Fruitful 2011 draft has given the Ducks staying power as Stanley Cup contender


These days, Tyler Biggs is earning a living playing pro hockey. It isn’t bad living. Making money where he plays a game. This isn’t to say that 9-to-5 cubicle job is not appealing. But to cash checks for something one has done and loved since childhood? It is living the dream, as they often say.

Biggs is 24 and in his second season with the ECHL’s Kalamazoo Wings. A big, rangy forward, he is one of their better offensive players. He’ll get in a fight from time to time. Fans voted him their most popular player. The Wings happily signed him to another contract in October.

It is highly unlikely that Biggs will ever suit up in the National Hockey League. Most players don’t. Most who are lucky enough to be drafted don’t. But he was a first-round selection and many do in this age when teams are more reliant than ever on young, homegrown talent. They’re expected to make it.

Biggs will always be seen as a bust in Toronto, the team that took him in 2011. He’ll also be the one who unwittingly helped kick off a draft for the Ducks that in time might be seen as the greatest in franchise annals.

Seven players were chosen by the Ducks over two days inside Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. When defenseman Andy Welinski made his debut on Dec. 11, the Ducks gained the distinction of having all seven of their picks play in the NHL. Noteworthy for sure, but that alone doesn’t make it special.

It has the look of something that set the franchise up for lasting future success, much the way 2003 did the same for them in taking eventual 12-year linemates Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry in the first round. Rickard Rakell is their best goal scorer. John Gibson is their undisputed No. 1 goalie. Josh Manson is an ascending hard-hitting defenseman.

The development of the three into featured players has allowed them to keep their Stanley Cup aspirations as Getzlaf and Perry, who hoisted the Cup in 2007, have aged. And while William Karlsson is two teams removed, he’s becoming a star with the expansion Vegas Golden Knights.

“That doesn’t happen very often,” Ducks general manager Bob Murray said. “You hope to get two players with a chance to play and a third that can you sit somewhere in the organization. You hope to have to have three who can contribute to the organization five or six years later.

“Some teams get four or five who eventually play. How many guys really come on to be fixtures in an organization? In that draft, we got three of them who are fixtures in our organization. And obviously one is doing a pretty good job in Las Vegas. That’s a decent draft.”

And the Ducks got theirs going with a simple swap of picks.

THE TRADE

The draft is among the things Murray loves most about his job, which he has held since 2008. And in 2011, he was dug in as always, talking to his colleagues and gauging what they have in mind. The first round, as expected, is the focus. Who might want to move up? Who might think about moving down?

This is done days ahead of gathering on the draft floor. Murray had already chatted up his longtime friend and predecessor as the Ducks’ GM, Brian Burke, who was running the Maple Leafs. Anaheim had the 22nd pick. Toronto was picking 25th, having acquired that pick from Philadelphia in a deal for Kris Versteeg.

Burke also had the 30th choice in his pocket, which was collected for moving longtime defenseman Tomas Kaberle to Boston. But he had intentions on moving higher and Murray knew of his desires.

“Everybody who wants to move up has a player in mind,” Murray said. “There’s a reason. You’re going for a player.”

The Ducks had their plans. As their pick neared, they eyed Stefan Noesen, a big forward in juniors with the Ontario Hockey League’s Plymouth Whalers. Ottawa was one spot ahead at No. 21 and also coveted him, ultimately announcing his name at the podium. But teams can’t afford to be limited to one plan.

Murray was fine with moving down. Good players, he reasoned, could be found later. The key there is he’d get another high selection, which came when Burke traded the 30th and 39th picks to him for the 22nd.

Burke got his player in Biggs. “He’s hostile and truculent and those things that we like,” the GM bragged, using some of his favorite descriptors. “We worked pretty hard to get him, we’re pretty excited about this.”

The real play at work was Murray’s draft staff – fronted by amateur scouting director Martin Madden – desperately wanted a goalie out of the suburbs of Pittsburgh.

“The main thing that came out of it is Martin … he’s like a dog on a bone when he wants something,” Murray said. “When he needs something done, he’s very focused and honest. We did a lot to try to get up to 35, 36. Because we didn’t think Gibby would be there at 39. I just couldn’t get it done.”

He didn’t need to.

