I first came across the term “Coke Machine” reading Lowetide’s blog roughly five years ago. Lowetide was talking about the big forwards that often made up the heart of the Oilers’ drafts under Kevin Prendergast.
For the most part, those picks didn’t work out for Edmonton. Sometimes, though, they do.
In 2006, Milan Lucic was ranked 58th among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting; toss in a few goalies and some European skaters and that projects to a pick in the third or fourth round. Boston took him with one of their two second round draft picks.
Why would Central have a great power forward like Lucic ranked so low? Mostly because, in his draft year, Lucic had a pretty minimal offensive impact. Here are the WHL forwards drafted in the second round in 2006, along with their scoring totals in their draft year and their projected totals in the NHL in that year (using Gabriel Desjardins’ league equivalencies):
The year before this, Lucic was a 23-point guy in the BCHL.
Now, we can make a few comments in Lucic’s favour – first, he was born in June 1988, meaning that he was one of the younger players in his draft class, and second that his role shifted as the season went on, as evidenced by his improved playoff scoring (seven points in 18 games). Even so, based on his offensive totals, Lucic was a great example of a “Coke Machine” selection – big and mean and with a poor track record offensively. It was enough to get him drafted in the second round.
Boston, needless to say, doesn’t regret making the pick. The next year Lucic exploded offensively, jumping from nine goals to 30 and finishing a hair under the point-per-game mark. The year after that, he was playing NHL hockey for the Bruins.
When Prendergast and company drafted guys like Jean-Francois Jacques and Colin McDonald, they were hoping to do exactly what Boston did with Lucic: land a big, physical, power forward.
The Jacques selection in particular stands out as a reasonable bet – his offensive totals were pretty decent in his draft year, and he didn’t earn the “Crazy Train” nickname by playing a passive game. To this day, I wonder what he would have turned into if he hadn’t run into that horrific series of injuries early in his career (I have the same thoughts about Doug Lynch, who had as fine an AHL rookie season as any Oilers defenseman in recent memory).
Geoff Paukovich was another draft pick that stands out as a decent bet – he scored 12 goals as a 17-year old in college, and combined that with a nasty disposition and a humongous frame. Unfortunately, the offense stagnated and then dropped off; he made his pro debut in the ECHL where he failed to hit the 30-point mark.
With the NHL’s ongoing affection for big, mean players – both forwards and defense – skaters with those particular traits tend to go earlier in the draft than their offensive totals or overall game would otherwise indicate.
Under Stu MacGregor’s watch, the Oilers haven’t given up on these sorts of picks, though they’ve arguably become a little more balanced with their selections. Teemu Hartikainen, the sixth round pick who is tracking far better than his draft number, picked up 17 points in 37 games in Finnish junior hockey in his draft year. Three picks in the top-100 the year after have had less success, with Troy Hesketh already a bust, Cameron Abney a five-point guy over 43 AHL/ECHL games this season, and Kyle Bigos a promising but unheralded defender still playing college hockey.
That’s the thing about drafting Coke Machines – a lot of them get lost along the way. But every so often, there’s a Milan Lucic waiting to emerge. It’s also hard to get them any other way: if they score in their draft year they go early, they’re rarely on the trade market and if they are they cost a fortune, and not a lot of them reach free agency.
Teams want players like Milan Lucic. At 18, though, it can be awfully difficult to distinguish Milan Lucic from Jean-Francois Jacques.
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