting high-upside, usually European goaltenders. This has resulted in both Pekka Rinne and a place near the top of the 2014-15 NHL standings.