Before last year, the Michigan hockey team had just two players drafted in the top 10 of the NHL Entry Draft. But the Wolverines have now produced two top-10 picks in as many seasons. Last year, Michigan defenseman Mike Komisarek was taken seventh overall by the Montreal Canadiens, and last weekend, sophomore forward Eric Nystrom was the selected 10th overall by the Calgary Flames.
The selection came as a surprise to Nystrom, who joins a very exclusive club of Michigan players drafted in the top 10.
“It was unbelievable, I didn’t really know where I was going to go,” Nystrom said. “There have been a lot of great players coming through the ranks (at Michigan). And to be amongst them feels great and kind of unbelievable at the same time”
Nystrom, who led all Michigan freshmen in scoring last season, had 18 goals and 12 assists in 39 games. Before the draft, Nystrom was ranked 13th among North American players eligible for the draft by the NHL Central Scouting Service. This ranking did not include European players, who annually comprise some of the draft’s highest picks. Nystrom shocked some when he was the seventh North American player selected, and the second college player taken.
“I was very surprised,” said Michigan sophomore Jason Ryznar, who was drafted by the New Jersey Devils as the first pick of the third round (64th overall). “I had a pretty good idea that he was going in the first round, but I was thinking 18, 19, 20. I had no idea he would go so early.”
One group that was not shocked, was Nystrom’s coaches at Michigan.
“It didn’t surprise us one bit because when you evaluate Eric Nystrom, it’s really difficult to find holes in his game,” Michigan assistant coach Billy Powers said. “(He’s) a kid that’s 6-foot-2, tough, competitive, has good hands and can score goals with good people. That made him a first-rounder. I think everybody thought he’d play in our league as a third or fourth liner. They didn’t think he had the offensive skills he showed this season. He can play on the top line with the top centerman and be an impact player.”
Aside from his physical upside, Nystrom also brings a mental toughness to the game that NHL scouts are looking for. Nystrom’s ability to step up at crucial times has been a help to the Wolverines.
“When the going got tough, he made things happen,” Powers said. “Those are things that really stand out. What does a kid do when the game’s on the line? Not only does he show up, but he also shows up as one of the best players on the ice.”
But even with his recent success at the NHL Entry Draft, Nystrom knows there are no certainties involved with the draft. After what he calls his best season of hockey, Nystrom will have to continue to excel if he wants to advance to the next level.
“There are no guarantees in anything,” Nystrom said. “The reason I got here is the way I play.”
The Nystrom family is no stranger to the NHL Draft. Eric’s father, Bobby Nystrom, was an NHL great for the New York Islanders and was recently named one of the Top 20 Islanders All-Time. Drafted 30 years before his son, the elder Nystrom experienced a slightly different draft ordeal than his son. Instead of all the hoopla that surrounds today’s draft, the elder Nystrom received a call in a secluded hotel room.
“When he got drafted it wasn’t like it is today, it was totally different,” Eric Nystrom said. “They just gave you a phone call.”
Nystrom was very fortunate growing up to have a father that was so knowledgeable about hockey. Many have noted Nystrom’s NHL connections, but he knows that the way he reached the NHL was not by resting on his fathers laurels.
“You don’t waste a top ten pick on hope and bloodlines,” Nystrom said. “They know that I’ve been coached well. They know that my dad knows a lot more than lots of other dads.”
Nystrom was not the only Michigan player selected in this year’s draft. Ryznar was also selected in the first day of the draft. The first pick of the third round, 64th overall, Ryznar was tabbed by the New Jersey Devils.
“It was a great relief first of all,” Ryznar said. “All year along everyone is talking about the draft. And when it finally comes around and you hear your name called it is just a great relief”
Ryznar tallied nine goals and seven assists for the Wolverines last year. One of his biggest games was in the Cold War, were Ryznar, playing his first game as a collegian tallied a goal and an assist.
“I’ve been trying to improve over the last few years,” Ryznar said. “You gotta just keep going all the time you can’t really change your mindset at all.”
In the eighth round of the draft, the Edmonton Oilers picked up sophomore Dwight Helminen with the 244th overall pick.
“I really didn’t know a lot,” Helminen said. “I kind of figured I’d be drafted, I just didn’t know when.”
Size may have hurt Helminen’s draft status, but with an improved offensive output next season, his stock could go up.
“Dwight being 5-foot-10, I think those kids at that size, to get drafted early, have to do exceptional things early in the season,” Powers said. “He didn’t show the offensive dynamic. Those are the things the NHL looks for in a player that size. Dwight’s an NHL skater, he needs to step it up offensively, He’s done it at every level he’s played at.”
Nystrom, Ryznar and Helminen join fellow sophomores David Moss, Milan Gajic, Brandon Rogers and Michael Woodford as players drafted by NHL teams. Of the eleven freshmen from last year’s class, NHL teams have drafted seven. In total, NHL teams have drafted nine Michigan players.