Late Round Bloomers
In the instant-gratification, short-attention-span world we live in, few things rank higher on the list of day-to-day annoyances than waiting around. Think about the frustration level in line at the DMV, the angst caused by a single open teller at the post office or the anxiety of delays caused by airport security.
Now, take that angst, pressure and nervous energy, multiply it about 1,000, roll it up into a little ball and swallow it, and you might get the sense of what the stomach of an 18-year-old feels like while waiting for his name to be called at the NHL Entry Draft.
As the rounds slowly move on, that anxiety climbs, too. The later rounds move much more quickly, but to unpicked prospects, the minutes between selections feels like an eternity.
Two members of the Minnesota Wild, both completing their rookie campaigns last season, are all too familiar with the Draft Day torment of waiting for their names to be called. Goaltender Darcy Kuemper and forward Erik Haula were both late-round picks, sixth and seventh respectively, sitting idle as fellow prospects came off the board, waiting for their name to be called during the 2009 Draft.
Coming into the Draft, Kuemper had heard horror stories of players sitting in the stands for hours as they fell out of their projected spot. So, instead of facing that risk, he watched the Draft from the comfort of his couch with his family — his father Brent, mother Sharon, and brother Brendon.
“I knew I’d be a later round pick,” Kuemper said. “So I played it safe and stayed home.”
The netminder played against many of the goaltenders came off the board ahead of him. At a position that typically only carries two per NHL team, the numbers started to add up.
“You don’t have envy of other goaltenders getting picked in front of you,” Kuemper said. “But you might start to worry and think maybe, ‘That’s another team that won’t need a goaltender.’”
There are a lot of variables on Draft Day: teams making trades to move up or down, drafting on needs or trying to take the best available player regardless of position. Kuemper spoke with Minnesota leading up to the Draft, so in the back of his mind he thought that getting selected by the Wild was a possibility.
Still, he didn’t want to play the guessing game, which only makes waiting more stressful. All he could do was try to stay patient and relaxed. Finally, his patience was rewarded and with the 161st overall pick, he was selected by Minnesota.
“I had it on TV when I got picked,” Kuemper said. “It was exciting to see my name come up without knowing when or where I’d go.”
He was still in a euphoric state when he received a phone call from the organization. It took awhile before the reality sunk in. Kuemper didn’t know much about Minnesota, other than there was a passion for the sport.
“The next day I started looking things up, I knew a little bit about the team as Mikko (Koivu) and (Niklas) Backstrom were some of the top NHLers in the League,” Kuemper said. “I was excited to be invited to camp and hoped that I’d show that I was good enough and get the chance to skate with NHLers I’d been watching my whole life.”
Getting to hear his named called with his family was another bonus to the process, and worth the wait.
“They made a lot of sacrifices to allow me to play, taking me to the rink and the money it takes to be a goaltender,” Kuemper said. “To see how proud they were and get to share that experience with them was a special feeling.”
While Kuemper went through the uneasiness of the draft from the comforts of home, it was a completely different experience for Haula.
The Pori, Finland native made the trek to Montreal’s Bell Centre in 2009 with his father, Pomi. As the draft went on, the nerves began to creep in. There were only so many times he could look at the retired numbers and Stanley Cup banners hanging in the rafters.
“It was stressful and nerve-racking,” Haula said. “It’s not easy, and everyone who’s gotten to know me knows I have a lot of confidence in myself and I had expectations to get drafted fairly high.”
Teams continued to call names, and Haula and his father waited, nervously.
“It was disappointing, at 18, to be sitting there and waiting and seeing guys get picked ahead of you,” Haula said.
Finally, in the final round and with the 182nd pick, Haula finally heard his name called by the Wild.
“It was a little hard sitting up there and not getting drafted,” Haula said. “I had a few friends there who went before me, so I had mixed feelings. But leaving with a jersey on and going to the party afterwards and meeting all the people in the organization and other players who were drafted was a blast.
“Then to go to Development Camp a few weeks later was exciting.”
But rather than being satisfied with just getting drafted, Haula and Kuemper used their late draft status as fuel. In their eyes, it was a slight and going through the ranks of junior and college hockey, they set out to prove everyone wrong.
“Going in the seventh round gave me extra motivation,” Haula said. “I always kept that thought and feeling in the back of my mind and it helped me through the years.”
“I’d felt that I was better than I was ranked (by Central Scouting),” Kuemper added. “So that gives you extra motivation to prove them wrong. But that goes back even further: I was cut by my junior team before I was traded, so I always had a bit of a chip on my shoulder and use it as motivation to keep improving, whether it is in the summer workouts or on the ice during the season.”
Regardless of where they were picked, a fire to make it to the NHL was strong in both players. The pair skated in their rookie seasons with the Wild last year, making a significant impact and helping the team to the Second Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second time in franchise history.
In 46 regular season games Haula put up 15 points (6-9=15). He was even better in the postseason, scoring four goals and three assists in 13 contests. Meanwhile, Kuemper came up huge in net with Backstrom going down with an injury and Josh Harding battling multiple sclerosis the second half of the season. The Saskatoon, Saskatchewan native went 12-8-4 with two shutouts, a .915 save percentage and 2.43 goals-against average. In the Stanley Cup Playoffs, he was 3-1 with a shutout.
In fact, their play impressed so much that NHL.com recently conducted a 2009 mock redraft, and Kuemper (18) and Haula (27) were retrospectively taken in the first round by Deputy Managing Editor Adam Kimelman. It just goes to show why experts call the NHL Draft an inexact science.
Despite their selection status, in 2009 or in hindsight, the biggest thing for both players wasn’t dwelling on where they were drafted; it was taking the steps to make it to hockey’s highest level.
“The biggest thing is not to think about it too much, because it doesn’t matter where you get drafted or even if you get drafted at all,” Haula said. “The main thing is what you do after the draft to get better and improve and try to get to the next level. You have to be ready to work no matter where you’re picked.”