By Rob Ficiur
This past week hockey’s annual Top Prospects game was played. The purpose of the game is to bring together the top players eligible for the upcoming draft.
In the last month three undrafted players have grabbed spotlights, each in their own all-star way. In spite of all the time and energy teams put into scouting the draft, there are always a few late bloomers who rise to the top.
1. Martin Jones – LA Kings, former Calgary Hitmen.
In 2008 there were 23 goalies drafted. Martin Jones was not one of them, even though he had 18 wins and 8 losses and a solid 2.12 goals against average. That summer the LA Kings signed Jones as a free agent. After Jones was selected the 2010 Memorial Cup’s top goalie, the question was would he ever get a chance to play in the NHL?
After three solid season in the minors, Jones got his chance to play in an NHL game. When he won his NHL debut 3-2, he earned a second look. When he shut out the New York Islanders and Montreal Canadiens in the next two consecutive starts on the road eyes were opened. In his first five games, Martin Jones set an all-time NHL record, the first goalie to have a goals against average under 1.00 after five starts (his average was 0.99). His eighth straight wins tied Bob Froese’s NHL record; a goalie winning the first eight games of his career.
This week the Kings traded backup Ben Scrivens to Edmonton for a draft pick because Jones could play. Everyone knows that Jones will not keep up his 1.41 goals against average (best in NHL) or his .950 save percentage (also best in the NHL), but he has done better than the other 20 goalies drafted in 2008 at stopping the puck.
2. Mark Giordano got a phone call two weeks ago from Team Canada officials telling him that he was not on the Canadian Olympic team. Close but not quite is a high compliment for a player who no one picked in the 2004 entry draft. Back then making the elite Canadian Olympic hockey team was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind. In ten years, the Flames new captain’s status rose high enough that he got one of the few sorry not this time phone calls.
In the 2004 entry draft 50 defensemen were chosen. Somehow the 20 year old Giordano’s 65 points in the OHL was not enough for any team to choose him. After the Flames signed him to a minor league contract, Gio played two years with their minor league team before he made his NHL debut. After playing 48 NHL games in 2006-2007, Mark made the difficult choice and left the NHL to sign in Russia. A year later he re-signed with the Flames and has never looked back. This year, his steady defensive work ethic was rewarded when the Flames named Mark Giordano their captain.
Stats don’t tell how valuable Mark Giordano is to the Flames. However, in the first eight games of the season, the Flames had four wins, two losses and two overtime losses. Mark was injured late in Game #8. The team lost four of the next five games, playing without their captain.
3. Martin St. Louis remains a controversial figure for the 2014 Canadian Winter Olympic team selection process. St. Louis was not chosen for Canada’s team, even though he led the league in scoring last year. Experts predict that if a forward on the current Olympic team roster is injured before the tournament starts, St. Louis will be the first player called up to the Olympic team.
In 1998 these same experts “knew” this 5 foot 8 inch college player was too small to play. When no one chose this Hobey Baker finalist in the 1998 entry draft, the Flames signed him to a minor league contract. St. Louis showed potential with the Flames minor league team, but could he be an NHL player? After playing 68 games with the Flames and only scoring four goals and twenty points, experts again knew he was too small and let him become a free agent after the 1999-2000 season.
Since signing with Tampa Bay in 2000, Martin St. Louis has not played a game in the minors. Last year, he became the oldest played (age 37) to win the scoring title. He also led the league in scoring in 2003-2004; leading his team to a Stanley Cup victory. The nine years between scoring titles in a league record.
Though undrafted in 1998, Martin St. Louis leads all the players from “his draft class” in most measureable statistics. St. Louis’ 1027 NHL games played rank him second in the 1998 draft class only behind former team mate (and first overall pick in 1998, Vincent Lecavalier). Martin St. Louis’ has more points (1027) than anyone drafted ahead of him. The rest of the top four are at least 150 points (two solid seasons) behind the undersized Martin St. Louis. They are: Vincent Lecavalier (893), Brad Richards (851) and Pavel Datsyuk (799).
Every year fans cheer for the new and coming stars that play in the Top Prospects game, and well they should. However, deep in our hearts we cheer more for the unexpected superstars who come up hard way, defy the odds and become elite players despite having no spot light on them in their draft year.