Wednesday, June 15, 2005


Martin Vagner's Last Symphony

Playing the NHL Draft Game is truly like playing the stock market.

Those with the best knowledge, resources, foresight, and research will generally come out on top of those who trade with fewer resources, less information, and a lack of acumen in identifying 'good' prospects.

As a prospect 'follower', I always get excited around draft time. So many prospects get taken in the 9-round draft, and we tend to think many of them will achieve the heights that we project for their talent levels...especially those draft picks taken in the first round. Unless it's an obviously questionable pick like Nathan Smith or Adrian Foster, we tend to imagine that a first round pick will develop on a steadily rising curve and become an NHL regular and/or a star.

Well, as Tom Benjamin aptly notes, things don't always work out as well as the initial forecasts would indicate:
The NHL draft is mostly hype. Fewer than half the 300 players drafted are even signed and only 30-40 of the players signed will get into more than 200 NHL games. About half those successful players will come out of the first round and the rest will be scattered more or less randomly throughout subsequent rounds.

A great illustration of the draft stock market is Czech defenseman Martin Vagner, who was first taken by the Dallas Stars 26th overall in the 2002 Entry Draft.

Vagner wasn't a typical first round pick (he seemed more like a mid second-rounder to many), but he was a smooth-skating defenseman with decent size (now 6'1" and 210) and those typical Czech puck skills. Vagner wasn't going to lead any NHL team to the Stanley Cup, but he was expected to be a solid 2-way defenseman in the mould of Sami Salo (without the monster shot).

After coming to North America, Vagner floundered badly and just couldn’t adapt well to our style of game. The offence never showed it's head, and he was not adapting to having 6'3 200" forwards knocking him on his ass. Instead, his body was breaking apart like satellite debris re-entering the atmosphere and he was coughing up the puck like Jyrki Lumme in his later years.

The Dallas Stars decided Vagner was a sunk cost, and decided not to sign him after their 2-year window expired.

With his star fallen (excuse the pun), the Carolina Hurricanes came along at the 2004 Entry Draft and decided to take a very low-risk move in selected Vagner in the 9th round. I made this observation at the time:

When Vagner was selected by the Dallas Stars 26th overall in 2002, I thought he was selected a bit too high. Still, he was a pretty solid prospect and certainly one of the more skilled prospects at the time.

2 years later, and Vagner has regressed badly and been faced with many injuries. His play at the 2004 Memorial Cup was actually fairly good, but not enough to make up for a poor season. Vagner, for all of his natural talents, was as dependable as 10 year-old Yugo.

Vagner and Dallas couldn't come to turns, and now he's been picked in the 9th round by the Hurricanes. Vagner will have to beg for peanuts, rather than the lucrative 1st rounder money he was expecting. If the Canes are willing to be patient and develop him in the ECHL (Because he's not ready for the AHL), and if Vagner is willing to continue his career in North America, then the Canes might have come out with something decent.

After yet another pedestrian season in the QMJHL as a 20 year-old with Acadie-Bathurst, it was obvious that Vagner would not make the jump right to the AHL. Rather than suffer with long bus rides in the ECHL, Vagner has decided to return home to Pardubice. If I was a betting man, I'd bet money that he'll never come back.

Scouting is not an easy profession, and it's even harder to predict how a European trained player will adapt to the North American style of play. Will your first rounder turn out to be a solid stud like Anton Babchuk, or will he turn out to be another Martin Vagner? We always hope for Babchuk, but we'll often get a Vagner.

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