THE TWO WHO BECAME ALL-STARS

The Ducks took Rakell to end the first round and then had to wait overnight. Madden was nervous. He thought it was certain Gibson wouldn’t last until the ninth pick of the next day’s second round.

Some things were discussed. The Ducks had another second-round pick. They were all in on taking Karlsson, a skinny playmaker who won a 2012 world junior title with Rakell and Max Friberg for Sweden but needed more time to fill out. But they had to get Gibson.

“We were willing to give up the second second-round pick to move up to make sure we got Gibby,” Madden said. “But there were no takers. You look back, there’s a reason why. I think we were spot on in that the end of the first and (beginning of the) second round was really strong that year.

“A lot of good players came out ahead of Gibby. Boone Jenner was taken early that second. There’s a bunch of guys that have had pretty good careers. So nobody was willing to trade down. We got lucky that Gibby was still at 39.”

Gibson had yet to star for the United States in international play but he was considered a real talent, the top goalie prospect in North America. There was the letdown of not hearing his name called on the first day. He had “met with quite a few teams” and recalled all showing the same amount of interest.

That changed on a momentous Saturday, with him celebrating with his family in the Xcel stands. He quickly came to see there was no shame in not being a first-rounder, with several players picked in front of him and after forging lasting NHL careers.

“I know just from my draft, Brandon Saad is a guy who was supposed to get drafted in the first round,” Gibson said. “Top player. He gets drafted in the second round and plays in the NHL the following year. Wins two Cups in a short amount of time.

“It goes to show it doesn’t matter. People fall, people rise. First-rounders may not ever play. Seventh-rounders may make a career out of it. It’s all about what you do after.”

Rakell didn’t have a clue of the Ducks’ serious interest. He met with them at the scouting combine but, in thinking back, the only things that stood out were talking with Scott Niedermayer and the brass asking him about another Swedish player they drafted a year earlier, Andreas Dahlstrom.

“I didn’t really get any indication that they were going to pick me before (the draft),” Rakell said. “But I was really happy when it happened, obviously. It turned out pretty good.”

In Madden’s mind, being able to get Rakell was just as big as landing Gibson. The staff loved the offensive-minded youngster who could play center and wing, even though scouting missions were often left empty as a high ankle sprain hobbled him late in his first season with Plymouth, where he played with Noesen.

“There were a few other players that we liked in there, but those three guys we thought we had a real strong chances of taking them even if we traded back,” Madden said. “It unfolded that Rickard’s our pick at 30.

“I’ve talked about this story before and I don’t think it’s emphasized enough how much we actually wanted Rickard Rakell and how we believed in him. … Rickard was a big part of the trade-down scenario as well. As much as William Karlsson was, to tell you the truth.”

Rakell was named an All-Star for the first time Wednesday. Gibson has already played in the league’s midseason showcase. The deal will sit as one of the best Murray has made in his nine-year tenure.

“This one, you make a move and you cross your fingers,” Murray said. “We got lucky. It worked out very well.”

THE ONE THAT SURPRISED THEM ALL

Josh Manson is the son of Dave Manson, a take-no-prisoners defenseman who played in more than 1,100 NHL games. He doesn’t fight nearly as often as his father did but when he does drop his gloves or throws a big hit, there’s a sign that he is cut from the same cloth.

But the son was hardly a guarantee. For one, Josh was playing forward for the Salmon Arm Silverbacks of the British Columbia Hockey League, a junior A-level league one step below Canadian major junior hockey. A position change raised the Ducks’ antenna.

Glen Cochrane, a longtime Ducks scout who focuses in western Canada, tried to get Madden to come out to watch him but his schedule was booked solid in the spring of 2011 and making a trip to watch a late-round guy wasn’t feasible.

Madden was impressed with what he saw from Manson on videotape. But each time they spoke, Cochrane kept touting this kid out of Saskatchewan. And it had little to do with his bloodlines.

“After the second time Glen saw him, he had really stated his passion for him,” Madden said. “He just said this guy is a much better defenseman than he is a forward and he’s a real prospect. He’s a great athlete and we have to take him seriously.

“We watched him on tape for a few games, but I never got to see him play live. I think Glen went back and saw him early in the playoffs. He saw the instincts and the athleticism that could lead to an NHL player, to an NHL career.”

