Under the new collective bargaining agreement, the Red Wings have significantly cut back on European draft choices, instead looking for long-term prospects who plan to play U.S. college hockey.
Those players have as many as three more years to develop than European and major junior picks before they have to be signed.
Enter Smith and Rufenach, defensemen who played junior A hockey in Ontario and plan to play NCAA hockey at Wisconsin and Clarkson, respectively.
“If you look at the overall draft, there weren’t a lot of Europeans taken,” Red Wings assistant general manager Jim Nill said. “It’s a lot of high school, junior A and college guys taken. The new CBA dictates that.”
The last time the Red Wings took two or more NCAA prospects in the same draft was 1994. That year, the Wings took three — defenseman Doug Battaglia (127th), goaltender Jason Elliott (205th) and forward Jeff Mikesch (231st). None of them made it to the NHL.
The Red Wings have taken just three Europeans among 12 total picks in the past two drafts. That’s much fewer than they typically took when NHL teams could keep rights to Europeans indefinitely.
The new trend in drafting involves a certain element of risk. Players such as Smith and Rufenach can’t play in a top junior circuit such as the Ontario Hockey League because it will wipe out their NCAA eligibility, and that means scouts have a harder time evaluating them.
“It’s hard, but go over to Europe and see some of these leagues they’re playing in,” Nill said. “They aren’t very high either so take your pick.”
Both Smith and Rufenach were standouts this past season and earned Ontario Provincial Junior A Hockey League all-star honours.
Smith, a 6-foot-1, 170-pounder, went in the first round, 27th overall. If things go well, he won’t need the extra development time, as he’s considered a speedy, high-skill power-play quarterback. He had 45 points in 46 games this season for the Toronto St. Michael’s Buzzers.
The Red Wings had him ranked in the 15-20 range.
“He reminds me a lot of Niklas Kronwall at the same age, just a little bit bigger,” Nill said. “He’s a real good skater, very mobile. He moves the puck well. He’s taller than Kronwall but he’s got to get stronger.”
Nill added that Smith’s skating ability is comparable to Kronwall’s.
Rufenach, meanwhile, projects as a No. 3 to 5 defenseman. His offensive numbers — 35 points in 36 games — were comparable to Smith’s in the same league, though he’s still a long-shot pick. The Red Wings took him in the seventh round (208th overall) and like his skills.
“Our scouts just kind of liked his potential — he’s raw, he’s a good skater, he moves the puck well and he competes hard,” Nill said. “Skating and moving the puck are his best assets. Like everybody, he’s got to get stronger. He’s going to a good school and we just hope he develops.”