Saturday, December 12, 2009

Rob Schremp: A Cautionary Draft Tale

Watching the game tonight, I couldn't help but notice No. 13 (interesting number choice) skating in the blue and orange of the Islanders, and how Syracuse, New York native Rob Schremp represents the dangers of overhyped "can't miss" NHL draft prospects who sometimes do.

Schremp got his first NHL goal tonight by swooping in and banking a rebound of his initial shot lying next to the post into the cage off of the back of one of Tim Thomas's skates. It was a nice move for sure- the kind of play you could easily call a "goal scorer's" kind of goal.

But, when you go back and look at Schremp's checkered past, you have to ask the big question: Why hasn't he done more to date?

I'm having a harder time accounting for a player who was more overrated before he'd even been drafted than Schremp was. I remember that the Hockey News had a story about him back when he was a 14-year-old skating for the Syracuse Jr. Crunch and scoring goals in bunches. The book on him was that he had phenomenal hands and offensive instincts, but his skating needed work.

Schremp eventually went to the OHL's Mississauga Ice Dogs (hardly a model franchise at the time) and scored 26 goals in his rookie season (2002-03). The following year he essentially forced a trade to the powerhouse London Knights where he went on to post a decent but not eye-popping 28 goals and 69 points in 60 contests with Dale Hunter's team.

Now, to hear the buzz on him all year (during his 03-04 draft season), you would have thought he was scoring at a clip like John Tavares, and you could surf the internet and find legions of Robbie Schremp fans defending his honor and lashing out at anyone who raised concerns about his lack of top-end speed and questionable attitude during the season and as the draft approached.

It was the first real experience I had with a powerful publicity and lobbying machine as it applies to a hockey prospect. Here was a guy who, when you look back at it, wasn't all that remarkable a player, yet he had an almost mystic aura building around him as the draft approached. Now, before you accuse me of MSU (making sh** up) understand that I remember seeing him with his entourage and meeting him at the 2004 NHL Entry Draft in Raleigh, N.C. (we stayed at the same hotel). Just the brief interaction I had with him and one of his handlers there simply reaffirmed what I had been hearing about him for the several years leading up to his draft: That he was a lot of sizzle, not much steak...and woe be to anyone who dared to question his path to NHL stardom.

When Edmonton grabbed him 25th overall, I still remember how so many in the media (or at least some of those sitting around me when the pick was made) tut-tutted the fact that he fell so much lower than anticipated. Many of those covering that draft rushed to declare the Oilers "winners" for spending two of their top draft picks on Schremp and huge goaltender Devan Dubnyk (14th overall) 24 hours after the event wrapped up and the teams went home for the summer.

Almost six years later, Schremp is a bit player on the Islanders and Dubnyk still hasn't made it (although he recently made his NHL debut with the Oil and is still a work in progress). The Oilers' 2004 draft class, which has produced exactly one NHL player on their current roster (Liam Reddox played a few games earlier this year but is back in the AHL as of now), has been by all accounts a complete and total bust. No. 146 overall pick Bryan Young played 17 scoreless games over parts of two seasons with the Oilers, but looks like he no longer fits into their plans. Schremp, who was in and out of the Edmonton lineup a few times for a cup of coffee (7 games, 3 assists), was placed on waivers at the beginning of the season and claimed by New York. Coming into tonight's game, he'd played in just 9 games, posting three assists. Even when he was on waivers in early October, I remember reading numerous teams' fans having debates on claiming him, even clubs with established depth up front. You see, almost six years after being drafted and despite a mediocre career in the AHL since he turned pro in 2006, Schremp's draft hype still lingered.

So, why bring any of this up at all?

Because it just goes to show you that sometimes, all of the buzz and excitement of an NHL team's draft class can wind up being meaningless. If you jump into the wayback machine and travel to June and July 2004, you'd be hard-pressed to find many,whether they were professional media or hockey fans posting on the net, who were critical of what Edmonton had done in Raleigh. They had two first-rounders, and both of them seemed destined for major success. However, given that five-year window that many NHL scouts use to judge the success or failure of their drafts, the Oilers' efforts from that year have fallen woefully short.

On the other hand, a team like Boston, who didn't even have a first-round pick, got very little press and attention outside of their regional coverage. In retrospect, the Bruins crushed Edmonton in that draft: they landed David Krejci late in the 2nd round, used Martins Karsums as a package to land Mark Recchi and what looks like an early 2nd-rounder in this year's draft, and then signed fifth overall pick Blake Wheeler as a free agent (even though that has nothing to do with what Boston did in '04, it speaks to their scouts, who kept tabs on him and advised Peter Chiarelli to make the pitch to sign him in '08). In the later rounds, they selected Kris Versteeg ('09 Calder Trophy finalist for Chicago) and defenseman Matt Hunwick. They even used another late-rounder, Ben Walter, to acquire that draft's 16th overall selection, Petteri Nokelainen, from the Islanders. Although Nokelainen couldn't keep his job in Boston (and was flipped to Anaheim for Steve Montador last spring), it was another example of the Bruins managing to get some That's what you call getting bang for your buck when you consider what Edmonton did with their top-two selections, both in the top-25.

So, one team with two picks in the top-25 and three in the top-45 (Roman Tesliuk), comes away with bupkus, while the other, with no picks until after 60 land their second/third line center, an impact 5/6 defender with some upside, and, had the GM been a little more patient, a solid 2nd/3rd line winger in Versteeg had he not been dealt to the Blackhawks.

In this day and age of a salary cap, drafting and developing players is everything. Missing in an entire year will come back to haunt you, as evidenced by their non-playoff finish last year and their current 17th-standing in the 30-team NHL.

Maybe Schremp gets it together and becomes a late-blooming NHL star, but to me, he's a cautionary tale of anointing these kids before they've ever skated a single shift at the highest level. As good as your team's draft looks the day after because perhaps they landed some "sexy" names or plucked the "can't miss" kid who inexplicably fell into your club's lap much later than expected, remember Rob Schremp and the '04 Edmonton Oilers. Completely missing in that draft has contributed to some of that team's recent struggles and underscores the importance of hitting with your draft picks, no matter how many or how few a club has.

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