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NHL offers collegiate players better chances

BY BRIAN SCHICK: ON THE NHL DRAFT

Published July 6, 2003

As I was watching the NBA Draft, ESPN ran a series of promotional commercials for the draft - which I thought was odd since I was already watching it. The ad campaign featured players like LeBron James and Carmello Anthony, among others, boldly saying "I'm ready." When I saw these ads for the first time - and it wasn't the last, sadly - I was surprised because the NBA Draft has become such a crap shoot in recent years. Hardly anyone knows if a player is ready to make an immediate impact in the league anymore.

With an influx of foreign players and high school seniors constantly taking the top spots in the first round, NBA scouts are having a harder time making a solid decision on who is truly ready to play professionally. Anthony made a name for himself in just one year of college ball and James became the "King" by embarrassing high schoolers. But regardless of their experience - or lack thereof - Anthony and James were both taken in the first three picks. It is obvious scouts are now drafting on potential rather than actual impact.

Although few probably knew about it and even fewer watched it, the NHL Draft took place on June 21. The only conceivable reason to watch was to see what teams would draft Michigan players. Other than that, you're wasting your time. If you think Nedzad Sinanovic is an obscure NBA Draft pick (54th overall to Portland), try Marc-Andre Fluery in the NHL Draft (Never heard of him? He was picked first overall by Pittsburgh).

But what the NHL Draft lacks in TV appeal, it makes up in its ability to produce quality players in the future. The NBA Draft may have exponentially higher ratings, but the chances of the first 30 NBA picks being successful are no where near the chances of NHL picks. The reason is simple: once a NHL club calls the name of an underclassmen, he can still finish his collegiate career.

For some reason, the NCAA has two different policies towards amateur drafts in the NBA and the NHL. Once an underclassmen basketball player declares himself eligible for the NBA Draft and hires an agent, his remaining years of eligibility vanish like Georgia players from a classroom. But once a NCAA hockey player is drafted, he has the option to finish his collegiate career. While this may seem trivial, it makes a world of difference in player development.

For example, Michigan forward Jeff Tambellini was selected 25th overall by the Los Angeles Kings. All signs point to him returning for his sophomore season. Although he possesses great skills and led the Wolverines in scoring this season, the Kings wouldn't dream of him sitting on the bench at the Staples Center next fall. Why? Because they know he has up to three more years to fine-tune his skills and talents and prepare for competition against the world's best. Therefore, rather than spending the next five or so years in Manchester, N.Y. - L.A.'s minor league team - to work on his game, he can spend the next three at Yost competing for a national championship in front of 6,500 fans dying to spout profanity.

It's no secret that most of the basketball draft picks may never pan out into even role-players or 12th men on a NBA roster. ESPN's Jay Bilas, an expert on both NBA and NCAA basketball, bluntly stated that the majority of players taken in this year's draft, especially in the second round, will never see the inside of a NBA arena.

Take the hometown Pistons. Have you ever seen Darko Milicic play before, besides those grainly European scouting videos that look like the Zapruder film? And now that the Pistons have him, they think that one offseason will get him ready for an American style of hoops not seen on the playgrounds of Sarajevo. Wouldn't it make sense to have him play a season in the NBA Developmental League, just to get him ready for the American run-and-gun, "What's a jump shot?"-style of play?

How about Anthony? Everyone fell in love with his smile throughout the Big Dance, but remember he only played one season. Is it possible he could come right into Denver, suit up in those awful Carolina blue jerseys and make them a playoff contender? Of course. Is it possible he was just a flash in the pan, and throwing him into the starting lineup prematurely will cause him to collapse under the pressure and expectations? Of course. Unfortunately for the Nuggets, there's no guarantee on Anthony.

Now back to Tambellini. He finished last season with a heartbreaking overtime loss in the Frozen Four. That sure seems like a reason to come back for at least one more year. The drive to be even better than last year will most likely cause him to work hard in the offseason and be ready for a new season. In the fall, most of the weight of Ann Arbor will be on his shoulders, not to mention one of the finer coaches in collegiate hockey, Red Berenson, looking over his development the entire time. Tambellini's development in the next season will pay off for the Kings when he does decide to play, and couldn't have occurred had he prematurely jumped to the NHL.

Let's not kid ourselves. All this boils down to money. If the Kings offered Tambellini a significant amount of money, it'd be hard to turn it down. The same goes for NBA guys. The money is what drives players turning pro. Money talks - and even championships are being turned down for the lucrative rookie contracts.

But all the money can disappear once a player goes down with an injury. Oftentimes commentators and media folks say that a player needs to declare this season because of the risk of injury. Had James gone to college and blown out his knee in his first game, you'd never hear from him again. But NHL clubs take that into consideration, and while it is a concern for them, they know they have a player's rights for as long as they want. The advances in medical rehabilitation make seemingly career-threating injuries into minor setbacks.

Say both James and Tambellini suffered knee injuries this offseason. James' stock in the draft would have gone the way of Enron, and while Tambellini's would have fallen as well, NHL clubs might be willing to take a risk. Tambellini would most likely then finish his career at Michigan while continuing to rehab the knee. James would be out of luck, as he passed on his chance to go to college.

When it's all said and done, it would seem that the NBA could stop its mass exodus of underclassmen by implementing a system similar to hockey. NHL clubs are making serious long-term investments by doing their homework while NBA teams are going with a hot stock tip trying to get rich quick.

While ESPN is eager to hype the college athletes and create big ratings by saying they're ready, the scout in the Kings war room looked at Tambellini's name and said, "He'll be ready."