It doesn't take much to recognize that the Dallas Stars have a pretty darn good prospect on their hands with 23-year-old Finnish defenseman Jyrki Jokipakka.
There's certainly a lot to like. Listed at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds by the Stars' official website, Jokipakka has the natural size that is usually necessary to be a successful blueliner in the NHL, but he's also mobile enough to get around the ice effectively and is efficient when moving the puck. He's had an impressive transition to playing in North America after coming over for 2013-2014, winning the Calder Cup with the Texas Stars last season and spending the majority of this year at the NHL level up in Dallas, with 42 games and 10 points under his belt so far.
Even though he might not have the electrifying offensive flair of fellow rookie defender John Klingberg, or the imposing physicality of another rookie in Patrik Nemeth, the fact that Jokipakka is currently doing what he does in Dallas is still particularly impressive considering where the Stars got him: in the 7th round, 195th overall, in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.
When it comes to the NHL Entry Draft, the 7th round is seen as little more than an afterthought by most, and it's certainly not hard to see why. If you look at the raw numbers of past drafts, the odds of finding a good, everyday NHLer in the later rounds are pretty slim. You could fill an entire phonebook with names of players that were selected at one point in time but never came even close to sniffing a second of ice time in the NHL.
Despite the low odds, however, some very good NHL players do come out of the 7th round every now and again. In today's league, New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and Detroit Red Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg are the two most notable examples.
To me, this has always begged the question: if 7th round steals (both superstars and serviceable depth players) are often available to be had, is it possible to find and identify them every year?
Now, the obvious rebuttal to a question like that is, if it was possible to identify these kinds of guys, why haven't most teams had more success with later picks? If guys like Lundqvist or Zetterberg, or even someone like Jason Demers, are routinely available, surely teams would act accordingly and put emphasis on finding these hidden gems, right?
Well, maybe not.
While it's nearly impossible to tell how much an NHL general manager really values his draft picks, I've always been skeptical that most teams value them as highly as they should. It's undeniably obvious that the higher your pick, the better your chances of finding a great player, but this flies in the face of how many teams have actually handled their picks for years.
Dallas Stars fans undoubtedly remember the ways of former general manager Doug Armstrong, who built strong teams through free agency and trades, but never seemed to put much stock into picks. The most painfully obvious example of this came back in 2007 when Armstrong traded the Stars' 1st round pick that year to the Phoenix Coyotes for forward Ladislav Nagy.
The Stars only received a disappointing total of 32 games and 16 points out of Nagy, who left as a free agent that summer and was out of the NHL entirely the year after that, never to return. That 1st round pick became center Riley Nash at 21st overall...only one pick ahead of Max Pacioretty, who is currently in the midst of his third straight 30-goal season in Montreal. Hindsight is always 20-20, but still....ouch.
At this year's trade deadline the Chicago Blackhawks made one of the most questionable moves, sending a valuable second round pick (and a conditional fourth round pick) to the Philadelphia Flyers for defenseman Kimmo Timmonen, despite the fact that Timmonen is 39 and hadn't played a single game this season at that point due to health issues. He's played 8 games since then, but has struggled to get ice time or make much of a positive impact.
One could also look at the long list of undrafted players in the NHL to make this point. From Tyler Johnson to Sergei Bobrovksy to Torey Krug, there's no shortage of good players in the league that were somehow missed by all 30 teams on draft day.
So, there seems to be at least some evidence to suggest that teams haven't always valued their draft picks as much as they should, and therefore, might not put as much effort into scouting players projected to go in the later rounds.
A perfect, recent example of this happening is Swedish forward prospect Axel Holmstrom. Holmstrom had a very good season last year, his first of draft eligibility, scoring 38 points in 33 games in the Sweden U20 league, dressing for four games (but going pointless) in the SHL, and, most impressively, scoring 11 points in 7 games at the IIHF U18 tournament, finishing with more points than notable prospects like Jack Eichel, Kevin Fiala, Sonny Milano and Jakub Vrana.
Yet, after such a good draft-eligible season, Holmstrom was inexplicably passed over numerous times before being selected in the 7th round, 196th overall. The team that took him? To the surprise of no one, the Detroit Red Wings, an organization with a long history of finding tons of value late in the draft.
They're already being rewarded for the savvy pick, with the 18-year-old Holmstrom scoring 20 points in 44 SHL games, as well as 7 points in 7 games at this year's World Junior Championship. His future is very bright.
Some might make the argument that stories like Holmstrom's are still rare, that there simply isn't enough talent available each year to stretch into those later rounds, and that's a fair point. However, there are signs that point to more and more talent becoming available each year.
Hockey is one of the fastest growing sports in America, producing an increasing number of players from non-traditional markets. Further, information about proper dieting and exercise has never been easier to access thanks to the internet, and more and more junior teams are implementing this information at younger ages. Stories like this one are becoming increasingly rare, and the days where talented young players don't develop properly because of issues like conditioning are starting to fade.
Now, it would certainly be unrealistic to expect any organization to hit on 100% of their 7th round picks, due to the numerous different factors that go into scouting and development. That being said, though, if a team can improve their success rate from, hypothetically, 10% up to a consistent 20% or even 30% then that's definitely worth taking a long, hard look at.
Luckily for Stars fans, the team's scouts and others that spend time working on the draft seem to be aware of how the tides are changing. I've already talked about Jokipakka's success, but the Stars also seem to have recently found other solid 7th rounders as well, with defensemen Dmitri Sinitsyn (drafted in 2012, currently playing in the KHL) and Aleksi Makela (drafted in 2013, currently playing in Finland's top league and a member of the Finnish team at this year's WJCs). I should also mention here the brilliant signing of former 7th round prospect Brendan Ranford as a free agent after his draft team, the Philadelphia Flyers, unwisely chose to not offer him a contract. The 22 year-old has 42 points in 60 games for the Texas Stars and already made his NHL debut in Dallas a few weeks ago.
No matter what, the true gems of the draft will continue to overwhelmingly be the players taken in the first or second rounds. But for teams that are steadfast and do their homework the final rounds of the draft still have tons of value to offer.