Monday, July 18, 2005

The first overall pick of the 2005 Entry Draft goes to...

Wouldn't you like to know? It seems everybody does, because at stake is the most anticipated 18-year old to come into the league since Eric Lindros, and before him, Mario Lemieux. I speak, of course, of Mr. Sidney Crosby, the Cole Harbor, N.S. phenom that has the hockey world -- at least the surf-hockey-news-until-2:00 AM hockey world -- breathless in anticipation of the draft lottery which is to be held on Thursday if the CBA is ratified.

Hypothetically, of course, the pick could go anywhere -- that is, unless, you count yourself amongst the conspiracy theorists who believe the draft lottery is rigged, but that nonsense is the subject of another story.

So where should it go? The likeliest candidates are those teams who have three balls -- and I'm speaking lottery-wise, here; speculation on, erm, other possible 'meanings' is not my area of expertise. Those teams are the Rangers, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Columbus.

The New York Rangers seem the destination of choice for the aforementioned conspiracy theorists. Bettman is a New York native, the Big Apple is the largest potential hockey market in North America, and the height of the NHL's popularity was just after the Rangers' cup win in 1994. For those reasons, I would suggest that New York is an ideal destination for Sidney, but there are some downsides, too. First, there is little history to instill hope in the Rangers' development system; instability at the coach position and the potential nightmare of a dressing room full (though slightly less, now) of egos, won't help either.

I wouldn't worry, however, of the pressure of playing in a market such as New York getting to young Crosby; with his already meteoric rise to fame fully underway, he's showed no signs of cracking yet, so for him to do so once donning an NHL jersey would be most out-of-character.

Los Angeles, or its sister teams in Anaheim and San Jose, would be an excellent destination for many of the same reasons the Rangers would be. Los Angeles and Anaheim, in particular, boast an enviable cast of young players that Sidney could grow up around and form an up-and-coming nucleus that would make the team very competitive in the future. San Jose boasts higher-than-average development success as well as a (newly) stable front office and coaching staff, with the added benefit of being competitive in the here-and-now.

Several other teams boasting impressive crops of prospects include Columbus, Florida, Washington, and Chicago. Columbus, an emerging expansion success, could only benefit from adding #87 to the mix. Chicago is long-overdue for something to turn that franchise around and renew the fans' faith and passion; Chicago is one of the largest TV markets to boot. Washington would be one of the more intriguing destinations given the showdown between Crosby and the other wunderkind prospect of the new NHL, Alexander Ovechkin, in this past World Junior tournament. One can almost hear the collective moan of 29 NHL GMs when they think of those two suiting up under the same logo.

As for Florida and the other small-market expansion teams in the US, such as Carolina, Phoenix (though only small in the hockey fanbase sense), and their ilk, you'd have to hope that Sid coming to town might be that last push they'd need to fully embrace the team, despite the cynical among us having long abandoned hope for such a development. While a case can be made that if they don't currently care about hockey, an 18-year old Canadian kid isn't going to change that, people are always eager to latch onto an interesting story and the potential for that still exists.

Most Canadian cities are interesting destinations for a multitude of reasons. The Montreal Canadiens are not only the most storied team in NHL history, they are a relatively large market, and to top it off: they are Crosby's favorite team. If the Habs are the lucky ones to draw the first ball on Thursday, you'd have to smile for the kid (hey, we're trying to sell a story, right?). The Maple Leafs are possibly the second largets market in hockey, behind the Rangers, and are easily the most rabid fanbase; as such, I'm comfortable in saying that they don't need his services. (That the eastern hockey media in Canada would become intolerable has nothing to do with it, I swear.) Crosby would flourish under the offensive-minded coaching of Vancouver's Mark Crawford, and for a fanbase with a notoriously fickle attention, the presence of Crosby could be nothing but positive. While he'd flourish, too, in the small-market Alberta towns of Edmonton and Calgary, as both have successful development systems, managerial stability, and passionate fanbases, for the "good of the game" you'd have to wish he goes to a market that would attract more capital-D Dollars.

Which, of course, brings us to big-market America: the Philadelphias, Dallases, Detroits, and Colorados of the world. The underdog, small-market-pity part of me cries foul at the prospect of the perpetrators of salary-inflation landing a future superstar, as does the part of me who firmly believes that managerial blunders need be punished. However, in light of the pursuit of a healthy league, one would have to agree that Sid the Kid would be a worthy successor to Roenick, Modano, Yzerman, and Sakic, respectively. Additionally, these markets have the financial clout to provide a strong team to support Crosby, which is something Florida et al. lack. (There is the possibility that Sidney becomes one of those NHL stars that works best not leading a team, but being an impressive 1B star presence: Forsberg to Sakic, for example.)

Finally, a note on the Pittsburgh Penguins: it is a romantic thought to see him follow in the footsteps of fellow QMJHL grad and ex-future-superstar Mario Lemieux, but the Penguins are such a mess at present that I think it would be a shame if they drew the first ball Thursday. Should Crosby require any time in the AHL (pending the new CBA excluding the previous agreement between the AHL and CHL which would prevent him playing there until age 20), the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins are, perhaps, the most mismanaged development team affiliated with the NHL. Rumors have been circulating for several years now that nepotism and ineptitude have made that team a chore to play for; which, obviously, is concerning for the Crosby fan club. Furthermore, I have little faith in coach Ed Olczyk and less faith in what Crosby's rather deplorable supporting cast would be on such a team. Add in the poor arena, questionable financial wherewithal, and the constant threats of leaving the city, and Pittsburgh is a three-ring circus sideshow that Crosby would benefit greatly from avoiding at this stage in his career.

As a fan of his, I wish Crosby all the best come Thursday. I believe he has the talent and the dedication to, if his team can develop and support him properly, truly be the herald, usher, and figurehead for the new-look NHL.

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