Road to the NHL: The undrafted are undaunted

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SANTA CRUZ, February 16, 2014 — For players in the WHL (Western Hockey League), the ultimate goal is to be drafted by an NHL (National Hockey League) team. Players typically compete in the WHL between the ages of 16-20, and are eligible for the NHL draft when they are 18.

After the celebration and pageantry of an NHL draft, not every draft-eligible player has been selected. There are countless players who, for whatever reason, are passed over. For a WHL player, they now know that they have two more seasons in the league to try to get a pro contract somewhere.

Forward Tyler Johnson was undersized as a bantam prospect, but that did not stop the Spokane Chiefs from selecting him in the WHL bantam draft. Johnson went on to have a stellar career with the Chiefs, including a Memorial Cup victory in 2008. He was born in 1990, which meant that 2008 was his NHL draft year. Despite his numbers and the high visibility of his team throughout the playoffs, Johnson was not drafted, most likely due to his size.

Undeterred, Johnson continued to put the puck in the net for the Chiefs, perhaps knowing that he was still playing in front of NHL scouts most nights. His hard work paid off when Johnson signed a free agent contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning, beginning his pro career with their minor league affiliate in Norfolk, Virginia. After two years in the minors, Johnson finished the 2013 season with Tampa Bay, recording six points in 14 games. So far this season, Johnson has 37 points in 58 games, and is a strong candidate for rookie of the year at 23 years old.

Defenseman Brenden Dillon, also born in 1990, had a solid WHL career with the Seattle Thunderbirds. Like Johnson, he went unselected in his NHL draft year. He continued to make his case, night after night in the WHL and, in 2011, Dillon signed a free agent contract with the Dallas Stars.

WHL games are typically crawling with NHL scouts. They are primarily in attendance to see draft-eligible 18-year-old players, but a savvy scout will take note of an older player who may have slipped through the cracks. For players like Brenden Dillon and Tyler Johnson, these are the scouts they are hoping to impress. They realized that their NHL dreams did not have to end just because their names were not called from an NHL draft podium. They knew they would always have draft eligible teammates who scouts would be in the building to see, and they made the most of the exposure.

Drafting pro prospects is far from an exact science. There are currently four players selected in the first round of the 2008 draft who have yet to play a single NHL game, while undrafted players like Dillon and Johnson are thriving in the league. For players who continue to work and improve their game, there will always be the chance that the right person will see them. NHL scouts may have arrived at the game planning to watch one or two 18-year-olds, but they might leave thinking about that 19 or 20-year-old player who was passed over in their draft year.

Russ Rankin writes about hockey, music & politics. You can find him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter. He also sings for Good Riddance and Only Crime. Find out what he’s up to by checking out his website.

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