Top 5 Draft Steals: Then and Now

A look at the best late-round picks among current NHLers and current collegians.
Joe Pavelski led Wisconsin in scoring each of his two seasons in Madison.

Current and future college players will figure prominently in Sunday's NHL Draft, when it's likely that at least 60 college players will be taken for the 12th year in a row.

Many NHL teams have adopted the approach of targeting college players - who they retain rights to for at least four years - particularly later in the draft. Mike Gillis, the general manager in Vancouver, explained the strategy to the Vancouver Province after the 2012 Draft.

NHL Draft Picks in College Hockey | Final Central Scouting Rankings

"If you look at baseball, historically high schoolers never pan out. College kids almost always do," Gillis said. "I apply a philosophy from the fourth round onward, that we're going to select players who are going to go to big programs in the U.S. and develop their skills at a pace that is much more easy to watch."

As recent looks back at the 2003 draft and 2008 draft reflect, sometimes those late-round picks turn out to have first-round value.

With that in mind, we thought we'd take a look at some of the best late-round NCAA picks in recent memory - among those currently in the NHL and those who will be playing college hockey in 2013-14. Each of the players below was taken in one of the last three rounds of their draft (drafts were nine rounds until 2005, when they were reduced to seven).

TOP DRAFT STEALS: CURRENT NHLers

1. Joe Pavelski, Wisconsin - San Jose, 6th round, 2003

Pavelski was a seventh-round pick and headed back to the USHL for another year when San Jose took him 205th overall in 2003. After two years in Madison and the 2006 national championship he was ready to turn pro, and he only spent 16 games in the minors. A versatile, two-way center, he's a key for the Sharks and likely on the U.S. Olympic team next winter.

2. Matt Moulson, Cornell - Pittsburgh, 9th round, 2003

The Penguins never knew what they had in Moulson, despite showing scoring prowess in his days at Cornell. He was taken 58 spots after Pavelski in 2003, following a 13-goal freshman season for the Big Red. After stints in Los Angeles he found a home on Long Island, and he's a regular 30-goal scorer alongside John Tavares. He was a finalist for the Lady Byng Trophy this season.

3. Carl Hagelin, Michigan - NY Rangers, 6th round, 2007

Hagelin was a late pick prior to his freshman year at Michigan, where the Swedish-born two-way forward became a fan favorite. In just two pro seasons he has established himself as one of the fastest skaters in the NHL and an offensive threat for the Rangers.

4. Willie Mitchell, Clarkson - New Jersey, 8th round, 1996

Mitchell is one of three classmates from Clarkson who has won the Stanley Cup - along with Erik Cole and Kent Huskins - though he was the latest draft pick of all of them. Selected by the Devils in 1996, he spent another year in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League before enrolling in Potsdam. There he starred for two years before embarking on a five-team, 719-game NHL career. Out with an injury this year, his presence was missed as the L.A. Kings tried to defend their Stanley Cup.

5. Cam Atkinson, Boston College - Columbus, 6th round, 2008

It may be early to judge Atkinson among this list, but his early returns - both at BC and in the NHL - make him look like a steal. Skilled and speedy, he was a two-time 30-goal scorer for the Eagles, then had a hat trick as an NHL rookie. He scored 9 goals in 35 games this year.

TOP DRAFT STEALS: CURRENT NCAAers

1. Riley Barber, Miami - Washington, 6th, 2012

How good was Barber's freshman season after being picked 167th overall last spring? He beat out ninth pick Jacob Trouba for CCHA Rookie of the Year honors and was a first-team all-conference selection.

2. Matthew Peca, Quinnipiac - Tampa Bay, 7th, 2011

The Lightning - who know a thing about underrated college stars, featuring undrafted Martin St. Louis - found a gifted scorer in Peca. He helped lead the Bobcats to the NCAA title game this season, most noteworthy with his natural hat trick in the NCAA quarterfinal.

3. Tie: Connor Hellebuyck, UMass Lowell (5th, 2012) and Jason Kasdorf, Rensselaer (6th, 2011) - Winnipeg

The Jets have two potential stars in these two late-round goaltending selections taken in the last two drafts. Both were freshmen in 2012-13 and among the elite goaltenders not just in their conferences, but all of college hockey.

4. Scott Wilson, UMass Lowell - Pittsburgh, 7th, 2011

Pittsburgh took Wilson out of the OJHL entering his freshman season at UMass Lowell, and he proceeded to win Hockey East Rookie of the Year honors. He helped lead the River Hawks to the Frozen Four at the rink he may one day call home - CONSOL Energy Center.

5. Dennis Robertson, Brown - Toronto, 6th, 2011

Robertson was the only draft pick on the Bears' roster last season, but that's not all that made him stand out. The team's top-scoring defenseman and a strong two-way presence, he also wore the 'C' as a junior and returns this fall for his second year as captain.

Note: Doesn't include players like Erik Haula, Anders Lee, Corban Knight and Nick Jensen who signed pro contracts following the 2012-13 season.

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