The chill of the draft

STEVE MACFARLANE -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:53 AM ET

No one, in any walk of life, wants to be remembered as an underachiever.

Imagine graduating at the top of your class, being hired with grand expectations then spending your entire career under the public eye. Worse yet, others are given jobs with the sole purpose of critiquing your every move.

Welcome to the life of a first-round draft pick in the National Hockey League.

"There's definitely a lot more attention when you go high in the draft," said Calgary Flames defenceman Dion Phaneuf, who was a steal at ninth overall in 2003.

"You get a lot more attention from the media. That's your guys' job to make a big deal about the draft.

"Yeah, it does carry a little more pressure being a high pick."

The pressure that lingers throughout the prospect's first training camp starts out as pure excitement after hearing his name called out from behind the podium.

Hurricanes winger Andrew Ladd went fourth overall in 2004 in front of the fans in Carolina and forgot all about the inherent expectations that went along with it.

"I was expecting to go anywhere between No. 1 and 10. To go as high as I did, it was pretty exciting with my family there," Ladd said.

"And for it to be in Raleigh, it's something I'll never forget."

It didn't take long for that pressure to seep back into his psyche, however, even though Ladd was able to deal with it relatively well.

"I guess there was a little pressure, but I was more excited to go to my first camp," he explained. "I was excited to get the chance to prove myself."

An eagerness to prove themselves is a common bond shared by every opening-round pick hoping to avoid being labelled a bust as so many NHLers have in the past.

Few remember Alexandre Daigle's comeback season with the Minnesota Wild, but every fan recalls the disappointment of watching him struggle for years after being chosen first overall by the Ottawa Senators in 1993.

Maybe those flops -- who often get more attention on the airwaves than the league's stars -- have taught the younger generation a thing or two about just how little being a first-round pick guarantees you in the NHL these days.

"Most people know there's more of a chance (to make the team) when you're a first-round pick, but there's also more of an expectation to perform at that level," said Ladd, who has yet to break out offensively but won a Stanley Cup in his rookie year.

"It goes hand in hand. You get the opportunity but you're expected to perform, too."

Phaneuf doesn't see first-round status as anything more than an opportunity.

"GETS YOU A TRYOUT"

"It doesn't matter where you get picked -- if you're a first-rounder or the last pick of the draft -- all that gets you is a tryout at camp and you get to show your stuff when you arrive.

"Being picked in the first round, it's just a number. There's a lot of great hockey players that weren't first-round picks that are playing in the National Hockey League."

At camp, outside pressure -- from fans, through the media and even the occasional overbearing family member -- becomes internal.

That drive to succeed, the natural competitiveness, is something veteran NHLer Alex Tanguay says isn't exclusive to first-rounders. But being a blue-chip pick may lead to a slightly bigger chip on their shoulders.

"Since you're drafted first, you always want to do better than the guys drafted behind you, there's no doubt about that," said Tanguay, the first of three opening-round picks by Colorado in 1998 at 12th overall.

"That's what hockey's all about. You're a first-liner, you don't want the second-liner to be better than you. You're a second-liner, you don't want the third-liner to be better than you.

"It's just the natural competition from hockey."


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