Still, the Ducks were out of picks when the sixth round arrived. Cochrane was crestfallen – until Murray and Burke swapped picks so the Ducks could move up 13 spots.

“Sixth round, maybe that was taking the chance,” Manson said. “But I’m thankful, it’s all worked out pretty well for me.”

Manson remembered talking to Cochrane after meeting him for the first time following a Salmon Arm game. He also recalled, matter-of-factly, that Cochrane told him he had originally come to scout another player.

“I think he was the one who vouched for me the most,” Josh said. “I owe a lot to him for sure. He’s a good man. He put a lot of faith in me.”

THE ONE WHO GOT AWAY

When it comes to Karlsson, Murray isn’t too wistful.

Karlsson made his debut early in 2014-15, but the Ducks, bounced in the second round by the Kings the previous spring, were motivated and loading up for a Cup run. Wanting to make sure his defense was well-stocked for the playoffs, Murray put Karlsson in a package to acquire veteran James Wisniewski.

Wisniewski, who was already banged up, didn’t play a game with the Ducks as their blue line was healthy in their push to the Western Conference finals.

“My coaching staff kept coming into the rink (saying) we need a right shot on the power play,” Murray said. “OK. You do it and it didn’t work. When you’re close, you don’t mind. It’s just like last year with Patrick (Eaves). You’re close and you have a gut feeling about your team.

“You know you’re going to have to give something. Of course, William Karlsson would look pretty good in our lineup right now. But we did get to the semifinals. Sometimes you make those moves.”

Karlsson played two full seasons with Columbus, but the Blue Jackets, like every other NHL team, had to leave quality players exposed in the expansion draft. Now he is flourishing in Vegas, having recorded the franchise’s first hat trick in busting out with 22 goals for the surprising Western Conference leaders.

Murray always liked the kid who earned the nickname “Wild Bill” in Anaheim and he’s happy for his success. “We helped develop him,” the GM said. “They all come along in different ways.”

In assessing the Ducks’ 2011 draft, Karlsson smiled and said, “Not bad. Good job for the scouts.”

As he looked back, Karlsson remembered the camps where he and his fellow draftees dressed in the same room and had the same visions of playing with the big club someday.

“They were all talented and I got to know them,” he said. “Good guys. I’m glad that they’re all doing well.”

THE LASTING IMPACT

Those four have made their mark but they aren’t the only ones to enjoy time in the NHL.

Third-round pick Joseph Cramarossa played in 49 games with the Ducks and is now with Calgary’s American Hockey League team. Welinski, who was taken 18 picks after Cramarossa, logged his first four games before heading back down to the AHL’s San Diego Gulls. Friberg, their fifth-round pick, got in six games and now plays for Frolunda HC in Sweden.

To his knowledge, Madden could only recall the New York Islanders and their work in 2009 having a similar effect in recent drafts. All seven players taken have played at least one NHL game, including current Islander regulars John Tavares, Calvin de Haan, Anders Lee and Casey Cizikas.

Even so, the draft remains an inexact science. The Ducks did well, but they were among many who passed on Nikita Kucherov, this year’s Hart Trophy candidate who Tampa Bay grabbed five picks after Karlsson.

But in Murray, Madden said they have a boss who empowers his lieutenants. Sure, there is seeing what a cherished asset who is a first-round pick can bring but when it comes to using it, their recommendations are being heard and put into use.

“When it comes to picking, we have his confidence,” Madden said. “And he lets us do our work. That’s how you build trust in this group and trust in ourselves. That’s the best thing you can ask for.

“It’s nice to know that we don’t work for nothing.”

Rickard Rakell, the 30th pick in the 2011 NHL draft, stands onstage for a photo with members of the Ducks organization at Xcel Energy Center on June 24, 2011 in St Paul, Minnesota. Rakell is one of several reasons the 2011 draft could go down as the best in franchise history. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Rickard Rakell, the 30th pick in the 2011 NHL draft, stands onstage for a photo with members of the Ducks organization at Xcel Energy Center on June 24, 2011 in St Paul, Minnesota. Rakell is one of several reasons the 2011 draft could go down as the best in franchise history. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)



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