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Sunday's NHL Draft looms large for several T-Birds

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Seattle's Shea Theodore is a top prospect in Sunday's NHL Draft (Seattle Thunderbirds photo)

By Andrew Eide

The hockey world is gathering in New Jersey this weekend to prepare for Sunday's annual NHL draft. For young players drafted this weekend it will be a dream come true. They will get to hear their name called by an NHL general manager and start their journey into pro hockey. For the T-Birds, they are hoping to see a number of their players get selected on Sunday.

Shea Theodore, Jared Hauf, Jerret Smith, Connor Honey and Roberts Lipsbergs are all players who have shown up on NHL Central Scouting's list of guys who are on the NHL's radar. Theodore is the highest rated player among the T-Birds draft eligible as he may hear his name called in the first round on Sunday afternoon.

For all these guys Sunday is what they play for, what they chose the WHL for, but once they get drafted their work isn't finished. Being drafted does not guarantee an NHL career, or even a contract. NHL teams continue to evaluate their prospects and have two years to decide whether to sign them or let them go.

"The draft, to me, is a nice reward for what you've done so far but it really doesn't mean anything," T-Birds head coach Steve Konowalchuk says. "It can become a factor if you let it but it really doesn't mean anything. If you get drafted and relax and think it's just a matter of time before you sign then you're not going to sign. Or if you don't get drafted and now you think you're a bad hockey player and can't play, that can affect you too."

Konowalchuk speaks from experience. After scoring 43 goals in 1990-1991 for the Portland Winterhawks, he waited to see if he would hear his name called by an NHL team in the 1991 draft. The rules were different back then as you had to get picked in the first three rounds in your first year of eligibility. If you weren't, then you went back into the pool for the next year. Instead of going to the draft Konowalchuk was at an U.S. Olympic hockey try out, but he was hopeful.

"I wasn't at the draft. I wasn't highly ranked, back then you had to get drafted in the first three rounds in your first year and I wasn't a highly rated guy," Konowalchuk says. "We went and watched the first round on TV somewhere, that's all they showed. I went back to my room, hadn't heard anything and was a little upset, didn't think I'd been taken. Started feeling sorry for myself a bit but then there was a knock on my door and heard I was drafted by Washington."

He was taken in the third round by the Washington Capitals and two years later made his NHL debut. For Seattle's group of players, they hope they can have the same success. The draft is a long drawn out process that starts with the high level of scrutiny these players receive all year long by NHL scouts. Go to any game at the ShoWare Center and you can see scouts line up in the stands watching.

They do more than watch though, they also hit up the T-Birds coaches and general manager Russ Farwell for information. Konowalchuk says sometimes they reveal some insight about where guys are being looked at but he takes it with a grain of salt as there are a lot of games that get played around the NHL draft. Nobody wants to let the cat out of the bag too much with who they want to pick.

Konowalchuk is hopeful that all of his guys will get selected. Looking at the rankings it seems that Theodore and Hauf are probably locks. What about the rest of the guys, does Konowalchuk think they have a shot?

"Yes I do, I don't know if they will," he says. "I put Smith in that category with Lipsbergs and Honey in that any team that takes them will get a nice pick that will turn out to be pretty good. All three of them came under the radar this year. I definitely endorse all three of those guys, if you are picking in the later rounds you could get yourself a good player. You just never know."

You really don't know. Despite numerous prospect rankings that permeate the internet the draft really is a guessing game as nobody knows how the team's have ranked guys. NHL Central Scouting is one public source of rankings but even their rankings do not give you an accurate predictor of what is going to happen.

"They're not really that accurate," Konowalchuk says of the rankings. "NHL teams have probably 20-30 viewings of one guy by four or five scouts and then they have their meetings. With Central Scouting I can't imagine them having that kind of depth. It's a nice gauge though. Its really not fair to the kids because it can give them some false hope."

Those lists are readily available on the internet and can be a distraction to young players who spend time reading them during the season. Players should be careful placing too much stock in what they read.

"I tell them to disregard it," Konowalchuk says of the ratings. "A couple of times I'll hear from a couple guys who are not rated as high as they want to be. That's a blow to a young guy, they think 'man, I guess I'm not that good'. You can't worry about that, it's a long process and you have to keep playing - everyone develops at a different age."

The draft comes down to a numbers game sometimes and is in many ways different than drafts in other sports as these players are still developing. There really is no way to accurately predict where guys are going to go.

"It's not an exact science," Konowalchuk says. "Take a guy like Theodore, say he's the 12th guy on some team's list. That's pretty high so you think he's a shoe in, but let's say he doesn't get taken in the first round. The second round comes along and if the 11th guy is still available on a team's list they're going to take the 11th guy, that means he could slide down until that team comes around again."

If the T-Birds players do not get drafted Sunday all is not lost. There are plenty examples in the WHL of guys who get overlooked and end up signing with NHL teams later in their junior careers. Seattle recently saw this happen with defenseman Brenden Dillon. Dillon went undrafted while playing with the T-Birds but after his 20-year-old season in 2011 signed with the Dallas Stars and is now considered one of the NHL's best up and coming defenseman.

Konowlachuk pointed out other guys currently in the league who are getting a second look after their draft years. That included guys like Joey Baker in Portland, Colin Smith in Kamloops and Myles Bell in Kelowna. All proof that getting past over in your first year of eligibility is no reason to quit working hard.

That is the situation that Roberts Lipsbergs finds himself in. After flying under the radar while playing in the Russian Junior league the Latvian product burst out with Seattle last year by scoring 30 goals. That got him some attention and he has seen his rankings get as high as number 80. That may get him drafted on Sunday but even if it doesn't Konowalchuk cautions that it is not the end of the dream.

"At the end of day, if you're 19 or 20 years old and a good hockey player, someone's going to find a place to play for you," he says of undrafted players. "If you're 19 or 20 years old and not a good hockey player, you're not going to play anywhere -- it really is that simple."

For the T-Birds organization, having players drafted is a positive. It not only raises the profile of the club to future recruits but it builds a great culture of success.

"I think that's part of building a culture, if you go into an organization and see players have success it makes that dream more of a reality," Konowalchuk says. "We have a wall of fame with all the guys who have played one game in the NHL. For our guys who play now, they see that and think 'I'm only one or two steps away from being there.' It's not that far, it may seem like its far but it's not that far away. When young guys come into camp, they see guys like Theodore or Hauf get drafted - they were playing midget hockey a couple of years ago."

Konowalchuk and general manager Russ Farwell both will be at the Draft in New Jersey this weekend to support their guys.

If you want to follow along with the draft Sunday it will be televised by NBC Sports and will begin at noon. If you want to bone up on all the top prospects you can find tons of information on the web. There are some good scouting services out there that will rank players and give you detailed descriptions. As Konowalchuk said, take the rankings with a grain of salt.

Follow Andrew on twitter @andyeide

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